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May 8, 2012When Warren Buffett tells you that someone knows how to make money, you check their portfolio. When Brittany Howard tells you that someone can sing, you listen. When Shaquille O'Neal says that someone is tall, you look up.
When Nick Saban tells you that someone "loved football probably as much as anyone I have ever been around," you pay attention. Saban reveres the game, and surrounds himself with people - assistant coaches and players - who share that passion.
Yet he reserved that assessment, perhaps the most heartfelt he can give in the context of football, for one player: Junior Seau.
Last week, Seau was found dead of what police in California have determined was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
"That is one of the most difficult things I have had to deal with this year," the University of Alabama football coach said Tuesday night at a Crimson Caravan event in Birmingham. "It's really difficult to think that there might have been something you might have done to help him."
Saban only coached Seau, the future Hall of Famer for one season (2005) in Miami, and Seau was sidelined seven games into the schedule with an Achilles' tendon injury. That didn't stop Saban from developing admiration for the former Southern Cal star in their brief association.
"You always have these guys, if you're fortunate, that are really special people that you have an opportunity to coach.
"Junior was the most popular guy on the team, the most upbeat, the most energetic, a great practice player, a great football player. So it's difficult."
Research has yet to verify a link between football and Seau's mental state at the time of his death, though there is strong speculation that concussion-related brain trauma may have been a contributing factor.
"I think player safety has to be the No. 1 concern we all have," Saban said. "I do think we have implemented some really good rules in order to keep the integrity of the game and still put player safety first."
While Saban was somber about Seau, he did address some football-related questions in a brief meeting with the media.
Asked about the quarterback situation with the decision of sophomore Phillip Sims to transfer out of the program, Saban said that Alabama would "need some young players to grow up" as potential backups to junior AJ McCarron. He also mentioned at least one possibility other than freshmen Phillip Ely and Alec Morris.
"We had a plan last year for Blake Sims to play some quarterback, so that's possible again," he said.
Asked about the possibility of a new weight facility for the UA football program, Saban sidestepped, saying only that "there a few things we could do to make facilities better, but we want to to do them in conjunction with other things at the university."
He also noted Alabama's strong season in sports other than football, including an NCAA title in gymnastics and an SEC Championship (with NCAA play pending) in men's golf.
"We want to create a high standard and we really try to do it department-wide," Saban said. "In this day and age, with the media coverage and (college coverage on) ESPN, the more things we are good at, the more exposure we get as an athletic department."
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.