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July 19, 2012

HURT: Some perspective on Penn State

There are two sides to human nature, opposites that quite often are contained within one individual.

We are builders of statues, and we are destroyers of statues. We love heroes, look up to them, are inspired by their deeds and, occasionally, by their lives. But at the same time, there is some inner mistrust of idolization, some quick reflex to bring the man (or woman) who was lifted above the common run of humanity back down to ground level once again.

Physically, the Joe Paterno statue isn't gone yet. It may not disappear from State College any time soon. But on the minds of everyone who doesn't live in the shadow of Mt. Nittany, it has been shattered and the pieces swept of the spotlight. So who does that leave with a statue?

Nick Saban.

Technically, Saban isn't the winningest coach in college football. Frank Beamer is ahead of him, and Steve Spurrier, and others. You can argue forever if he is the "best" coach, although the general consensus would be he is. But through the processes of time and age, with a savvy media presence and a string of crystals footballs in tow, Saban has ascended to the top of his profession, not near the top, or sharing the top, but at the top.

That doesn't make him infallible. It doesn't even make him likable, although I think the perception of media disdain for Saban is overblown, just as the notion his appearance at SEC Media Days is a "rock star" turn.

There were fans at the Wynfrey Hotel on Thursday, but it was less a Rolling Stones or Beatles frenzy than what you would expect for the Cowsills, or Jay and the Americans. Saban remains the biggest celebrity in Alabama, but the novelty factor isn't what it once was.

However, Saban is at the top of the profession on the field, apparently unaging and unflinching - the quote that got the most play from Thursday's media session was Crimson Tide senior Michael Williams' "I have never seen Nick Saban yawn." And off the field, he is, in a way, an elder statesman. Yes, the atmosphere in college football today is to approach elder statesmen warily, but Saban's words still carry weight.

If a younger coach (or a columnist, of any age) had proposed "taxing" Penn State football tickets and using the proceeds to help children, the suggestion would have gotten lost in the din of all the other Penn State commentary. But since Saban said it, the idea merits consideration. I am not sure that it goes far enough - all the money in the world can't fixing everything that needs fixing at Penn State - but it is a start. And best of all, it is constructive.

"Better to do that than worry about some punishment that isn't going to have any positive effect at all," Saban said.

That was the truly wise statement. Because the fact is, the statue-destroying side of us isn't content merely to topple the statue.

There is some inexplicable need to demolish the rubble. There has been so much written lately about what the NCAA (of all groups) needs to do to "punish" Penn State which means, along other things, punishing players who had nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky or any other scandal. How about the NCAA working with Penn State to encourage institutional control, benefit victims and educate everyone going forward? Wouldn't that be better?

Yes, there are lessons to be learned, and a right way to do things. Saban expressed confidence that the lessons had already been learned here, that the Sandusky/Paterno scenario would not have played out in the same way, statue or no statue.

"I can't speak for everybody but I can speak for the University of Alabama," he said. "I think if we had any kind of issue, it would not be my decision as to what we did. It would be a bigger issue than me, and I would want it that way."

That perspective is what matters. It keeps the man from confusing himself with the statue - and it keeps the statue-destroyer in all of us at bay.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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