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January 4, 2013
HURT: Distractions magnified in BCS setting
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.
It was three years ago, almost to the minute, on the opposite side of the country, when the phone calls and text messages started to come in.
"Greg McElroy has broken ribs."
That was the red-hot pregame rumor as Alabama prepared to take on Texas for the BCS Championship. As the rumor persisted, McElroy's injury would migrate - one version had it as a back injury, one transformed it into a broken hand. More than one hinted that A.J. McCarron, a redshirting freshman at the time, might have to see his first game action against the Longhorns in the Rose Bowl.
As it turned out, McElroy did have a couple of cracked ribs, an ailment that Alabama coaches, who felt they had the matter under control, didn't want to go out of their way to publicize. The quarterback had taken a hard hit in the SEC Championship Game against Florida, had practiced with a lot of tape and protective padding, but was never really in danger of not playing. The fact that he made it through the entire game and the Texas quarterback, Colt McCoy, did not was entirely coincidental unless one believes that the universe has a particularly dry sense of humor.
The point is that there is a long, long build-up to the BCS title game. Idle time, combined with high stakes and a vast horde of media, warps things even more of a proportion, creating a fishbowl in which, viewed from a certain angle, a guppy becomes Jaws. And small incidents become huge.
That was the atmosphere in which the always affable Nico Johnson, Crimson Tide linebacker, mentioned on Friday that Alabama had a "players-only" meeting before its first Miami practice.
"We felt like (practice) hasn't been what it needs to be as far as intensity, as far as focus, as far as everything," Johnson said. "Every player took it upon himself to give a little bit more, and that's what we did."
That's what Johnson said, but what did it mean? What could it mean? It has to mean something, right?
Well, it probably does mean something. Maybe the practices in Tuscaloosa were fine, but the players want to push a little more. Maybe not. Certainly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with players meeting among themselves, trying to take on a leadership role. It happens all the time. It happened in the SEC Championship Game. When tackle D.J. Fluker took it upon himself to read the football gospel to his offensive teammates, was it insubordination or inspiration? From the effect it had, it certainly seemed like the latter.
On the other hand, having two players - even if they are young players - sent home for curfew violation, as Nick Saban had to do on Friday, does not resonate positively. Those rumors had circulated for a day or so as well before the Friday confirmation.
Never in the BCS Era has a group of players come into this game with more experience - more winning experience - than Alabama. This is a group that knows how things are supposed to be done, and if they choose to do it themselves, the coaching staff is probably more pleased than annoyed.
But when the distractions reach the level of a plane ticket home, rest assured it is an annoyance - and, if you are an Alabama fan, hope that team leaders handle it in a hurry.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.