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November 27, 2013
Alabama fans, be thankful for Saban
Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and included in the long list of things for which I am grateful is the chance to cover, on a regular basis, the single most compelling saga in college athletics over the last 30 years - University of Alabama football. That is especially true in big-game weeks like this when the narrative basically writes itself, when the in-state rivalry provides more nuance than those who don't live it daily can quickly comprehend and when the quality of the two teams suggests that the game will transcend all the clutter that sometimes surrounds it.
Almost. Clutter refuses to die easily in this fertile ground.
So, even when every football fan in this state, and in much of America, should be thinking about Saturday, you glance away from the game, even for a second, and it is back.
This time, it comes from a Wall Street Journal interview with Terry Saban. The Journal makes its living elsewhere, but it occasionally dives into sports, and when it does, at least in terms of Alabama football, it does so the way Terrence Cody would dive into a baby pool, creating a big splash but not much depth. So it was with a WSJ superficial story a few years ago on Alabama's willingness to award medical hardship scholarships to athletes, and so it is with the Terry Saban interview (which does also contain quite a few interesting anecdotes), or at least this part of it:
"You come to a crossroads," Mrs. Saban said, "and the expectations get so great, people get spoiled by success and there gets to be a lack of appreciation. We're kind of there now."
For most of the national media, which gave the story a good run of coverage, the takeout was something else: Terry Saban says that she and her husband are going to remain at Alabama unto the end of his career. That quote, the thinking goes, kills off the Nick Saban-to-Texas rumors once and for all (at least for a week or two).
But the national media underestimates the infinite capacity of the Alabama fan base to inflict anxiety upon itself. Hence, there is much discussion - and a bit of apprehension - about just what Terry Saban means by "a lack of appreciation."
In this context (which, admittedly, is hard to pin down in the story), I think appreciation means something else. It isn't adulation - the Sabans get plenty of that. It isn't compensation - money is always negotiable. Instead, it seems like "appreciation" means what it does when you talk about "art appreciation" or "music appreciation." While stopping short of calling Saban an "artist," he is certainly an artisan, a craftsman, and definitely wants his work to be "appreciated." (It is worth mentioning that he does that work on Bryant Drive, in Bryant-Denny Stadium, which is akin to Rembrandt having his studio in the Sistine Chapel, churning out masterpiece after masterpiece while people stand around oohing and ahhing over Michelangelo.)
There is no questioning the part about expectations. This week illustrates that. Saban has done a masterful job putting Alabama into position to return to the Bowl Championship Series title game. But if the Crimson Tide loses Saturday, on the road, to the No. 4 team in the country, this season will be considered a catastrophe, or worse.
Now, there is no happy land where fans would have low expectations upon hiring Nick Saban. Texas wouldn't. USC wouldn't. If it could afford Nick Saban - or a football program - Chico State wouldn't. It is a natural by-product of his success.
Terry Saban said elsewhere in the interview that the Sabans were trying to learn to place things in perspective, and that Tuscaloosa is "home." I don't think it is a place where expectations will ever be low. They shouldn't be. But it is impossible, thinking realistically, not to appreciate what Saban has done.
That might be a good thought for an Alabama fan on Thanksgiving - even if he or she is bound to forget it when Saturday arrives.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or at 205-722-0225.