TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – In what he certainly hopes is not foreshadowing for this weekend, Nick Saban went three-and-out Wednesday.
He took three questions, each of them about the Yahoo Sports reports that star offensive tackle D.J. Fluker allegedly accepted thousands of dollars during his Alabama career from a runner and former Crimson Tide player Luther Davis. Each answer became edgier and angrier, until the game's foremost control freak sensed he couldn't control this media interlude and stormed off five minutes into his post-practice press conference.
"Appreciate your interest in the game," Saban snapped sarcastically, glaring at reporters on his way out of the room.
"The game," of course, is against Texas A&M in College Station on Saturday. It has been billed as the biggest of the 2013 college football season, and it has all the components of great theater: the rebel/antihero leading man in Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel; the vengeance-fueled defending national champions and their hyper-driven coach; the old-guard SEC elite against the cheeky newcomer; the vastly contrasting styles of play; and the title implications escalating from divisional to conference to national.
But for a jarring, plot-twisting afternoon in Tuscaloosa, even that compilation of storylines was subjugated to sidebar status. By dinnertime, the news was all about former All-American and first-round NFL pick Fluker – what he allegedly took, and what the fallout could be.
The fallout could be this, if the NCAA can find merit to the allegations: vacating of the 2012 national championship. And if potential problems arise from a second Yahoo Sports story indicating agent/runner interactions with safety Mark Barron during the 2011 season, it's conceivable that back-to-back could be gone-to-gone.
So, yeah, this is serious. Especially for a fan base that is as intense (and unbalanced) as any in America.
[From Dan Wetzel: Latest college scandals again reveal folly of NCAA rules]
At Houndstooth, one of the bars on The Strip near campus, the Fluker news intruded on A&M talk Wednesday night. The reaction was a mixture of confidence and defiance.
"First of all I was mad, but I'm not really worried," said Shane Cook, crimson Alabama hat on his head, Miller Lite in his hand, cigarette perched on his lips. "How can you hold us accountable, if it happened, and not the other organizations in the same situation? Let's be honest: you know Manziel took the money. You know it and I know it.
"We didn't cheat, because we didn't know about it. I believe we will prevail. It looks bad, but when it comes down to it the truth will prevail. This is not going to hold us back from a three-peat."
Saban may feel the same way, but there has to be significant angst under the surface. For a coach who has been outspoken in criticism of sketchy agents in the recent past, it must strike even more deeply that one of his former players is alleged to be the bagman with Fluker. Davis played at Alabama from 2007-10, and if – as a mountain of documentation says – he turned around and paid a current player or players, that would impugn the school's stated diligence on the subject of agents.
"We've done a lot of investigating about a lot of things," Saban said. "Every time somebody brings something up about our program we investigate it, we do the best we can. There is nobody in this organization that wants to do anything that's not above board and we don't want our players to do it, either. That's not what this program was built on, and that's not what we're going to do."
Linebacker C.J. Mosley and receiver Christion Jones followed Saban into the interview room, and both mostly stuck to the obviously rehearsed company line: they knew of nothing improper involving Fluker.
But Mosley did add this: "That's upsetting to hear, but that was another day. That's what happened in the past and the coaches do a great job of informing us and our parents about agents and things like that. So I'm pretty sure that won't be happening again."
[Yahoo Sports exclusive: View all investigation documents]
Wednesday began with a crowded news docket in Alabama, where there was no idea what was to come. On the radio and elsewhere, people were talking about Syria, the 12th anniversary of 9/11, the 100th anniversary of icon Bear Bryant's birth – and the game Saturday.
On WJOX, a sports-talk station in Birmingham, the talk was about Texas A&M and stopping its free-lancing quarterback. There also was a world-weary dismissal of Sports Illustrated's series of stories alleging widespread malfeasance at Oklahoma State.
At the time, none of the hosts knew that alleged malfeasance was coming home to roost in their state, and likely fill up their airwaves come Thursday.
In Tuscaloosa, the campus atmosphere was relaxed and happy. The lunch crowd at Buffalo Phil's was engaged in general football banter. The big game was on everyone's mind.
At roughly 4 p.m. central time, the series of stories went live on Yahoo Sports. Mere minutes earlier, Alabama's practice was opened to the media for a brief period of observation – primarily an opportunity for TV stations to get "B-roll" video for their newscasts.
Hours earlier, Yahoo Sports had called Alabama and asked for comment, so the school was fully aware of the situation at practice time. But it appeared to be business as usual in the Crimson Tide indoor facility.
The pace of drills was brisk, with Saban moving between position groups to observe. On the sideline, ESPN reporter Shannon Spake was doing a live stand-up via satellite – part of a week of buddy-buddy ESPN insider coverage of one of its most powerful and lucrative broadcast partners.
After five minutes the media was herded out, the doors were shut and Saban disappeared behind them until practice ended. Next time we saw him he went a stressed-out three-and-out, suddenly burdened by more than just how to contain Johnny Football.
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