Distractions are the devil to the Alabama football coach, and yet they keep intruding on his monomaniacal focus. He hammers them down with irritable force, but like a whack-a-mole game, they keep popping back up.
On Sept. 11, three days before the Crimson Tide played Texas A&M in what was billed as the Game of the Year (at least) in college football, Yahoo Sports broke the exclusive story about former Crimson Tide star D.J. Fluker and other Southeastern Conference stars allegedly receiving impermissible benefits from a runner for various agents and financial advisers. If the NCAA found that Fluker violated NCAA rules, Alabama's 2012 national title could be vacated.
Saban appeared at his weekly Wednesday press conference shortly after that story broke, made a statement, angrily answered a couple of questions and walked out of the room.
"Appreciate your interest in the game," Saban snapped sarcastically, glaring at reporters on his way out.
It was a situation and a story he couldn't dictate, and Coach Control likes those about as much as he likes linemen jumping offside.
Eight days after the Fluker bombshell came a story out of Texas: high rollers confirmed that they had a phone conversation with Saban's agent, Jimmy Sexton, last January about possibly succeeding Mack Brown as coach of the Longhorns. Here was another issue barging in from outside the Football Bubble, demanding his attention. Saban did his best to dismiss it, stating that he's "too damn old to start over somewhere else."
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Two weeks after the Texas tornado blew there, here came another NCAA issue. Star safety Haha Clinton-Dix was suspended in early October for accepting a cash loan from assistant strength-and-conditioning coach Corey Harris. Clinton-Dix would sit out two games before being reinstated. Saban has always talked a strong game about educating his players on NCAA rules, but here was a second problem to pop up in less than a month.
And it produced more non-football questions for Saban to deal with.
Now comes the Texas Two-Step – once again on the week of a huge game. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that it obtained an email through a freedom of information request in which former Texas regent and heavy hitter Tom Hicks shed more light (and heat) on that conversation last winter with Sexton.
"Sexton confirmed that UT is the only job Nick would possibly consider leaving Alabama for, and that his success there created special pressure for him," Hicks wrote.
And with that email now out in the open, we do indeed have some additional "special pressure" on Saban. If you thought that press conference was tense when the Fluker news broke in September, tomorrow's scheduled confab in Tuscaloosa should be a doozy.
(I suppose if you want to add a fifth storyline to the Things That Annoy Nick File, there was the breathless report a couple of weeks back that Saban's wife, Terry, was in Austin to look at real estate. But go with that one at your own risk.)
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For someone as meticulous as Saban and as clandestine as Sexton to end up in this public pickle is surprising. And it could conceivably be a deal-breaker at Texas if they have to deal with regents and boosters who divulge the contents of very sensitive conversations in emails that can be obtained by the media. Coaches are by nature secretive, and they don't like to be surrounded by people who keep secrets about as well as teenage girls.
Or maybe this was the buildup to an elaborate bidding war designed to make Saban the richest coach in college sports history. Like most elite agents, Sexton is not above using a zealous and arrogant suitor school like Texas as leverage. Nor is he above scaring a hopelessly devoted school like Alabama into shoving every dime it can collect into the Keep The Coach Fund.
That's how the game is played in College Sports, Inc.
But the "special pressure" phrase deserves some attention. There certainly is plenty of pressure at Texas – but the Alabama job has a suffocating, all-consuming element unlike any other. Probably the only similar job in college coaching is Kentucky basketball.
The investment by the fan base elevates the program – they demand success, to the point of willing it to happen. But what's good for a program can also be bad for the man at the center of the intensity.
The Alabama football coach must be a tireless genius, an approachable dictator, and willing to devote nearly every waking moment to the cause of further gridiron glory. Because how many titles are ever enough? That's the expectation, and for it you get paid like a sultan and worshiped like a religious leader.
But it has to be exhausting to be Nick Saban.
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And at his age, maybe the idea of a place with even two percent more breathing room – two percent less "special pressure" – has its appeal. Austin is much bigger and more diverse than Tuscaloosa, with more to do.
No matter how this story unfolds, this much we know: it is another distraction from the football mission for Nick Saban. And with the margin for error slim when chasing perfection, you never know how many annoying messes it takes to reach a critical mass and screw up a season.
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- Nick Saban
- Alabama football
- Jimmy Sexton