Friday, April 13, 2007

The media pushes back

It was inevitable, but it seems like the media is finally starting to push back a little on Nick Saban's unusual policies on media access. CNNSI's Stewart Mandel published a long, mostly positive column discussing Nick Saban. One small part of it discussed how Saban scheduled an interview with Mandel, who flew out to Tuscaloosa, only to have it abruptly canceled at the last minute. He has since published a follow-up column, in which he reveals that Saban called him days after the original column and apologized.

Mandel is not the first media type to publicly bristle at how Saban is treating them. Honestly, he has long been famous for being churlish with the media (and his underlings, and his assistants, and his bosses, and his players, and his neighbors). At least one writer, perhaps one gloating over his own level of access, has commented that this behavior by the media is more childish whining than it is legitimate criticism, and ultimately doesn't hurt Saban, and probably actually helps him.

Helps him? Well, think about it this way. If the team is, oh, average this year, and a certain Bama beat writer criticizes Saban's performance, that beat writer's opinion is more likely to be ignored if that writer has a history of also criticizing Saban's treatment of him. People can say, "Don't listen to that guy. He just hates Saban." Perhaps they'll even be right.

My hint to media types: if you don't like how Saban's treating you, stick it in your back pocket and remember it when it comes time to either defend him or throw him to the wolves.

And that time will come. Saban is not a miracle worker, which seems to be what many fans are expecting. He had a lot of success at LSU, and has only had one actual losing season in his long career, but his overall numbers are not that great. Even his record at LSU was hardly eye-popping before 2003.

In his first year, LSU was 8-4 including an embarrassing loss to UAB. If not for a couple of dramatic overtime wins, it would have been a very mediocre season.

In his second year, LSU had a terrific 10-3 season, ending in a top 10 finish and an SEC championship and Sugar Bowl victory, but even that season was on the brink of failure, as LSU was 4-3 heading into Tuscaloosa that year before record-setting performances by Rohan Davey and Josh Reed saved that season. Incidentally, Rohan Davey's career illustrates one of Saban's greatest weaknesses as a coach: he doesn't always play the best player. Davey only started one year, but set an LSU single-season record in most passing categories that year, and was a first-day draft pick. The previous year, he sat behind Josh Booty, who had long since lost the confidence of the team. This wasn't the only example.

In his third year, LSU regressed to an 8-5 season and a loss in the Cotton Bowl (a game we had no business being in, by the way). We needed the Bluegrass Miracle to get even that good of a record, and Saban's vaunted defensive genius managed to give up two late touchdowns to Arkansas to lose that game 21-20. To be fair, we started that season 6-1, and then an injury to our starting QB caught up to us. The backup was only 3-4.

So before the 2003 National Championship season, Saban's Tigers were 26-12. Not bad. Not great. That was quite good enough at LSU to avoid most criticism, but I don't think anyone was calling Saban a genius at that point. Not until the 2003 season. If Alabama's next three seasons show an average record of 8-4, will everyone be satisfied? No. Will he be vulnerable to media criticism? Yes. Will that media criticism sting? Yes. If the media is willing to come to his defense, would that help? Yes. Does his deliberate rankling of the media help him avoid that criticism? No, but the media's current complaints, not about his coaching, but about his treatment of him may insulate him from the effects of that criticism a little.

I'll write more on this topic later. But for now, I have to go to work.

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