Thursday, April 17, 2008

Saban Roughs Up the Media Again

If it makes it to this blog, I guess it's not news. I didn't know about Nick Saban's weird rant about scholarship numbers until I got into my car to go to work yesterday. The radio was abuzz about it.

In case you haven't heard, at his post-Spring press conference, Nick Saban was asked how he was going to make the scholarship numbers work out, considering he has too many people on scholarship now to add 25 more in the Fall and still be at the 85 limit. His response started with the statement that they have a plan, but it didn't end there.

He got really worked up about the question and was clearly bothered by it. He then said, "The media doesn't need to know and the fans don't need to know. The fans don't want to know." The exchange continued uncomfortably thereafter, with Saban clearly again bothered by a journalist's intrusiveness. The journalist in question was not some rookie or a national media plant. It was Birmingham beat writer Ian Rapaport, who is very Bama-friendly but appears to have gotten under Nick Saban's skin more than once.

Two things about this incident struck me. First, it's not that Saban refuses to answer the question that is really troubling. It's the way he refuses to answer it. It's his tone and his body language, which denotes an air of hostility. Les Miles refuses to answer certain questions to. The man has never honestly answered a question about a player injury except when the injury has ended the player's season. He refused for several months to ever say when Ryan Perrilloux would rejoin the team last season, and then quietly reinstated him at the start of Fall Practice. His manner of refusing to divulge information does not come off quite as disrespectfully as Saban's refusals to answer questions.

Saban is by most accounts a pretty smooth recruiter, which is why it is so surprising that he is so stiff and uncomfortable in front of media. And this was friendly media. I have always heard that when he wants to be charming, he can charm anyone and any crowd, but he gets downright surly with the media, which is where most people see him.

I also think he's wrong about the fans not caring what his plan for dealing with scholarship numbers is. After all, if a major beat writer asked the question, it's probably because the beat writer believes his readers are interested in the answer. Now, many of them, if faced with the response "I have a plan that I won't talk about", would probably be satisfied at least for the time-being, knowing they would eventually find out one way or another. But they care. They're not indifferent to the answers to questions like, "Who are going to be the players on the roster when we play a game?" And that's what the question really is.

Let me just say that I think it's an absolute right of a college football coach not to divulge sensitive information about his team and his players. That's a different thing from saying it's a good idea to hold back certain information, but if a college coach wants to keep information about his program out of the media, I don't think the media is right to claim they need the information for any reason.

This brings me to my second thought about this. Not only does this incident illustrate one of the key differences between Nick Saban and Les Miles, it also illustrates a difference between the LSU fan base and the Alabama fan base. The difference is that I think the Alabama fan base takes a more proprietary view towards their team than does the LSU fan base. By this I mean that the Bama fans feel more ownership of their team than we do of ours. I think there are good effects of this and bad effects of this.

Among the good effects are that the fans continue to come out in droves even when the team is not being successful. The fans continue to identify with the team, buy merchandise, follow the team, travel for road games, and generally care even when the team is losing. If not for this effect, I really don't think Bama draws 92,000 for a Spring Game last year, and I don't think Bama draws in the recruiting class they got in 2008. LSU fan activity dropped off considerably during the Hallman years and the latter Dinardo years, and the team reached a doldrums (particularly in the Hallman years) that led to a lot of fan apathy.

The bad effects are that the fans demand information and accountability. They feel they have a right to know what is going on with the program, and if they don't like it, they want things changed. They can also turn on a coach in a heartbeat. See Shula, Mike. Saban, though he is a good coach, is also a control freak. He is not comfortable with the idea of anyone else but him thinking they have a right to control the team or demand changes. He doesn't even let his assistants talk about the team publicly for fear he will lose message discipline. (Because, as we've seen, Saban is the master of media manipulation and discipline). Presidential candidates aren't this obsessive about controlling message discipline.

These factors are some of the reasons I was skeptical back in 2006 that Saban was a good match for Bama. At LSU, he was allowed to control the message without running into a lot of opposition. He was allowed to be surly with reporters without anyone really caring that much. He was allowed to disregard invitations for public appearances. Here, I don't think he will be able to do those things without taking a little damage. Now, the media and the fans will tolerate it if they win, but only if they win a lot. If 2009 rolls around and Bama is still looking average, the fans could get pretty surly themselves.


gerry dorsey said...

i think you answered most of your own questions in there in some form or another. saban is a dick, and rapaport is a worm.

i only speak for me, but this bama fan really doesn't care how he gets the scholly numbers in line, so long as he does.

and i wouldn't talk about fan bases turning on a coach. obviously everything is hunky dory with the big white hat now, but he took a lot of hell from his fan base (dumb losses, "lucky" wins, michigan talk, perrilloux...) in a season that he ended up winning the mnc. its all about expectations, and right or wrong, bama and lsu's expectation are pretty much on par with each other.

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