Fans will remember Saturday’s Iron Bowl as one of the great college games ever played. But for the 28 seniors on the two teams, it will forever be remembered as their last regular season college game.
This is a game played by kids not long out of high school, and while some suit up for the chance to get rich, most play for sheer love of the sport. Because they dazzle us with acts of extraordinary athleticism and, yes, courage, we tend to forget that under their helmets and pads, these players are just as vulnerable and needing of support as any other college kids. Indeed, given the pressures placed upon them and the intensity of the spotlight, these young athletes need more support.
It’s understandable that all this may be lost on fans given the excitement of the moment. But for a coach to forget how much his players need his support in moments of defeat is just unforgivable.
For the Alabama players, Saturday’s game was a searing experience. It was so bad, their senior kicker received death threats. This was the time for an icon like Alabama coach Nick Saban to focus his postgame remarks on helping the players he supposedly loves. Saban should have had one goal in mind: Protect his players.
Instead, he gave passing reference to “taking responsibility” then piled on, reeling off a litany of mistakes that could have won the game.
On the final touchdown, he detailed the obvious, that the defense back had made a mistake: “The corner is suppose to stay with the guy. The corner did not stay with the guy. You have to have tremendous discipline to play against this offense. We made a mental error in coverage that cost us a touchdown.”
The whole world just saw the poor kid screw up, does he really need his coach saying he lacks discipline and wasn’t thinking?
Instead of reminding Alabama fans of how much senior kicker Cade Foster, who had a terrible day, had contributed to Tide victories over his career, Saban made the astute point that it would have been better if they had not blown field goals: “The fact of the matter is that we did not make plays when we needed to. Whether it was a made field goal with a penalty or a missed field goal after that.”
Thanks coach! And on and on he went. Saban’s mealy-mouthed mutterings were all the more regrettable as he had done more to lose the game than any player.
In one of the biggest games of his career, Saban made one of the greatest blunders in big time college football history. With one second left on the clock, he had three choices: Run it out and go into overtime; let his incredible quarterback have a shot at a Hail Mary pass; or attempt a 57-yard field goal, a distance only made twice in Alabama football history.
Saban went for the third option, bringing in a freshman who had never made a game kick longer than 40 yards. He left on the bench his starting kicker who had been having a terrible day, missing three earlier field goals.
The decision was utter folly. In college, a 57-yard field goal is basically giving the other side a chance to return a kickoff. Worse yet, it’s a kickoff without putting a kickoff team on the field to defend. Instead you have nine players selected for their ability to block, not run or tackle. Generally, when your kicker is the best athlete on your side, you best hope the play doesn’t require a lot of running.
The kick was predictably short, and Auburn unpredictably returned it for a touchdown. Lighting in a bottle, but it was Saban’s disastrous decision that put the lighting in the bottle.
Saban wins a lot of football games. He’s a great football coach. But he’s a college coach who seems to have forgotten he’s not coaching in the pros. He’s reduced the joy of sport to what he famously calls “the process,” which seems as apt an indictment as any critic could muster.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Coaches like Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Ole Miss’s Hugh Freeze, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, and LSU’s Les Miles make you want to love the sport because they love the sport. They are open and visible about their love for their players. In October, after heavily favored LSU lost to Ole Miss and his star quarterback had one of the worst nights of his career, Les Miles took all the blame, saying in classic Miles style, “I did a piss poor job preparing this football team to play in this game.”
That’s what Saban should have done. He should have shifted the blame from his field goal kicker to himself. Saban’s paid millions of dollars to take the heat. Instead he offered no comfort to a broken-hearted kid who was receiving death threats. That’s shameful and a moment that should give pause to every athlete thinking of playing for Alabama and every parent who expects a coach to look out for their son.
Alabama’s not one of those problem programs that always seems to be in trouble. It has a graduation rate of 71 percent, and while that’s a tad below Notre Dame’s 94 percent, it’s still about average for Division 1 programs. A lot of good coaches and support staff at Alabama work hard to play by the rules. Their fan base is the envy of the nation.
Alabama shouldn’t believe it needs Nick Saban more than Saban needs Alabama. Alabama knew greatness before Saban and will after. The players and the university deserve a coach who will stand behind the players when they lose, even when it’s their fault. And this one was Saban’s fault.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect comments made by Coach Saban about the game.