Nick Saban’s feelings are hurt.
This verifies, once and for all, that the king of college football is not simultaneously the Prince of Darkness, despite some fairly spooky circumstantial evidence to the contrary, including the fact that Saban was born on Halloween, and the coincidence that “Old Nick” is listed in the dictionary as a traditional folk nickname for “the Devil; Satan.”
The rumor is tough to kill nonetheless, especially when a guy like Florida offensive line coach Tim Davis steps before the Space Coast Gator Club to declare that his boss, Will Muschamp, “coached under the devil himself for seven years.” That chilling reference is to Saban, who had dominion over both LSU and the Dolphins while Muschamp was on staff as an assistant.
Saban could have let it ride, choosing not to respond to the kind of silliness that routinely bubbles up in backslapping booster club meetings this time of year. Coaches are preaching to the choir at these events. Davis simply stepped it up a notch, throwing in a little fire and brimstone with the Gator hallelujahs.
Never mind that Davis said Muschamp’s “DNA is not any different than Nick,” an apparent endorsement of methods passed on from mentor to disciple. The offseason sparks really flew over this one, igniting the Internet chat rooms and prodding Saban to discuss the vicious injury done to him by what amounted to a corny stand-up routine by a relative lightweight.
“It really is a little terribly disappointing,” Saban said Thursday night in Atlanta prior to one of his own springtime pep talks with Alabama boosters. “If somebody has a problem with me, I’d appreciate it if they’d tell me. If I’m doing something to offend somebody, I’d certainly like to do whatever I have to do to fix it.
“We’re in a tough business. It’s very competitive. Sometimes you’ve got to demand that people do things that maybe they don’t want to do, but it’s not personal.”
OK, maybe it did get a little personal when Davis, himself a former Saban employee, played to the Gator crowd even further by saying that Muschamp has a personality and that’s the difference between Will and Nick.
Saban seems to help that case a little, though, with his deadly serious reaction. Vanderbilt coach James Franklin was even shamed into an apology earlier this year after laughingly referring to Saban as “Nicky Satan” at a high school sports banquet.
So what? These public spats, like Michigan coach Brady Hoke recently accusing Notre Dame of “chickening out” of their ancient rivalry, make real human beings out of coaches who too quickly are turned into statues planted on the front lawn of massive stadiums. The teeth are never bared in those graven images, be they grinning or snarling, but truthfully they should be.
Look to that unrepentant master of the booster club jab, Steve Spurrier.
He’s best known for his early classics, such as referring to FSU as “Free Shoes University.” Spurrier still has a sting in his late 60s, however. Just last year he said this of Saban to ESPN.com: “If he wants to be the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they’ve always won there at Alabama.”
It’s a mind game, the kind that tickles boosters and grabs the notice of recruits. It’s the reason former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin used to poke at two-time national champion Urban Meyer, just as Saban’s rivals are doing what they can today to prove they’re not afraid of him. Doesn’t have to be true to fire up the partisans, but it does need to be loud.
“There’s nobody outside the Tennessee family and there’s nobody outside this group of players that will ever help us win a football game,” Kiffin once said, “so we really don’t care if we offend some people on the way to getting there.”
The devil you say.