Starting next week, the coach will begin preparing his sixth Alabama team for yet another Bowl Championship Series final, only this BCS final will play out in all-too-familiar haunts. The Miami market has long memories of Saban career rumors, and the media there have long memories of his persistent and strident denials before leaving the Dolphins to go to Alabama.
If there’s still talk about Saban and the Cleveland Browns by the time Alabama arrives in Miami on Jan. 2, then imagine the talk throughout the second-ranked Crimson Tide’s preparations to play No. 1 Notre Dame. Oh, won’t those news conferences be fun?
Alabama fans eager to see the Tide become the first repeat BCS champion and win its third national title in four years can only hope that Saban’s preaching about tuning out external noise have taken hold. Maybe Nike should expedite special Alabama blinders and headphones, tuned in only to Saban’s voice.
Before we go further with the unhappy picture of rapid-fire questions and analysis about Saban’s future while the Tide preps in Miami, it’s instructive to recap the origins of the latest smoke.
It bellowed again because of a Sunday Boston Globe report examining the likelihood that the Browns would hire Michael Lombardi as general manager. Part of Lombardi’s appeal, the report said, would be that he could deliver Saban as coach.
“According to the NFL sources,” the report said, “Saban has let it be known that if he returns to the NFL — where he flopped, going 15-17 with the Dolphins from 2005-06 — it would likely be with Lombardi playing (Scott) Pioli to his (Bill) Belichick.”
Belichick, of course, is the New England Patriots and ex-Cleveland Browns coach. Saban, of course, is a Belichick disciple and coached under him in Cleveland. The fact that the Boston Globe originated this story hints that it came from the Belichick cabal.
Lombardi himself sent mixed signals when he interviewed with 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland on Tuesday, saying that Saban is “never satisfied” and “always about the next challenge” before saying Saban is “very content” at Alabama.
Now, factor in recent statements from Terry Saban. Speaking to Smashmouth Radio on Birmingham’s 97.3 FM before a Nick’s Kids function, she seemed to shoot down talk that her husband is about to leave Alabama.
“To answer your question and get right to the point, no,” she said. “We’re very comfortable here. We love it here. It’s a great fit for our family. It’s a good fit for me. As far as we’re concerned, this is where we’ll retire someday. As far as jobs go, this is it for us.”
Then again, “I don’t mean to be presumptuous,” she said. “I would have to talk this over with Nick, but as far as I’m concerned, this is it.”
She also went to bat for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart as her husband’s successor and said her husband doesn’t have as much fun on the job these days.
“A victory doesn’t feel quite as happy, as joyous,” she said. “It’s just relief, and let’s get ready for the next game. And that’s unfortunate.
“… The expectations are at the point now that everyone expects you to win and expects you to win it all.”
Terry Saban is plenty smart and has been married to Nick Saban for nearly 41 years. She’s been along for his coaching ride, including the Miami maelstrom, and knows all too well the nature of coaching speculation. She wouldn’t recklessly feed it, especially with her husband’s team about to play such an important game.
So why would she make statements that, when added together, leave the door ever so slightly cracked open? Could she be laying groundwork for both possibilities?
For that matter, what about the Belichick cabal, Lombardi and Cleveland Browns people? Might they be floating trial balloons to see how the idea of a Lombardi-Nick Saban setup plays in Cleveland?
Nick Saban was on Belichick’s staff. Though wildly successful in New England, Belichick was wildly unpopular in Cleveland after benching, then releasing, fan-favored quarterback Bernie Kosar, citing Kosar’s “diminished skills.”
It’s a new day in Cleveland with a new franchise called the Browns (the old Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens), and Browns fans want to win badly. Still, would they accept a Belichick tree climber to get there?
It’s no automatic, so there’s reason to take the town’s temperature before seriously pursuing the idea. There’s also reason to insulate Nick Saban, in case the whole scenario never plays out.
Meanwhile, his current constituents really, really want to win another national championship, and what can he do to stave off distractions?
He could issue strident and testy denials, but we all know how that will play, especially in Miami.
He could sign a contract extension but signed a two-year extension after last season, putting him under contract until 2020. Too, how could he possibly need more money and/or control from Alabama?
The Tide resumes practice Tuesday, and it’ll be interesting to see how the smartest guy in the room handles all of this. He has lots of reasons to swat away distractions.
In the likelihood that Nick Saban stays at Alabama, he sure doesn’t want perceptions that such a distraction caused a Tide team favored by 9.5 points to lose to Notre Dame.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.