TUSCALOOSA — Everybody loves a winner … unless they win too much.
As the late Hall of Fame basketball player Wilt Chamberlain once famously said, "Nobody loves Goliath." Nobody feels sorry for a giant who falls.
Even when Goliath stands only 5-foot-6.
Height-challenged Nick Saban rarely loses at Alabama, but when he does, it's kind of a shot in the arm for college football fans across the country.
A CBS news release said Alabama's 46-41 loss to LSU on Saturday was the highest-rated regular-season college football game in eight years. It drew nearly 17 million viewers, including a high of more than 20 million at the end.
I'm figuring a decent amount of those people were watching only because they figured the Alabama juggernaut finally might stumble and have to eat some crow. Alabama always will be Alabama but that doesn't mean that on a given Saturday somebody like LSU can't bring its gears to a grinding halt, even if it's just for a moment or two.
In the aftermath of these moments, it's always interesting to see how Saban handles the loss. Considering how intense he is, he’s much cooler about it than you would think.
In his postgame news conference Saturday night, he gave his typical structured opening statement, covering the game and detailing his thoughts. He slipped the word "proud" in there twice.
Not once, but twice. Talking about his players, mentioned he was proud of them.
Again, not once, but twice.
It wasn't in some hokey "Remember the Titans" or "Hoosiers" way. He didn't do it with tears in his eyes. His voice didn't raise to a crescendo, and he didn't say he was proud in a defiant way, as if he dared anybody to say he shouldn't be. As if, he was waiting — I don't know — for the town mayor to come tell him he's welcome to stay around these parts after all, if he wants.
Saban's words were almost matter of fact, just part of his opening statement:
"A lot to overcome, but I have to tell you that I was really proud of our players in the second half. They really fought hard to get back in the game. And actually got themselves back in the game, but we couldn’t get a stop on defense when we needed to. Had a couple of opportunities to stop them, and we didn’t.
“Offensively, we certainly scored a lot of points and onside kicks are difficult. The ball has to bounce your way. But we gave ourselves a chance to win in terms of the way we fought back in the game. Very proud of our players for that."
When Saban speaks in news conferences, he may be speaking to reporters and answering their questions, but he usually is directing his comments to his players or his team's fan base. So, when he says "proud" twice, he wants his players to know he's willing to stand up in public and say something good about them.
It's easy to knock Saban for using the term "proud." His team was undefeated, favored by a touchdown, and had dominated LSU for nearly a decade. Alabama wins almost all the time, so why should he be "proud" of a team like he's coaching a bunch of misfits who gave some powerhouse a better game than anyone thought they would?
Well, why shouldn't he be proud?
You can have the best team in the country (and Saban often does), but not everything goes right all the time, and when it doesn't, how you handle it can reveal your character.
From the start, this one looked like it just wasn't going to be Alabama's day. As the Tide was going into score, Tua Tagovailoa had the ball fly out of his arm. LSU recovered the ball and drove for a quick touchdown.
The whole day seemed mostly a continuation of that moment.
Teams like Alabama almost never get in that situation, so it's interesting to see how they handle it. Alabama fought, and, hey, why can't the coach stand up and essentially say, "We played a good team, and it wasn't our day, but my guys played hard. I'm pleased about that."
Saban demands his players to focus not on the result but the work they need to do. With a few words Saturday, Saban showed he realizes that applies to himself, too.