Sunday, January 07, 2007

Coaching Is Big Business

November 27: "I had a good college job. Why would I have left that if I was going to be interested in other college jobs?"
December 21: "I guess I have to say it. I'm not going to be the Alabama coach."
January 4: "Eat a dick, Dolphins."

In case you've been too busy blindly clicking on YouTube links this week, the man above, Nick Saban, is the new head coach for the Alabama Crimson Tide. In order to sign their contract of $32 million over eight years, he had to defect from the three years and $13 million left on his contract with the Miami Dolphins. You probably know this and have made a decision like that too.

If you're aware of that information, you've probably also formed an opinion over whether or not Saban's move was ethical. Sporting a 15-17 record in his two years with the Dolphins, Saban had not yet achieved the type of success expected of him, which I guess is why you would sign a guy for five years instead of two. The move back to the college game was premature, as he admits himself, and it's for that reason that he is being painted as a combination of a coward, a quitter, and a whore.

For example, O.G. Don Shula said the following: "He has run away from the challenge. It's unbelievable. There were four or five direct statements that were blatant lies. That tells you a little bit about the guy. The guy likes to hear himself talk and then doesn't follow up on what he says." By the way, Don Shula coached in four Super Bowls; Nick Saban hasn't had a job with the same team for more than four years. However, his thoughts are less than objective since Saban will be replacing his son Mike as Alabama head coach. (I think God created Don Shula on a notepad, then got lazy and just ripped the sheet off and rubbed a pencil sideways on the next sheet to create Mike.)

Let's see what a guy with a little more perspective has to say. Here's two-time college and two-time pro champion Jimmy Johnson's take: "He's playing word games with the media. His agent, Jimmy Sexton, was negotiating with Alabama. He knew that. He comes back and says, `I have not talked to Alabama.' No he hasn't, but Jimmy Sexton has done all the talking.''

"Ever dance...with the the pale moonlight?"

But is it really that cut-and-dry? Although I respect these two men more than Nick Saban, they both have ties to the Dolphins system. Is it possible that we're defining "loyalty" too narrowly? At the end of the day, coaching football is a job, and it's easy for a fan to confuse his allegiance to the team with what he expects from the coach. For the casual fan, the coach should care more about the team's reputation than anyone else. But it's conceivable that Saban knew nothing of the Dolphins' history when he accepted the job. He just saw it as a better opportunity for his career than coaching LSU. Have you ever had a job that just didn't work out? Have you ever left a job with a little less notice than you should have because a better one became available?

It's bizarre, but the public will care more about, say, which jersey is on Shaquille O'Neal's hall-of-fame plaque than he will. On some level it's just a jersey. A corrolary: In Little League, which is supposedly the most pure a sport can be, I played for the A's, the White Sox, and the Reds, but it made no difference to me as long as I got to bat in the first half of the lineup.

That being said, Nick Saban is a selfish liar, and his actions are despicable. No, we're not defining loyalty incorrectly.

To get personal, I have more invested with the LSU football program than I do with any other team. (Except for maybe the Saints, but being a fan of either has become way too fashionable these days.) After Saban brought the Tigers to success so quickly, I expected him to bolt for the NFL. People forget this, but the year before he left for the Dolphins, he almost left for the Bears. I was prepared for a move, and I can't say I blamed him. Being an NFL coach is the pinnacle of his profession, and he had to test his ability with such a vertical promotion. I would have loved for him to coach us to more championships, but when I divorced myself from my own point of view, I understood his decision. Love the sinner but hate the sin I guess. Something like that.

"Come on! Like the guy in the eight thousand dollar suit is going to wear suntan lotion." Okay, no more allusions today. You can come out now.

What separates Nick Saban from any other coach who would make that move is the outright disregard he has for context and the feelings of anyone other than himself. That, and he throws a fit over Little Debbies. Although he loves college coaching because of its "ability to affect young people and their development, their character, their attitude," he didn't care enough about those young men to be with them during their last games together--both when he left Michigan State and when he left LSU, he announced it before the teams' bowl games. At least with LSU he just abandoned these young men in spirit--he cared so little about Michigan State that they had to play the Citrus Bowl with an interim coach.

Not only did he continually deny his interest in the Alabama job with unequivocal lies, he waited until after Dolphins season tickets went on sale to formally accept the position. (And believe me, if people in Miami gave a shit about the Dolphins, this would be a much bigger deal.)

He can say that taking a job with a fierce rival is a coincidence. He can say that has a soft spot for LSU, just as I can't help but have a soft spot for the man who brought us our first championship since 1958, but he had the brash indecency to present 'Bama with a $100,000 check at halftime of their basketball game against LSU. I guess that check just couldn't wait until the Vanderbilt game.

Let's not even think about the message the state of Alabama sends when its educational system is in the bottom five of the nation and it gives a football coach $32 million. Not to mention the ripple effect this hiring will have on the salaries of other big name coaches.

Nick, I've got my #34 Stuart Hall Knights flag football uni right here. I'll give you...twelve bucks to pace it?

What Saban's apologists, from Chris Mortensen to Dolphins players such as Will Allen and Travis "Hollywood" Daniels, say is some variation on "It was only a matter of time. Coaching is a big business now." Is big business an ethical wasteland from which loyalty and common courtesy are exempt?

Should it be?

Furthermore, if sports has become big business, and big business is understood to be an arena in which everyone can act with only his own interests in mind, should we accept and be appeased by that conclusion? Is that not the antithesis of what we hold dear in sports? Thank God a cut-throat mercenary like Saban has at least made us bat our eyes.

Compare Saban's transition last week with another coaching move: the resignation of Bill Cowher from his job with the Steelers. The Rooney family stood by him when the team didn't make the playoffs, and their respect and belief in him paid off when he won a Super Bowl for Pittsburgh last year. Cowher left on his own terms with dignity (aside from the Cosby sweater he was wearing); no one was bitter about his decision, and no one had anything but appreciation for what he had given the team over the course of fifteen years. Compare that with the animosity people have towards Nick Saban--he'll never feel what Bill Cowher felt last week.

When Saban left the Dolphins, he didn't just leave $13 million for someone else to worry about. He left us with questions like, "What does a contract mean anymore?" "What is dedication?" "What does one person with power and responsibility owe to people without it?" And I'm glad he's no longer teaching boys in my state his own versions of the answers.

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