FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The three-letter acronym that sums up the success of Alabama football isn’t SEC or BCS. It’s NFL.
Listening to the Alabama players and coaches talk, sometimes you have to remind yourself that the Crimson Tide are playing for a collegiate title Monday night against Notre Dame in the BCS national championship game.
The 12-1 Crimson Tide don’t refer to themselves as a college football program. They don’t talk about Alabama as an institution of higher learning. Nope. Alabama football is an “organization,” professional connotation intended, just like the Patriots or the San Francisco 49ers.
Under indomitable and implacable coach Nick Saban, who wears a scowl like Paul “Bear” Bryant wore his famed houndstooth hat, Alabama has become the NFL’s 33d team.
“He runs it like a pro team,” said Patriots defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick, a member of Alabama’s 2009 national championship team. “He’s serious about what he does, very detailed.”
Whatever you call Alabama, a program, an organization, one man’s football fiefdom, you have to refer to it as a winning machine that churns out All-Americans, NFL draft picks, and national championships with alarmingly efficiency.
The Tide has an opportunity to become the first consensus back-to-back national champions since Nebraska in 1994 and ’95. (Southern Cal won a split national title in 2003 and then was the undisputed champion in 2004.) It can become the first team since Tom Osborne’s Cornhuskers (1994, ’95 and a split title with Michigan in ’97) to win three titles in four years.
Of course, Alabama players aren’t allowed to look beyond breakfast today. “You know I’m not allowed to answer those kind of questions,” said senior center Barrett Jones, when asked about a budding Alabama dynasty. “Do you know what would happen if Coach Saban watched this interview and heard me say the D-word?”
If you close your eyes and listen to Alabama’s players couch their answers and watch their words, you would swear you were in Fort Foxborough.
That’s not a coincidence. Saban is a buddy of Bill Belichick and spent four seasons as Belichick’s defensive coordinator in Cleveland. There’s a picture of the two of them chatting on page 166 of the Alabama media guide. It looks like a real yuckfest.
It’s debatable who rubbed off on whom. This is what His Hoodiness said about his pal Saban back in 2006, when Saban was coach of the Miami Dolphins:
“There’s no other coach in this league or any league that I have more respect for than Nick Saban. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I learned a whole lot more from him when he was at Cleveland than I’m sure he learned from me . . . That guy is a [darn] good football coach.”
Now, that’s a testimonial.
Not that Saban needs it. When you’re this successful at the University of Alabama you’re less a football coach and more of a deity. If Saban said he wanted to be referred to as Emperor of Alabama tomorrow there probably wouldn’t be too many dissenters. They probably wouldn’t even demand to see a valid birth certificate.
Saban has become the college football version of John Calipari. There are no one-and-dones in college football like Coach Cal’s we-hardly-knew-ye Wildcats.
But Saban is running a football finishing school. His players graduate — Alabama only has nine scholarship seniors, yet six players already have their degrees — but they’re majoring in football.
Alabama is a major parts supplier for the NFL, which is why all 32 teams attended its Pro Day last year. ’Bama had eight players selected from its 2011 national title team. Four players were taken in the first round, including Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower. It marked the second year in a row the Crimson Tide had four first-round picks.
Alabama has had multiple first-round picks for three straight years. That trend figures to continue with senior left guard Chance Warmack and junior cornerback Dee Milliner projected as first-rounders.
Since 2010, Alabama has had 20 players picked in the NFL draft, more than any school.
“The demands made on players at the NFL level, I don’t know a program that better prepares their kids for that than Alabama,” said former Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves.
The NFL prep is part of the appeal fueling the Tide’s roll. In the rich-get-richer category, Saban had the top-ranked recruiting class in the country entering the weekend, according to ESPN. He has verbal commitments from players from 13 states, including New York and Utah.
Running back Eddie Lacy, the latest in a succession of ’Bama backs that are hematomas waiting to happen for tacklers, said Saban U grads have told him Alabama is NFL commensurate.
“When I talk to Trent [Richardson], randomly, he’ll say it’s the same thing, especially when it comes to picking up pass protections and stuff. I guess it is like a little mini-NFL-type thing here,” said Lacy.
The inevitable question surrounding the 61-year-old Saban is when he’ll be coaching an actual NFL franchise again.
It’s only a matter of time. If Pumped ‘n’ Jacked Pete Carroll can build an NFL playoff team, you better believe the obsessive Saban, who is seeking his fourth national title and third at ’Bama, can.
There are still some folks in South Florida who are chapped at the way Saban abandoned the Dolphins in 2007, after two seasons, especially because of his duplicitous denials about departing for Tuscaloosa.
But Saban, who followed a 9-7 season in Miami in 2005 with a 6-10 season in 2006, is the apotheosis of why the NFL is a quarterback league, not a coaches’ one.
He was mired in a QB quagmire in Miami and hit the escape button. Saban didn’t leave the NFL behind, though. He simply brought it to Alabama.