Nick Saban did manage a smile when asked by ESPN sideline reporter Laura Rutledge after the Sugar Bowl whether he was OK after getting steamrolled by his own scrambling quarterback in the final minutes of Alabama’s 24-6 win over Clemson.
“They don’t make ’em like they used to,’’ Saban said, apparently referring to Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts’s relatively slim 210-pound frame.
Cue the laugh track, yes? All right, so that’s not exactly going to get Saban his own Netflix comedy special. But it was a rare moment of public quasi-levity from an iconic football coach who acts like any sign of joy or satisfaction carries with it a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Before you suggest that it sounds like somebody we know well around here, note that NFL Films has provided enough peeks behind the scenes with Bill Belichick (Saban’s friend and former boss in Cleveland) that we should know he’s far more multisyllabic with his team than with the media. I can’t imagine Saban ever regales the media with genuinely interesting soliloquies on such offbeat topics as punters and long snappers, as Belichick did this week.
The Crimson Tide’s win Monday night put them in the national championship game, where they will face Southeastern Conference foe Georgia. With a victory, Saban would have his sixth national championship, tying Bear Bryant for the most. Perhaps he’ll reveal his satisfaction when his career is in its epilogue.
But for now, the question remains: If achieving such heightened success is as joyless a pursuit as he often makes it seem, what hope is there for the rest of us?
“Oh, man,’’ said Kirk Herbstreit, who along with Chris Fowler will call Monday night’s game on ESPN (8 p.m.). “Well, I think we a lot of times see a very different Nick Saban than the one that’s at the podium or the one that’s on stage.
“I think when he gets on a stage, I think he’s clearly sending a message to somebody, many times it’s his own team, sometimes it’s his own fans, sometimes it’s to the conference commissioners and the people that are kind of making decisions about the sport. He knows what he’s doing at all times.”
Herbstreit said Saban is his favorite college coach to talk to when preparing to call a game, even referring to him as a “normal” guy. Fowler agreed that Saban is informative and pleasant in meetings with the ESPN crew, but wouldn’t go so far as to call him normal.
“I think he’s abnormal in a lot of ways, but good ways that help him win championships,” said Fowler. “His intensity is focused. The only thing I would remark about as coaches when you get to know them a little bit and how they react to wins and losses, is I wish Nick, like a lot of the guys, could savor victories more deeply and for a longer period of time.
“I think a lot of coaches would say the victories, even the championships, are a relief, and the losses are devastating. And I think that’s not in perfect harmony or balance. But a coach’s life isn’t often in perfect balance.”
Because the national championship game features two SEC teams, there’s some thought that the appeal will be limited on a national scale, even with a love-’em-or-hate-’em traditional powerhouse such as Alabama involved.
Fowler was candid when asked whether that is a genuine concern for the network.
“Potentially,” he said. “I think that we try to stay away from worrying about the business side of the matchup and the implications and just call the game. That’s where the enjoyment lies for Kirk, myself, and our entire production team.
“Certainly there are people at the network that are very concerned about the ratings and things like that. But honestly, there is not much you can do about that.
“But when you get to the championship game, if you love the sport, how could you not watch it? If you love college football, these are two excellent teams. It’s an excellent matchup.
“I didn’t love the Patriots or the Falcons, but you sure watched the Super Bowl and enjoyed the drama.”
The response to the news Tuesday that Beasley Media and 98.5 The Sports Hub had signed afternoon drive cohost Michael Felger to a new contract was varied, which is generally how it goes when any contentious media personality gets a new deal. But I’m bewildered by the relatively large number of readers who expressed surprise at the deal. It doesn’t matter whether you like a host or not. What matters to their employers is whether they get ratings and thus bring in advertising revenue. Felger and cohost Tony Massarotti earned a huge 16.3 share in the fall book. It has been the No. 1 program in the men 25-54 demographic for more than five years. It’s a similar situation with the top-rated “Kirk & Callahan” morning program on WEEI. As long as ratings are high, and they show no signs of waning, it’s ridiculous to expect changes . . . Not sure if it’s a legitimate possibility or mere conjecture at this point, but buzz that ESPN is pursuing Fox Sports breakout star Alex Rodriguez for one of the vacancies in its “Sunday Night Baseball” booth continues to grow louder. Wouldn’t be the first time A-Rod was called upon to replace Aaron Boone.