TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There are some things on the University of Alabama campus that are about as predictable as can be.
Among them are construction, strength and conditioning guru Scott Cochran jumping up and down while holding up four fingers during the fourth quarter and how basketball coach Avery Johnson begins his press conferences: “good afternoon” on practice days, how proud he is of his team after a win, and “give credit” to the opposition following a loss.
Nick Saban used to be that way on National Signing Day.
For the eighth time in nine years the Crimson Tide’s signing class finished atop the team rankings put out by the various recruiting websites (minus Rivals), which was really never in doubt following the early signing period. Alabama appeared to collect another great group, maybe even Saban’s best yet in terms of overall talent.
Consequently, over the years his annual media session to talk about signing day had become a little repetitive. Not only would the coach spend a significant amount of time downplaying expectations, but reporters could count on hearing Saban’s hunting dog analogy — there’s no guarantee puppies with big paws will grow into them.
This time was different.
To begin with, Saban’s opening comments took six minutes. That was a little unusual, although it hit all the regular points of thanking everyone involved and he used some form of the word “develop” 11 times.
“We’ve identified what our needs are on both sides of the ball,” he said. “You don’t always get all the people. You don’t always satisfy all the needs. But we were really fortunate this year to satisfy a lot of the needs that we have.
“Having 15 early enrollees that are here right now is going to really be helpful to their development and to how they can contribute to our team next year.”
Then came the question-and-answer part, his first since the National Championship Game, leading to a wide assortment of subjects.
Saban didn’t bite on Ed Orgeron’s comment after losing another Louisiana standout to Alabama, saying “We did it the right way” in regards to Amite defensive tackle Ishmael Sopsher. It wouldn’t have done any good, and what a lot of people ignored was the LSU coaches’ subsequent comment about Tangipahoa Parish: “We haven’t had a lot of success there.”
Part of that is due to Saban and Alabama already being entrenched, having landed numerous prospects out of the state who have gone on to be very successful. Meanwhile, LSU has had just one defensive lineman selected in the first two rounds of the last five NFL drafts (Ego Ferguson in 2014). The Tigers also haven’t beaten the Crimson Tide since 2011, an eight-game streak including last season’s 29-0 shutout in Baton Rouge.
Instead, the most memorable moments were about the Crimson Tide’s direction the title game and subsequent coaching changes, which have yet to be formally announced. The combination of both so close together have had fans worried and worked up for the past month, and led some critics to prematurely predict the fall of the Saban empire — again.
That too has become predictable.
Saban first addressed the coaching changes, which could be announced at any time, and admitted that they contributed to losing a couple of prospects.
“Most of what we did in January was really about next year’s recruiting, the 2020 class,” he said. “Basically, two of the three guys that we signed today were committed to us before, so the coaches did a really good job of keeping those guys in the fold.
“I do think there was probably a player or two out there that, because of the relationship change from the coach who was recruiting them to the new coach, may have been a little bit of a problem for them because those relationships are really, really important.”
Then Saban turned to the National Championship Game, which ignited the coaching turnover that’s appears to be finally complete. He didn’t intend to replace seven of the 10 assistant coaches, after hiring six last year, but with running backs coach Joe Pannunzio likely heading back to the NFL there’s almost been a complete overhaul.
The only ones to survive the purge have been special-teams coach Jeff Banks, linebackers coach Pete Golding and defensive backs coach Karl Scott.
“To me, we kind of have the Alabama factor around here that has always helped us be successful,” he said. “That's having a team that plays with a lot of discipline, a team that everybody is sort of responsible and accountable to do their job at a high level and standard, and everybody puts the team first. So that's the standard. And it's up to the individuals on the team to do that.
“If I thought that we weren't doing that in one game or 10 games, I'd address it with the players, and make sure that everybody was on board with those principles and values that's helped us be successful. And I don't think we played in that game with the Alabama factor.”
This is how Saban ultimately reacted to a 44-16 loss, his worst at Alabama in terms of the score.
Even with all the changeover last year the Crimson Tide still went 14-1 and reached the College Football Playoff for the fifth time. But the lasting impression was losing in the National Championship Game for the second time in three years to Clemson.
Alabama looked like it had prepared for the wrong opponent.
“Everybody needs to understand that and respond to it,” Saban continued. “If you lose your humility, it sort of creates [a feeling that] I'm above doing the things the way I need to do them to play in a game against good competition. And if I put my own agenda ahead of the team, or winning, it's going to have some effect on my performance. If I think those things are existing within the program, I think they need to be addressed, and they have been."
Saban might not have said it, so we’ll do so for him: He’s ticked.