On Jan 3, 2007, Nick Saban accepted the offer from the University of Alabama to become the 27th head coach of the Crimson Tide football team. And he instantly became public enemy No. 1 in southern Florida.
Legions of Dolphin fans screamed at how the coach had "betrayed them" by leaving on such short notice. Most of the vitriol was due to the fact that two weeks before he arrived in Tuscaloosa Saban insisted that he "was not going to be the Alabama coach."
In an interview in current issue of The Sporting News, Coach Saban was asked about this situation point blank. His reply:
Well, honesty and integrity is an important part of our character, my character. Those are words that we use all the time. I think that in an effort to protect our team at Miami -- because I had not talked to Alabama and did not talk to them until the season ended -- I express that (character is important) to (Alabama) through my agent and said it was up to them whether they wanted to wait and that I would not make any promises. I would talk to them then, [and] I would only reassess my circumstances and our situation as a family at the end of the year.
Saban goes on to note that if given the chance he would have handed the situation much differently and outright apologizes for mishandling the whole affair (the full interview is not available online yet but The Birmingham News has most of the most pertinent excerpts).
Seems pretty cut-and-dried, right? Oh, heck no.
Last Friday, Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk got the ball rolling by posting the excerpt of the interview involving Saban's departure from the Dolphins and probably had the most accurate assessment of the situation. "[Saban] used a lot of words to say what he could have said very simply -- that he should have said nothing about the Alabama job, period."
But since then media outlets covering the Dolphins have gone berserk:
- The Sun Sentinel's Dave Hyde responds with a snarky aside and an insistence he's above the issue (even though he posts a huge portion of the interview verbatim).
- SB Nation blog covering the Dolphins, The Phinsider, calls Saban a "douche-bag" and insists he's a liar and a failure as a coach.
- The Palm Beach Post pretty much just offered the excerpts of the interview to its commentariat and, lordy, they don't disappoint.
- Janie Campbell at NBCSports puts her hyperbole in overdrive and insists the apology isn't an apology and equates the coaches' departure from Miami with the Gulf Oil Spill.
- The Miami Herald's Greg Cote is probably the most forgiving of the bunch. He seems unsatisfied with the wording of the apology but lauds Saban for his "semi-regret" while insisting "he's still a bit of weasel, though."
And if this nonsense wasn't enough, a few sportswriters - including the usually perceptive Doug Farrar at Yahoo! Sports and ESPN's godawful Heather Dinch - are already suggesting these comments are a prelude for Saban leaving Alabama for the NFL a la Pete Carroll.
It's a scenario so far-fetched it reaches the cusp of absurdity but, more to the point, it would be outright impossible if Saban had actually burned his bridges with the league as the Miami stalwarts seem to want us to believe.
Saban took the Miami job on Dec. 24, 2004, agreeing to a five-year contract worth an estimated $22.5 million. And immediately he was hamstrung by one of the most ill run football clubs in the league (a title they escaped primarily because Matt Millen was still running the show in Detroit). You know you've got an uphill battle on your hands when the players start crying when they get yelled at too loudly.
Miami was a mess when Saban took over. Abominable drafting had left the club with massive holes at key positions, notably quarterback. Searching free agency Saban settled on the then-safer bet of Daunte Culpepper instead of Drew Brees who had just had major shoulder surgery. A mistake he admits to in the Sporting News article. But laying the disaster of the Dolphins at Saban's feet is missing the forest for the tree.
The team's dysfunctional ownership was much more to blame and the success Bill Parcells has had in the past few years has underscored this point. If Wayne Huizenga had given Saban the control over the club that was later granted The Tuna, I seriously doubt the story would have had the ending it did. This is a coach who has won National Championships with two different college teams - saying the root of the problems the Dolphins suffered lie solely with him is clearly idiotic.
Saban was then presented a better offer at a level of coaching he had already shown he knew how to be wildly successful at. And he was offered a salary that made him the highest-paid college coach in the country. College football coaches are constantly lambasted for treating the job as a unsentimental business arrangement - why should there even be the pretense of romantic loyalty at the pro level?
Still, the level of their outrage then exhibited by the Dolphins fanbase has been impressive (and after the Franchione affair, we know of whence we speak when we say that).
Three months after Saban took over at Alabama both the Miami Herald and an website that covers the Dolphins were screaming about recruiting violations being committed by their once beloved coach. Three high school juniors from south Florida told the media outlets they had face-to-face contact with Saban during his visits to their school - a practice allowed by the NCAA at the time under what was then known as the "bump rule."
But the paper and the website insisted the coach was committing recruiting infractions. And the rule was later changed due to their whining.
So now we are supposed to believe that Saban would leave the Capstone and jump back into all this nonsense just as he is on the verge of turning Alabama football into a perennial power once again. That simply defies logic. And, furthermore, Saban addressed this point directly last month at the SEC meetings in Destin:
It's always a difficult decision to leave any place, and it is a decision I am never going to make again. I am where I am. If they get a football team at Lake Burton, I might go there. Otherwise, I am where I am.
Why do I think this comment carries more weight than the one posted on NFL.com in December of 2006? Because Mal Moore and Robert Witt have given Coach Saban a hell of a lot more support and leeway than the Dolphins ever did and the Alabama fans have spent a lot more time trying to support his effort to transform the team instead of bitching about every imagined slight.