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Is Nick Saban above criticism from Alabama fans?

Or is Greg McElroy just shoveling dirt on Alabama again out of his self-loathing “gotta hear both sides” schtick?

Alabama Spring Game Photo by Dave Martin/Getty Images

Does Nick Saban get a free ride from criticism?

Greg McElroy, who seemingly goes out of his way to poormouth his alma mater at times, had these remarks about Nick Saban, criticism, and whether the GOAT is feeling pressure entering 2023:

McElroy continued, explaining that he feels Saban often times avoids bearing the bulk of the pressure, which is instead often placed on Alabama’s various high-profile assistants. However, after missing the Playoff and seeing conference rival Georgia win a second straight national title, the former Crimson Tide signal-caller thinks the seven-time champ will feel the heat a bit more.

“I think that there will be pressure, yes. I’d be lying if I didn’t think that to be true, but I also think the pressure seldom falls on Nick Saban,” McElroy said. “He’s kind of got a get out of jail free card—no matter what. All the attention and pressure and blame goes to the coordinators. You look back over the course of time, he’s won consistently forever. But if you look back over the course of time, people are constantly pointing to, ‘Bill O’Brien’s got to go. Pete Golding’s got to go. Lane Kiffin’s got to go. Mike Locksley’s got to go. Jim McElwain’s got to go. Doug Nussmeier’s got to go.’

“So I feel like the coordinators really take more heat than Nick Saban does, because he’s kind of in a position in which you can’t really be critical of anything he’s accomplished—you just kind of go about it. But yeah, there’s obviously pressure and Alabama welcomes that pressure on an annual basis.”

The general thesis is that we have insulated Nick Saban from criticism, even as we (unfairly, he supposes) place too much blame on the other coaches, especially the coordinators.

My thoughts on this are a bit more complex, and delve far deeper, than “coordinator bad.” (though, I fully admit that I loathe offensive coordinators on principle.) Just as unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, underperforming Alabama seasons have been unique in their different reasons.


Criticism of Nick Saban:

This poll is closed

  • 37%
    He gets just about the right amount
    (228 votes)
  • 5%
    He gets too much criticism
    (32 votes)
  • 18%
    He’s not criticized enough
    (112 votes)
  • 38%
    He’s above reproach — and his track record has earned that right
    (231 votes)
603 votes total Vote Now

Let’s ignore GMac’s inane strawmen for a moment. No one ever said “Lane’s gotta go,” or “Locksley’s gotta go.” There was grousing about McElwain, but not because he was losing games, because it was paleolithic football in a game that was visibly changing. Instead, let’s actually look at each season, where the “fault” lie, and who or what takes the blame.

  • 2013 was an era of complacency and lack of leadership. You can’t have your most fired up player lead from the center position over a senior quarterback. Ultimately, reining in AJ McCarron and keeping him from freelancing and big-dicking it fell squarely on his OC/QBC — and Nussmeier did not return.
  • 2010 also lacked enough leadership, but injuries and some bad luck were the real killers here. You could live another 40 years and not see a ball shoot 30 yards on a rope down the sideline after your Heisman winning running back commits his first-ever lost fumble. And that’s just for starters.
  • 2016 was almost wholly about post-season injuries — Alabama wins the national title with Eddie Jackson. If the Tide is healthy at corner, Alabama wins the national title. A healthy Scarbrough keeps Sark running the ball and killing clock with a lead. Though he does share his portion of the blame for that one, far more was about bad injury luck. No surprise, the DC returned the following season, and the OC had been hired away before the playoffs even began.
  • You can put 2019 in this same category: A healthy Tua (or a much more experienced Mac Jones) gets ‘Bama to the playoffs and at least a chance at a title, even if it would have been a rematch. Both coordinators returned the following season.
  • 2021 — More bad injury luck, combined with some terrible misses at key spots on the offensive line and not more than a little awful coaching at spots (corner, OL come to mind). Neither the coaches responsible for bringing in the underperformers, or the ones who were supposed to coach them up, returned for 2022.
  • 2018 was a bit different: coaching let that team down, and that includes and begins with Nick Saban who brought in a rock star cast of outstanding recruiters to be position coaches and coordinators. But, at the end of the day, things were perhaps too easy. The Crimson Tide was an absolute buzzsaw, and no one’s expectations were managed, even as the assistants were jockeying for their next job, chafing at the demands of the job, and outright undermining one another. Nick Saban took his hand off the rudder, and it showed. And I don’t think anyone does or has disputed that. As a result, the 2019 season saw an almost-complete rebuild of the staff. And it needed it. Gattis and Enos and Tosh were as toxic in the booth as they were outstanding in the living room.
  • Like 2018, the 2022 season was a failure of coaching, some missed recruits, and some bad injury luck (when your Heisman-winning QB is hurt for 2/3rds of the season, and you have to face three Top 10 teams on the road, that makes for a bit of a slog). And, yes, we can put the shortcomings here squarely on the coaching — not just the coordinators who directed two godawful failures in Baton Rouge and Knoxville, but also the position coaches who inked guys with no heart, the pandemic that did not permit in-person recruiting and which signees have largely proven to be busts, and yes, the head coach that hired them. But mainly the coordinators. And neither return.

There is a pattern here that has emerged: in those years where you can plausibly place the blame on coaching, the coordinators don’t return. We are not the only ones that see it; Nick Saban sees it as well. And he is proactive about cutting loose staff as he is about hunting down the next generation of rising stars. It doesn’t always work out, sure, but I’ll take his track record over mine — even as I criticize instances where he has made mistakes.

This season is, in earnest, the only time I’ve seen a season’s shortcomings being laid at the feet of the coordinators. And they should have no small degree. Yes, Pete and BoB were not given the same sorts of players that other coordinators were, but it was evident that coaching slippage was all over the map. The program entered a funk, a malaise even, where you never knew what the Tide would produce from one week to the next, one quarter to the next. Inconsistency was the only consistency. And that was apparent with both the offense, and the defense, and the reason why both coordinators leave with a mixed legacy.

This was not “playing to a standard” and it damned sure wasn’t The Process. You could rattle off on one hand the number of times the last two seasons where Alabama looked like...Alabama.

That ultimately is Nick Saban’s responsibility. And while he would have gladly welcomed both men back, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it was probably for the best that everyone moved along. Recognizing the multifaceted ways that Alabama has come up short in no way exonerates Saban from deserved criticism. Nor is it giving him a free ride to point out that there have been exigencies that derailed promising seasons or even a promising title run.

We’ve certainly never given him a pass for his shortcomings. The man is mortal, and even the very best to ever do it can and do make mistakes — hell, even Einstein was wrong about black holes and quantum entanglement specifically and quantum mechanics generally, discoveries which have won Nobel Prizes the last decade.

If we can take a run at that guy, we can certainly do so towards a college football matter what sort of tired canard Greg McElroy pulls out of his ass this week. That doesn’t all change the fact that it’s not about the coordinators...until it is.

And 2022 was about the coordinators, Greg. There’s a reason they’re not back, too. Sometimes the spotlight does shine too bright — the expectations are too high, the demands are too steep, the sacrifices are too much — to continue in your role, even if that role is still available to you.


Which season/s shortcomings do you primarily blame the coordinator(s) for?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    (5 votes)
  • 1%
    (7 votes)
  • 3%
    (13 votes)
  • 9%
    (39 votes)
  • 1%
    (5 votes)
  • 52%
    (213 votes)
  • 4%
    None of these
    (17 votes)
  • 9%
    All of these
    (37 votes)
  • 17%
    More than one of these (answer below)
    (69 votes)
405 votes total Vote Now

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