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Fun isn't part of Nick Saban's playbook

BILL PLASCHKE

Alabama coach, whose team faces Texas on Thursday for the BCS title, takes a strict approach to football and refers to many of the things that make the college game great as 'clutter.'

January 03, 2010|Bill Plaschke

Visitors to Downtown Disney were given a special treat Saturday afternoon when a Disneyland character ventured outside the park gates to bless them with his charm.

Look, it's Grumpy!

"Is this fun?" Alabama Coach Nick Saban said, pausing, pausing, pausing.

The answer was in his grimace, the "Happiest Place on Earth" clouded with the unhappiest face in town.

The answer was in his wardrobe: black shirt, black pants, black socks, black shoes, and silly me, I thought they were the Crimson Tide.

The answer was in his, well, answer.

"You know, what's fun for me is practice, I really enjoy practice," Saban said in his first news conference of the Bowl Championship Series title week. "You know, some of the other things, it's an entertainment business . . . so I'm having fun out of respect for what you all do."

Grumpy sounds thrilled.

"That's about as diplomatic as I can be," he said.

And thus the beatific national title game at the gorgeous Rose Bowl on Thursday will be shaded in a guy who is as pleasant as Pasadena in August.

That's about as diplomatic as I can be.

Lest folks in these parts think that all college football coaches come in styles of Pete Carroll and Rick Neuheisel, meet the anti-Rudy.

Nick Saban is Bill Belichick with a fitted shirt and Southern accent.

Give him a pitchfork and he could be in "American Gothic." Give him a garbage can and he could be on "Sesame Street."

Shorten him up a bit, dress him in a long stocking cap and white beard and giant red nose and, well, you know.

Saban is a guy who turned down a dinner invitation from the president of the United States -- George W. Bush at the time -- because it interfered with the second day of training camp.

Saban is a guy who once compared an Alabama loss to Louisiana Monroe with 9/11 and Pearl Harbor.

Saban is a guy who last month pointedly asked the media to stop bugging his players with one particular question as they prepared for the national championship game against Texas.

He didn't want reporters to ask about the national championship game against Texas.

"I am not worried about winning the national championship," he said at the time. "I don't want our players to worry about it either. I would appreciate it if you don't ask them, although I know you will."

Alabama Player 1: "Why have we been practicing football in Southern California all week?"

Alabama Player 2: "Nobody has asked, so I have no clue."

Saban is all about football, which works in Alabama, where he was given a hero's welcome three years ago when he left the Miami Dolphins to join the Crimson Tide after spending three months lying about it.

The football stuff will also work Thursday on the field, which Saban will enter having won 67% of his games as a head coach at five places, with each place nearly doubling its win total the season he arrived.

A victory would make him the first coach of the BCS era to win two national championships with different teams, even if his 2003 title at Louisiana State was shared with USC.

When it comes to the college football field, the guy can coach. But when it comes to the college football culture, he just won't contribute.

Many of the things that make college football so great, on Saturday he called "clutter."

"There are other elements out there that can affect people's ability to perform," he said.

"I mean, every guy that gets national awards or makes All-American, is that the finish line or is that the starting point of what they can accomplish in the future?"

Mark Ingram: "What is my Heisman Trophy doing in the dumpster, coach?"

Saban: "Spring cleaning."

Saban's worries are understandable. There is so much pressure and tradition surrounding his favored Alabama team, the focus can easily be lost. Just ask Utah, which rolled this group in last year's Sugar Bowl.

The destination needs to be the goal. But what about the journey? Isn't the college experience supposed to be about the journey? What happened to celebrating the journey?

That's apparently not happening at Alabama, where, instead of encouraging his kids to enjoy the ride, Saban has spent the last month warning them to lock the doors and hide under the seats.

"All those things are factors in how we play a game," he said of the attention and accolades. "And that's what I call clutter, because when you're thinking about that, you're not thinking about what you need to do to prepare to play your best in the game."

He paused and lowered his voice.

"I know everybody thinks I'm crazy, but that's the way it is," he said.

Nick Saban is not crazy, and he'll probably fly home Friday morning as a BCS champion, but, goodness, would it hurt him to give back a little to the game that has given him so much? Would it hurt to sell this week, enrich this experience, have a little fun?

All of which makes you wonder about that infamous Alabama cheer.

One can imagine Nick Saban's Tide frowning and clenching and gripping. One cannot imagine it doing something as frivolous as Roll.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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