Speaking on The Jim Rome Show in late January, former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron—one of the most successful players in college football history—blamed the two-game losing streak that ended his career on the way past success had influenced his younger teammates.
"We had a lot of young guys," said McCarron. "In the end, success was our killer. Too much success and a lot of young guys coming in who didn’t know what it took to get back to that point to win. They thought we’d just show up and we'd win."
McCarron also told Rome that this is what happens "when you don't have everyone buy into the system," following himself up by saying, "Coach [Nick] Saban I would think would tell you the same thing."
Because Saban responded, candidly, to McCarron's now-infamous comments Thursday afternoon, and his sentiment was far from concurring. Saban's exact words, per Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com:
I think a senior player -- and I love AJ -- but I think a senior player has a responsibility as a leader on the team to understand that when younger players come into the program, they are not going to necessarily have all the right stuff or understand the right stuff to be a part of the team. There has to be a tolerance and a commitment on the older players to sort of embrace the younger players to try to get them to where they need to play, even if they don’t play. It should not be something that upsets an older player. It should not be an issue with an older player because I can take some of these same older players and tell you about them when they were freshmen and they needed older players to help them get where they needed to be and they had to learn lessons along the way to help them develop into what they became.
Earlier this offseason, Saban gave a cheerier assessment of McCarron's leadership skills.
Asked about McCarron's curious behavior in the run-up to the NFL draft—behavior that reportedly included "rubbing teams the wrong way" during one-on-one interviews—Saban said the following, per D.C. Reeves of TideSports.com:
It does surprise me. He was never that way to me. And I think if you ask a lot of teammates they would probably say the same. I think AJ is a very good person. And regardless of what he said to you and whatever way he sort of left you with an impression, if he could do something to help you, he would be the first one there to do it.
He is a good person and I think in the long run, he will have a chance, and an opportunity to prove he can be a good leader and a good quarterback in the National Football League.
What Saban said Thursday does not directly contradict what he said earlier this month. It's not like he threw his former player under the bus, trashing him as soon as he left the program and joined the NFL.
All he's done is side with the younger players on his roster—the ones who can still influence whether Alabama wins and loses.
Without explicitly condemning McCarron, he has defended his current players against his former player's finger-pointing and shifted some of the guilt onto the older players themselves. This rare sort of oratory gymnastics can only be done by an experienced college football coach or an expert politician—and Saban has always been both.
And in like manner, he has handled this situation smartly. Aschoff spoke of the sternness, the agitation in Saban's voice. The way that he seemed genuinely upset. This lets the current guys know that he will always have their back, no matter who attacks them.
Even if it's someone he loves.
This promise of loyalty is part of Saban's charm at Alabama. It is the reason he has attracted so much talent to the school—finishing atop 247Sports' recruiting rankings in each of the past four seasons—and why he should continue to do so in the future.
No one reads this story and sees a spiteful head coach lashing out against a former player. That isn't what happened. It was a conflicted head coach choosing his current guys—who did nothing wrong—over a former guy who lit and stoked a fire where none was needed.
And you wonder why those 5-star recruits want to play for him.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BleighDAT