Out of Control? Nick Saban and Discipline at Alabama

Mike DockeryCorrespondent IOctober 28, 2008

It’s become something of a cliché in college football journalism: “Look at how the players are running wild at State U! Obviously the coach has lost control of the program!”

You don’t have to look far to find examples. Here on the Bleacher Report, this past week has seen the charge leveled at LSU’s Les Miles and Alabama’s Nick Saban. It wasn’t long ago that the charge was at least implied against Auburn’s Tommy Tuberville, by the writer of this very article.

While such criticism may at times be warranted, the problem is that often the media ignores the deeper story in chasing the cheap headlines.

Some have derided Saban for Alabama’s off-the-field problems last summer. No question, there were issues in Tuscaloosa: Alabama had 10 players arrested during the off-season, the most notable being senior linebacker Jimmie Johns’ arrest for selling cocaine.

It’s easy to wag a journalistic finger at Saban for “not imposing discipline” or for being “too soft on the players.” In reality, however, Saban largely inherited the discipline problems from the previous coaching staff.

A college football team, like any other group of young men, develops its character as much from within as from without. Senior leadership is as important in defining a team as the efforts of the coaching staff, and this is especially true for a program like Alabama, which has seen a series of sort-lived coaches come and go.

As a result, Saban didn’t just inherit players, he inherited a culture. Changing a culture takes time.

Some have accused Saban of putting on-the-field performance ahead of off-the-field discipline. Saban, the naysayers say, should have cleaned house the moment he walked in the door, immediately cutting players who were known to have off-the-field issues.

Again, the critics have missed the point. It’s well known that Saban’s biggest reason for wanting to return to college football was the chance the college game gives coaches to teach and mold their players.

It’s hard to teach a kid once you’ve kicked him off the team.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life in today’s society that in any group of 75 young men, there are going to be those with a less-than-perfect background. To kick those kids to the curb without first providing the opportunity and the support to turn their problems around would go against everything that college football is supposed to be about.

It’s easy to jeer at the mistakes made by some of Saban’s players, but it does nothing but cheapen the game when fans allow on-the-field rivalries to spill over into a sadistic glee at some 22-year-old kid’s personal tragedy. As sick and distasteful as most fans would find someone who cheers when an opposing player goes down in an injury, some fans never give a second thought to finding equally twisted delight in the off-the-field struggles of their rivals.

The fact that players create their problems with their own mistaken choices should make the end result no less tragic. Luckily, for every kid that implodes in the national spotlight, there may be ten others who have quietly overcome their personal struggles and are, with the support of their coaches, now trying to do the right thing.

The problem is that people outside the program, by design, don’t see the success stories. Airing a kid’s personal issues in the media helps no one, and so coaches understandably protect players who are going through off-the-field problems from as much media attention as possible.

For the kids who overcome their personal struggles, their stories never leave the confines of the program. Unfortunately, it’s the kids who are given chances and blow it that end up in the headlines.

Ultimately, coaches should be judged on their results. By all accounts, Saban has turned around the culture at Alabama in far less time than anyone on the inside expected. Rather than continually dredging up his player's past failings, the media would do well to recognize the change in attitude and character that Saban has produced in the present.

It's perfectly natural for fans to experience a bit of schadenfreude at the expense of our rivals. But all of us should remember that part of what makes college football unique is that kids' lives can be changed for the better through participation in the sport. Anytime a player succumbs to his personal demons, it takes a little bit of that away from all of us.