Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – It’s becoming a familiar January scene for Nick Saban.
The Alabama coach plastered a smile on his face for a series of posed photos next to the various trophies awarded to college football’s national champions, then proceeded to talk about the challenges facing his team.
Maybe Saban let the Gatorade dry from the celebratory drenching before thinking about the 2013 season. Maybe.
“The team next year is 0-0,” Saban, who is on a 61-7 run over the past five seasons, said Tuesday morning. “Even though I really appreciate what this team accomplished and am very, very proud of what they accomplished, we need to prepare for the challenges of the new season very quickly with the team we have coming back. “
It didn’t take Saban long to refocus after Monday night’s 42-14 demolition of Notre Dame that secured a second consecutive BCS title, the Crimson Tide’s third in four seasons and the seventh in a row for Southeastern Conference teams.
Shortly after the game, he already was talking about getting back to the office by Wednesday morning.
Alabama players, meanwhile, finally were able to voice the “D-word.” Center Barrett Jones said he had a Sports Illustrated cover from a couple of years ago after his last college game.
“It says, ‘Dynasty. Can anybody stop Alabama?’ I’ll never forget looking at that thing and wondering if we really could be a dynasty,” said Jones, who mainly put it on the wall because he’s featured. “I think three out of four – I’m no dynasty expert – but that seems like a dynasty to me. I guess I can say that now that I’m gone. Don’t tell coach I said that.”
The 2013 team will almost certainly be regarded among the preseason favorites to get back to the summit, even though three Tide stars – tailback Eddie Lacy, cornerback Dee Milliner and right tackle D.J. Fluker – could decide to skip their senior seasons and turn pro.
Saban also emphatically tried to end speculation that he might return to the NFL, where he spent two years with the Miami Dolphins before returning to the SEC.
It was a question that really made him bristle during the 30-plus minute news conference.
“How many times do you think I’ve been asked to put it to rest?” Saban said. “And I’ve put it to rest, and you continue to ask it. So I’m going to say it today, that – you know, I think somewhere along the line you’ve got to choose. You learn a lot from the experiences of what you’ve done in the past. I came to the Miami Dolphins, what, eight years ago for the best owner, the best person that I’ve ever had the opportunity to work for. And in the two years that I was here, I had a very, very difficult time thinking that I could impact the organization in the way that I wanted to or the way that I was able to in college, and it was very difficult for me.”
He said that experience taught him that the college ranks “is where I belong, and I’m really happy and at peace with all that.”
As for the players, All-America linebacker C.J. Mosley has already said he’ll return. So has quarterback AJ McCarron, who had his second consecutive star turn in a BCS title game.
“We certainly have to build the team around him,” Saban said, adding that a late-game spat with Jones showed the quarterback’s competitive fire. “I’ve talked a lot about it’s difficult to play quarterback when you don’t have good players around you. I think we should have, God willing and everybody staying healthy, a pretty good receiver corps. We’ll have to do some rebuilding in the offensive line. Regardless of what Eddie decides to do, we’ll probably still have some pretty decent runners. But I think AJ can be a really good player, maybe the best quarterback in the country next year.”
The biggest question mark is replacing three, maybe four, starters on an offensive line that paved the way.
Amari Cooper, who broke several of Julio Jones’ Alabama freshman receiving marks, and fellow freshman running back T.J. Yeldon give McCarron and the Tide a couple of potent weapons, even if Lacy doesn’t return.
“I am going to try to win three or four,” said Cooper, who had 105 yards and two touchdowns in the title game. “This season was good, but I expected it to be even more. There is so much more that I can do.”
Saban emphasized the difficulty of repeating and said he showed the players a video of NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan saying that the first title isn’t the hardest – it’s the ones after that.
That’s because, Saban said, “You have to have the will to fight against yourself.”
Now, the ‘Bama coach has four titles, including one during his stop at LSU. Saban doesn’t wear the championship rings but uses them for a different purpose.
“I just put them on the coffee table for the recruits to look at,” he said, cracking up the room.
Saban already has lined up another highly rated recruiting class and has the next wave of young talents waiting in the wings.
After all, he talked about the sign mentor Bill Belichick hung in the football building during their NFL days together: “Do your job.”
Saban jokingly acknowledged that while he prepares for everything, the one thing he never has been able to anticipate is the Gatorade bath. He drew heat for a scowl after the first one, following the title game win over Texas when he got dinged in the head. Monday night’s dousing went better.
“It’s cold, it’s sticky, but I appreciated not getting hit in the head with the bucket,” Saban said. “That was an improvement.”
No program has had this kind of championship run since Tom Osborne’s Nebraska teams won it all in 1994, 1995 and 1997.
Saban remembers that second team well. The Cornuskers stomped Michigan State 50-10 in Saban’s first game as head coach.
“I’m thinking, we’re never going to win a game,” Saban said. “We’ll never win a game here at Michigan State. I must have taken a bad job, wrong job, no players, something. I remember Coach Osborne when we shook hands after the game, he put his arm around me and whispered in my ear, ‘You’re not really as bad as you think.’”
So take heart, college football.