Saban not counting on ‘Bama repeat just yet

Published 9:41 pm Friday, January 8, 2010

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Nick Saban cracked a few jokes and even some smiles, deadpanning about the players’ poor execution of his celebratory Gatorade bath. And it didn’t take long for him to start looking ahead to the challenges Alabama faces.

This is what the Crimson Tide coach is like the morning after winning a national championship — a tad more relaxed but no less focused. Think you’ll be the favorite to repeat, coach?

“People who make those statements sort of just look at the periphery of well, ‘You’ve got Julio Jones, you’ve got Mark Ingram, you’ve got Trent Richardson, the quarterback’s coming back, so therefore everything’s going to turn up roses,'” Saban said Friday at a news conference. “But that’s not necessarily the case. You’ve got to build a team.”

He’s already rebuilt the program. The Tide wrapped up its latest national title with Thursday night’s 37-21 victory over Texas, further cementing Saban’s spot in ‘Bama lore after just three seasons. Literally.

Plans for a Saban statue are “already underway,” athletic director Mal Moore said. It’ll join the ones of Bear Bryant and the three other coaches to win national championships at Alabama.

It’s a historic monument for a coach who spends scant time worrying about history. Saban said he hadn’t thought about that until wife Terry brought it up Friday morning.

“In all honesty, I guess that when you’re driven and you put as much into what you do as we have not just for this year but for 30-something years, you would hope that something you do leaves a mark and the way you did it leaves a mark that is positive, that maybe could affect someone in a positive way in the future,” Saban said.

A big reason for his success is his ability to focus on the present and future. Even hours after celebrating Alabama’s seventh AP national title and the eighth of the poll era.

Saban took a call from President Obama on the ride back from the news conference. He even invited the president to play in the NBA — “Noontime Basketball Association” — of coaches and other staffers in the offseason if he’s ever around Tuscaloosa, Alabama spokesman Jeff Purinton said.

Plans for a celebration in Tuscaloosa are in the works.

Saban said he hung out with family and friends in his hotel suite after the game. “That’s celebration enough for me,” he said.

If he didn’t look thrilled about the Gatorade shower he received as the clock wound down Thursday night at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, it’s because he was whacked on the head by the bucket.

“I don’t know if you noticed but our defensive players did a pretty good job of hitting, but they’re not supposed to hit you in the head with the bucket,” Saban said, smiling. “The intensity of the dunk was the problem.”

Even with all the fun, Saban knows there will always be issues and challenges to deal with. A 14-0 season, Southeastern Conference and national championships just create a few new ones.

He points to the massive loss of defensive talent. That formidable unit will lose at least six starters, including All-Americans Terrence Cody and Javier Arenas. Plus, Butkus Award-winning linebacker Rolando McClain and cornerback Kareem Jackson both could jump to the NFL as juniors.

Plus both defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim McElwain could be targeted by schools looking for head coaches.

“Every success brings a new set of problems,” Saban said. “Being able to manage that is what allows you to be successful with more consistency.”

The Tide has gone 26-2 the past two seasons with dominating defenses and running games.

The running game should strong as ever with the return of Heisman Trophy winner Ingram and Richardson. The duo combined for 2,409 yards and 25 touchdowns.

“It’s going to be nothing but headaches for defenses the next year or two,” Ingram said.

The biggest offensive losses are All-American left guard Mike Johnson and tight end Colin Peek.

Also gone are All-American kicker Leigh Tiffin and punter P.J. Fitzgerald, along with Arenas, who finished 10 yards shy of an NCAA career record for punt returns.

The defense has talented underclassmen such as linebackers Nico Johnson and Tana Patrick and defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick to fill the holes and recruiting is going great for Alabama again.

“We’re going to have a lot of new things,” Saban said.

Moore, a former Bryant player and assistant, said the 2009 group belongs in the conversation of top Tide teams. He has been part of 14 SEC champions and all seven AP titles dating back to 1961.

“It is difficult to compare them but to win 14 games, to win the SEC championship, then the national championship, that takes a lot,” Moore said. “This team has to be one of the best, there’s no question.”

Just a year after the talk was of a dynasty emerging at Florida, now the Tide looking like the team to beat in the SEC.

“That was our main goal was to beat Florida for the SEC championship,” Ingram said. “I don’t know if we surpassed them but we beat them and we won the national championship, so right now we’re on top.”

He said the turning point for the team was the 2008 season-ending losses to Florida in the SEC title game and Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

“We weren’t committed all the way,” Ingram said. “We were taking teams for granted and we didn’t have the will not to be denied. We kind of took all his philosophies, and this is where we are now.”