Hot Reads: Which 1990s Powerhouse Would Saban Leave Alabama For?
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Hot Reads: Chipping Away at Saban’s 5-Star Fiefdom

May 23, 2017

Say this for Nick Saban, he has pretty strong feelings about how college football should work. The Alabama head coach isn’t shy about sharing those feelings, either.

Saban has railed against satellite camps. He famously asked “Is this what we want football to be?” when talking about uptempo, no-huddle offenses. The latest issue in the crosshairs? The new December signing period.

Saban had this to say about it in an interview with Dennis Dodd of

“I’m at a loss with the direction that we’re moving in relative to the rules that we’re making. I hate to speak in a negative way about colleagues or people that are responsible for passing some of this stuff.

“I don’t see how it helps anything or anybody. Football is a developmental game. To keep trying to push a recruiting calendar, it’s for the benefit of teams in the North because they want guys to visit in the summertime and all that …

“If character and intelligence and things we’re responsible for … how do we evaluate that stuff if we’re offering guys when they’re sophomores, so they can visit in their junior year, so they can decide before their senior year?”

Saban goes on to make a slippery-slope argument about college players sitting out bowl games and how that could trickle down to the high school level, but I sort of stopped after “it’s for the benefit of teams in the North.”

One, I always love college football’s turf war so to see it stated this plainly will always get a smile out of me. Two, it sort of subverts everything else Saban is saying. Is this about “development” and “character,” or is it about protecting the 5-star fiefdom Saban lords over from Tuscaloosa?

It can be both, of course, but, given the history of this sport, it’s usually a safe bet to shade towards the competitive-advantage side when considering motivation. I mean, there’s a reason one of the “teams in the North” leading the charge here is Nebraska. Mike Riley and AD Shawn Eichorst have been crusaders for an early signing period and they’re not stopping at December.

In fact, Riley only seems frustrated by the half-measure of a winter signing period. Here he is on signing day last February talking about what was then just a proposal:

“I think the earlier visits are great. If you ever talk about an earlier signing day, you better have the same conversation about earlier visits. I will say, I wish they would have gone ahead and done it, July 1. If that indeed becomes the situation where you can visit April, May, June, and can’t sign until mid-December, do you want that visit then or do we want that visit at a game? If we could have that visit and then sign guys July 1, let’s do it. But if we have to wait until December, and we don’t get to bring a guy in for one of our games. What we have found is that the game is a great experience for these guys. Half of our early commitments had been to the Spring Game. About half of our signees have been on our campus before July 1. It will be great to be able to pay for that visit. I think that’s right for these families. I think we chickened out at the end. Make that early signing day, and then we’ve got something to talk about. Now we have some decisions to make on the visits. There is some strategy involved that I’m not sure about.”

Translation: A July signing period would be easier to handle from a strategy standpoint. Left unsaid: It probably helps level the playing field for schools that aren’t located on the most fertile of recruiting grounds.

A common explanation for the South’s obsession with college football is that the game essentially became a way to refight the Civil War though intersectional Saturday battles.

“Below Mr. Mason and Mr. Dixon’s lordly line, white people clung to college football like a security blanket crafted from Robert E. Lee’s frock coat,” Diane Roberts, a Florida State professor, wrote in her excellent book, Tribal. “Maybe we were poor</i>; maybe we were country</i>; maybe we have no Harvard or Yale</i>; maybe we lost the War. But we were good at football.”

It’s a bold and interesting argument, but one that’s hard to refute when you see the same battle lines so clearly drawn again and again. Saban, a West Virginian who played his college ball in Ohio but won his national titles in the Deep South, and Riley, an Oregonian who went South for school but now leads one of those “teams in the North”, both know which sides they’re fighting for and it’s fair to ask if their positions would change were the roles reversed.

It might also be fair to assume the answer there is “yes.”

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