Marshall: Saban a Good Coach, But...

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Southeastern Conference football scene and the Auburn Tigers.

I have covered, by my count, six full-blown football coaching searches at Auburn and Alabama in my 37-plus years in this business.

Those searches resulted in Auburn hiring Pat Dye, Terry Bowden and Tommy Tuberville and in Alabama hiring Ray Perkins, Bill Curry and Gene Stallings. There was no search when Auburn hired Doug Barfield. It was announced on the same day that Shug Jordan said he was retiring that Barfield would be his replacement.

I have not, of course, been covering Alabama in its recent string of ill-fated searches for coaches who, for one reason or another, were short-timers.

In many ways, covering those searches is fun. It is fun to try to dig out information and details while other reporters are trying to do the same thing. It's very real competition, though friendly in most cases.

But I'll have to say I've never seen anything quite like the past week. The hoopla that surrounded Nick Saban's arrival at the University of Alabama was unprecedented, even in this football-obsessed state.

There were, of course, moments of absurdity, like when the apparently intoxicated young lady who rushed to kiss Saban on the cheek moments before she was arrested and charged with DUI.

But the almost instant unity within the program created by the hiring of Saban can only be viewed as a good thing, a very good thing, for Alabama football. Saban was the kind of coach for whom Alabama supporters had been longing and they got him.

Nick Saban

Contributions will rise. Tickets will be a hot commodity even to games against cupcakes. Support for the program, always strong, will increase in every way.

Those things probably make the $32 million contract Saban got a good investment, though a lot of people in college athletics are aghast that a football coach would be paid so much and properly worry about the long-term impact on the sport in general.

But there is the other side. Saban will probably find himself having to calm expectations that are already getting out of control.

One talk show host Friday morning was talking about how well Alabama's schedule sets up for a run at a national championship--next season. Even ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said Alabama fans should get ready to go to a BCS bowl next season, a massive stretch in my opinion.

Saban has been successful at every college stop, but it's not like he's put great teams on the field every season. He's won 10 games or more just twice in 11 seasons. He's lost fewer than three games just twice.

Saban is a good coach, a very good one, but he's no miracle-worker. The only thing he's done that Auburn's Tommy Tuberville hasn't done is win a national championship. And even that fact has an asterisk beside it.

Tuberville took Auburn to a 13-0 record in 2004. From a coaching standpoint, that's the best you can do. That Auburn didn't get a chance to play for the big prize had nothing, not one thing, to do with coaching. That LSU in 2003 (or Florida this season) got to play for the championship with one loss had nothing to do with coaching, either. If there'd been two unbeaten BCS conference teams in those seasons, neither would have had the chance.

But don't be deceived. Saban's arrival has increased the pressure, not so much on Tuberville but on the Auburn program as a whole.

Alabama spent more than $100 million making its facilities as good as anyone's better than most. There is unity like there hasn't been since at least the days of Gene Stallings. Saban's track record says he will recruit well.

Alabama football, as I've said here repeatedly, will catch up. It would have caught up with or without Saban.

The challenge for Auburn now is to match that singleness of purpose, for supporters to be as unified behind the program as Alabama supporters are, for the administration to continue to do what it takes to make sure Auburn football can look any program in the nation in the eye in terms of commitment and facilities.

The price of poker in this state just went up. There's no question about that.

Moving on...

Barring a last-minute change of heart--and you never know in this business--LSU offensive coordinator and former Auburn quarterbacks coach Jimbo Fisher will soon be named the offensive coordinator at Florida State.

He will walk away from an Alabama offer that would have made him, by far, the highest paid assistant coach in the history of college football. At Florida State, he'll be paid essentially what he was paid at LSU--around $400,000 per season.

Fisher and Florida State were hammering out final details of the contract Friday. An announcement could come as early as today.

Why would Fisher turn his back on such an offer from Alabama? I talked extensively Friday with a close friend and confidante of his, one who has talked with him regularly since Fisher decided this season would be his last at LSU.

Jimbo Fisher

*Fisher is still angry that the Alabama Board of Trustees pulled the plug on negotiations for him to become the head coach at UAB. Hard as some might find it to believe, Fisher wanted the job. A deal was all but done before Alabama trustees said the $600,000 salary was too high, even though half of it would have been paid through private donations.

*Fisher's driving ambition is to be a head coach, and he believes Florida State presents the best opportunity. He believes he can make a splash quicker at Florida State, where the offense has floundered badly in recent seasons.

*There are two schools at the top of the top of Fisher's list of dream head coaching jobs. They are Auburn and LSU. He believes if he went to Alabama he would eliminate the possibility of ever returning to Auburn. Fisher's wife, Candi, earned an Auburn degree while he was the quarterbacks coach from 1993-98.

*Fisher believes it will be beneficial to his head coaching aspirations to expose himself to another conference other than the SEC, potentially opening more doors...

Will Muschamp

Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who worked for Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins, could have joined the Alabama staff as defensive coordinator.

Instead, Muschamp quickly said "no thanks" when the call came inquiring about his interest.

Until next time...

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