September 1, 2007

Saban Era dawns

If you've been paying attention to Alabama football since January, you've heard the Blind Spot story more than once. Nick Saban, like any major college football coach, has a few icebreakers he likes to deliver on the off-season speaking circuit.

To everyone listening.

And by the time Saban waded through all the booster club meetings, speaking engagements and media gatherings, the Blind Spot story was in Seinfeld-like syndication.
To recap for the six fans who missed it: Wife Terry Saban has told the taskmaster coach that how people are perceived by others and how they think they are perceived is a blind spot, and the punchline is that "She says mine is as big as the Grand Canyon."

Pretty big, coach. But it's only the second-biggest blind spot in this state.

The Alabama Nation is working on a blind spot of its own - a blind spot in its football tradition. It spans the past 10 years, and makes the Grand Canyon look like a shallow ditch.

And from the first guy to park in R.V. City to the guy who squeezes into the far-corner seat on the top row of Bryant-Denny's upper deck, closing this blind spot is long overdue. From the wealthiest guy on skybox row to the guy who's just trying to pull in CBS on Saturday afternoons with a rabbit-ears antenna, it's time to see clearly once again.

For his part, Saban faces Alabama's history lesson without flinching. Asked last week about the hero-status perch fans have placed him on before even coaching a game, he went back to one of his favorites.

"It is what it is," Saban said.

The stretch of years Alabama fans are anxious to put behind them started almost immediately after Gene Stallings closed his UA coaching tenure with a 17-14 win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl on New Years Day, 1997. Since then, the program has endured five coaching changes, four losing seasons, two stretches of NCAA probation, a couple of scandalous embarrassments for failed coaches DuBose and Price, and seven losses to Auburn.

With a decade like that in the rear-view mirror, it's no wonder Alabama fans for the first time seem more focused on the future than the past.

A Southeastern Conference championship in 1999 is just about the only point of pride Alabama fans can finger in the last decade. Ten-win seasons in 2002 and 2005 offered a brief respite - bright spots within the blind spot - but the failure of both to pave a path to the SEC title game made those seasons more forgettable than folklore.

Mike Shula's upset loss to Mississippi State and a fifth consecutive loss to the archrival Tigers last year set the stage for renewal. Saban was hired in January with a bank-breaker of a contract at about $4 million per season, and every nickel of it was paid to ensure that the next 10 years in Alabama football history don't start like the last 10.

"I've been waiting eight months for this game," senior Keith Saunders said of Western Carolina.

As the Catamounts come to Tuscaloosa to serve as a season-opening turkey, a national championship coach and one of the proudest fan bases in college football will conspire to close their respective blind spots together.

A trouncing over a I-AA team tonight isn't going to do much for either. The Catamounts role here is little more than a one-week honeymoon extension, but Bryant-Denny Stadium will be packed just the same. And as his reputation dictates, Saban will coach this one for 60 minutes with the same intensity as any game on the schedule.

"Every game is big," return specialist Javier Arenas said earlier this week.

And if it helps people forget the Auburn thumbs that wagged the last time UA played at home, any game will do.

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