By Tony Meale

It’s been slow, it’s been gradual, but Nick Saban – the man who once ruled college football with an iron fist – has softened. He’s become, in a little less than a year, the whiniest, most insecure coach in America.

Too much?

Well, given what has transpired, what else are we to think?

It all started last November, when Auburn stunned Alabama, 34-28, in the SEC Championship. Ever since Chris Davis’ 109-yard Return Heard Round the World – which denied the Tide a shot at four national titles in five years – Saban has bitched and moaned about this, that and the other, and has lashed out at anyone with a tape recorder, trying in vain to defend dubious decisions and conceal his program’s deficiencies from the game’s glare.

Remember this past January, when Alabama lost to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl? That 45-31 final was not indicative of just how badly Bama was beaten that night. But in July, Saban – rather than owning up to the loss – dismissed it, saying it was nothing more than “a consolation game.”

Really? A consolation game? Against Bob Stoops, the guy who had publicly questioned the SEC’s dominance over the last decade? This was a prime opportunity to silence Stoops, show that what happened against Auburn was a fluke and set the tone for a championship season in 2014.

Instead, Saban was out-talked, out-walked and didn’t have the guts – or the class – to admit it.

That theme continued throughout the offseason, when Saban became a leading advocate for the proposed 10-second rule, which was designed, in essence, to stymy offenses. Slowing down the game, Saban argued, would enhance player safety.

Right. And it would also allow Saban to substitute against up-tempo offenses, which is something he probably wanted to do last season when his defense gave up 128 points to Texas A&M, Auburn and Oklahoma.

Really? Rule changes? Newsflash, Nick. You have the best talent every year. You don’t need gimmicky legislation to help you win games. You just need to adjust and adapt and coach your players up a little better – and if you can’t, you need to find coaches who can.

Speaking of coaches, Lane Kiffin. What exactly was the rationale behind that? Let’s just say for the sake of argument that Kiffin is an offensive genius. He’s not, but let’s just say that he is. First of all, how does Kiffin’s offensive philosophy align with Saban’s in any way? Answer: It doesn’t. Second of all, when has Kiffin ever left a program or organization on a positive note? Answer: He hasn’t.

Kiffin has coached for four different teams since 2008 and has left every stop in disgrace, with a losing record, or both. Here’s the book on Kiffin: his daddy was important, he’s accomplished little to nothing on his own merit, and yet, he still gets opportunities most people would kill for.

He’s basically the Kim Kardashian of college football.

Nevertheless, Saban took to a podium last month to defend the hire, despite a four-turnover performance in a 42-21 win against Florida days earlier. Saban lashed out at media, saying he was “beat up like a drum” for bringing Kiffin on staff and insisted things were going well.

Two questions. One, since when does a coach with Saban’s resume need to defend himself? Yeah, the hire didn’t make much sense, but Saban has earned the right to rule as he sees fit. And two, did anyone else find it ironic that after Saban got defensive and praised Kiffin, Alabama’s offense scored just one touchdown in a loss to Ole Miss in the very next game? It then mustered just two touchdowns in Saturday’s 14-13 win over Arkansas, one of which capped a drive that started on the Razorbacks’ 23-yard line.

Days after the win, yup, you guessed it: another podium, another rant. Saban called out fans who were upset and disappointed that Alabama only won by a point.

Really? Has it come to this? There was a time, not long ago, when Saban would pop a vein about a garbage-time turnover with Bama up four scores. And now he’s trying to defend a one-point escape over an unranked team that has gone winless in the SEC?

It doesn’t make sense – and neither does Saban’s logic. In dismissing the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, Saban more or less said: We’re Alabama, and unless we’re playing for the national title, we don’t care. Well, you can’t have it both ways, Nick. If all that matters is winning national titles, then you can’t fault fans for feeling uneasy after a loss one week and a win by the slimmest of margins the next.

Those expectations exist because Saban, to his credit, has given Tuscaloosa a reign of excellence unseen in modern college football. But why is a guy who’s 79-16 in eight seasons so touchy? Is it because he’s 5-3 in his last eight games, including 0-3 against ranked teams? Is it because those losses came against his biggest rival (Auburn), his biggest detractor (Stoops) and a divisional foe on the rise (Ole Miss)?

Maybe.

But this new look doesn’t fit Saban. Sure, he doesn’t like criticism. No one does. But you’d think a guy with four national titles would be able to handle it with a little more grace.

Some will say Saban’s pride is getting the best of him. Some will say it’s ego. But that’s too easy. With his accomplishments, Saban can let his proverbial play – or in this case, coaching – do the talking.

No, with Saban, it runs deeper than that. Right now, it’s not just a lack of confidence. It’s even worse: it’s insecurity.

The man dismisses embarrassing losses and rationalizes close wins. He lobbies for rule changes that benefit his agenda. He suddenly can’t handle the second-guessing.

Saban was surly even when things were going his way. Now that they’re not, he snarls like a caged grizzly, the most benign question or innocuous insinuation setting him off.

To be sure, if you ask the average college football fan who the best coach in America is, you’ll probably hear Saban. If you ask which program is the best, you’ll probably hear Alabama. That’s fair. Both of those entities will remain a force as long as the marriage exists.

But times are changing in Tuscaloosa. The curtain has been pulled back. There’s a certain fragility to Saban that didn’t exist a season or two ago. The respect for him is still there, but the mystique is gone.

We just never thought Saban would be the one to remove it.

***

Tony Meale is the author of The Chosen Ones: The Team That Beat LeBron. He lives in Chicago and won’t be mad if you follow him on Twitter @TonyMeale.

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