Saban gone soft?

Published 5:30 pm Thursday, July 24, 2008

Nick Saban opened his session Thursday at the Southeastern Conference’s media days by expressing his hope that the media members in attendance had an “outstanding summer.”

Saban closed by taking a couple of extra minutes to tell the same people – ones he’s snapped at, ranted about, cut off and belittled in the past – how much he appreciates their work. In between, a question about Saban’s teams’ mediocrity the past couple seasons drew a smile and no harsh words.

Indeed, Saban seemed friendly and comfortable in his second media days as the Alabama coach. Maybe it was because Saban has grown familiar with his position, or maybe it was the lack of questions about his exit from the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.

Though Saban never became visibly agitated, there were some close calls.

Asked if any of the off-the-field situations Alabama has gone through changed the way he views or disciplines his players, Saban said, “No, not at all.

“Unfortunately for you all, we have about 25 or 30 guys that are doing extremely well in the program, have improved dramatically as students, have made a lot of personal choices that have enhanced their chances of being successful in the future, have improved as football players.”

After the third consecutive question that included the word “expect” or “expectations,” Saban said, “You guys use that word ‘expectations a lot, and I try to minimize it a lot because I think it’s dangerous because we’re trying to focus on what we can do to make our team the best it can be.”

But those instances were the exception. Whatever the cause of his new laid-back demeanor, Saban’s players have noticed, too.

“I definitely think guys know what Coach Saban wants, more this year than last,” Crimson Tide safety Rashad Johnson said. “There’s more of a comfort level there that wasn’t there last year.”

Maybe Saban simply likes his team a little more this year.

“We had a good off-season. We had a good spring. We’ve had a great summer. And I think the team chemistry is certainly something that has improved, and I think that’s because players understand what they’re supposed to do, how they’re supposed to do it, why it’s important to do it that way, which makes them have a greater trust and respect for each other and a confidence in what they’re doing.”

The influx of talent courtesy of the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruiting class would certainly brighten any coach’s mood. The veteran Alabama players at media days said they have been impressed with the incoming freshmen.

“I think the young guys we have coming in had a good grasp about things,” center Antoine Caldwell said. “I don’t know what ‘it’ is, but they have ‘it.’”

Though the freshmen are certainly the future of the Crimson Tide program, Saban said they would also have a significant impact on this year’s team.

“Our improvement is going to depend on how our young players progress because we lack depth at several positions,” Saban said. “And we really won’t know that until we get out there and play the games.”