Saban is AP Coach of Year

Published 6:57 pm Tuesday, December 23, 2008

TUSCALOOSA — Four straight losses were bad enough for Alabama, and one humbling defeat to Louisiana-Monroe was even worse.

Nick Saban could have lost his team right there. Instead, he might well have claimed it.

Coach, Team Votes

Nick Saban, Alabama 32

Mike Leach, Texas Tech 9

Kyle Whittingham, Utah 6

Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech 5

Joe Paterno, Penn State 3

Brady Hoke, Ball State 2

Mack Brown, Texas 1

Turner Gill, Buffalo 1

Bob Stoops, Oklahoma 1

Brian Kelly, Cincinnati 1

Chris Peterson, Boise State 1

“Coach came in and talked to us and was like, ‘We’ve got an opportunity to change things with this bowl game,'” Crimson Tide safety Rashad Johnson said.

The Tide won the Independence Bowl over Colorado to end last season. It then won the following 12 as well, spending much of the 2008 season ranked No. 1. That startling turnaround and Alabama’s return to national prominence brought Saban another honor Tuesday — Associated Press Coach of the Year. He also won the AP award with LSU in 2003.

This season, Saban led a team with only nine scholarship seniors to a 12-1 record and a Sugar Bowl date against Utah for only its second Bowl Championship Series berth.

In voting by college football writers, he drew 32 of a possible 62 votes. He outdistanced Texas Tech’s Mike Leach (nine), Utah’s Kyle Whittingham (six), Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson (five), Penn State’s Joe Paterno (three) and Ball State’s Brady Hoke (two). Five coaches got one vote apiece.

Saban led the Tide to a five-game turnaround after going 7-6 in his debut season after he was hired for a then-college football record $4 million a year. No other Alabama coach has engineered such a Year 2 turnaround.

The transformation happened faster than the most ardent fan could have anticipated.

Alabama was in the chase for a BCS national title shot until losing to Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game, an unexpected rise for a team that entered the season ranked No. 24. The Tide hadn’t topped a regular-season AP poll since Bear Bryant’s 1980 team.

Signs of Alabama’s turnaround were evident from the outset, with a 34-10 opening win over then-No. 9 Clemson.

“This has been a great team that really changed last year when we finished playing the bowl game,” Saban said. “Their attitude in the offseason, a lot of guys bought in. A lot of guys had a higher expectation for themselves and for each other. They worked hard. They played well together. The commitment, work ethic, perseverance that this team showed was one of the best I’ve ever been around.”

Along the way, Saban and the Tide dispatched a number of teams that drew far more preseason attention, from Clemson to Georgia to LSU and finally to Auburn. Alabama ended a six-year losing streak to state rival Auburn with a 36-0 romp in the regular-season finale.

The Tide found itself No. 1 in a regular-season poll for the first time in 28 years after racing to a 31-0 halftime lead at then-No. 3 Georgia and holding on for a 41-30 win.

“As we won games, we gained more confidence and that really helped us along the way,” Johnson said.

The change went beyond that, though. The Tide steered clear of off-the-field problems and suspensions that plagued Saban’s first season. Saban’s hire of Jim McElwain as offensive coordinator also proved a nice move.

He also pulled in the nation’s top-rated recruiting class, including such instant stars as All-America nose guard Terrence Cody, receiver Julio Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

Slipping into the Independence Bowl with a .500 record also gave Saban & Co. a second chance after four consecutive losses.

“It kind of gave us time to change things around,” senior quarterback John Parker Wilson said. “I think we changed the attitude of the team. It changed our personality. It was a long, tough offseason. I’m glad I don’t have to go through another one here.”

The players also took Saban’s words to heart.

“Everybody took on the mentality he was trying to get us to take on,” Johnson said. “We went out and played well and won. That built momentum going into the offseason and let us know that if we just buy into what coach is telling us, we’ve got an opportunity to have a great team. I think everybody did it.”