Mike Slive and Nick Saban: A Match Made in Playoff Heaven
Nick Saban is Mike Slive's most trusted coaching ally when it comes to advocating for the SEC's positions in the ongoing cold war over a college football playoff.
It hasn't gotten much attention thus far, but using Saban as the SEC's most cogent and eloquent advocate is a stroke of brilliance by Slive. Yesterday, as the media swarmed Saban, most questions dealt with the details surrounding the upcoming playoff.
Hardly any dealt with Alabama's upcoming 2012 season.
Instead, media wanted to know what Saban's take on a college football playoff was. And Saban was happy to oblige.
Saban's entree into the playoff debate began back in March when he shot down the idea of conference champions advancing to the four-team playoff. Back then Saban told OKTC: "I don't think there's a parity in college football like there is in the NFL, where you can make a statement like that. No disrespect to any conference, but there are conferences that are in the BCS that if they played in the SEC their champion may be in fourth or fifth place. So because there's not a parity, I don't think it's fair to make a statement like that."
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Roy Kramer and all commissioners of major conferences in the country. No disrespect to anyone. I disagree with that. If you're one of the two best teams you should be able to play in the game and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to get back in the game this year and I think we proved with our performance that we should have been in the game."
With those comments in March Saban stepped in to the national debate and said what Mike Slive couldn't, at least not publicly, that the SEC had better teams than the rest of the country and that the idea of selecting only conference champions was a backhanded shot at the SEC's rise to national dominance. Slive probably believes that another conference champion might be "in fourth or fifth place" in the SEC, but he couldn't say it, not without setting off a war among commissioners and dooming any hope of his position advancing.
But Nick Saban can say it.
Time and again as the playoff debate has unfurled, there has been Saban, advocating the SEC's position with zeal and aplomb, the most trusted of Slive's lieutenants. It's a testament to the working relationship between Slive, a brilliant media and political tactician, and Saban, a budding advocate who heretofore bristled when he was asking about any global issues in football.
Saban has come to recognize his responsibility to the sport at large, a three-time BCS champion coach whose opinion is valued by the fans, media, and other coaches.
Saban is, quite simply, the best at what he does and somewhere along the way, dare we say it, Saban became a statesman for the sport of college football.
Looking back now, Saban really stepped to the forefront for the first time at last year's SEC media days when Saban attacked agent runners as pimps. It was an opening assault for the address Slive gave shortly thereafter, an address that would change a bevy of NCAA rules.
In retrospect this was the first true sign of a powerful partnership at work, the college football playoff debate has proven how well that relationship has flourished.
Yesterday, Saban acknowledged his relationship with Slive, saying that he's often difficult to get along with, but that, "He (Slive) can be very diplomatic with me."
When pressed to discuss his new role as SEC advocate, Saban, as good politicians do, downplayed his motives or the significance of his voice in the college football landscape: "I don't think my voice has any more impact. I don't think anybody listens to me. I just spent three days at the lake over the weekend with my wife and I guarantee you she don't listen. I got two dogs and they don't listen to me either, i mean, I just talk to you guys and try to have fun."
Saban, talking to the media and trying to have fun?
Has the world spun off its axis?
Saban doesn't suffer fools lightly.
This is why, generally speaking, he doesn't like the media.
But Saban likes really smart people, and so does the commissioner.
Voila, a working relationship, the commissioner who must remain publicly above the fray and Nick Saban, attack dog extraordinaire.
Saban can get away with saying what Slive wishes he could say. And more people pay attention to Saban because he's the best coach in the nation's second most popular sport.
Need a larger model for the duo's partnership? Think Presidential politics, Saban has slid in to the role of a vice-presidential candidate amidst a campaign, while the president remains above the political fray, the vice president eviscerates his opponent's policies.
Saban tosses aside formalities and goes right for the jugular.
Don't believe me? This was Saban, pulling zero punches as he discussed why some would endorse the idea of a four-team playoff being anything other than the four best teams: "It's self-absorbed people who are worried about how it affects their circumstance or their league rather than what's best for college football who would want to do that. It's not what's best for the fans because they've made it very clear what they want it to be."
Can you imagine if Mike Slive cited "self-absorbed people" as the obstacle to the four best teams being in a playoff?
It would be seen as a direct attack on the Big Ten's Jim Delany and the Pac 12's Larry Scott.
But Nick Saban doing the same thing?
Well, it serves the same purpose but without Slive having to get his hands dirty.
Hell, Saban is even learning some diplomacy. When I asked him yesterday whether his position would be the same if he was coaching in a different conference, Saban went downright magnanimous.
Okay, as magnanimous as Saban can become.
"I don't think it (advocating for the top four teams) has anything to do with what league you're in, I think it's what all the fans want. It's what's best for college football...If they do it a different way, they'll mess it up. And if they mess it up, they'll fix it one day."
And Saban, the man who made process a life mantra in Alabama, isn't willing to mess things up in the first place.
Neither is Mike Slive.
Together the country's best commissioner and the country's best coach make one hell of a tandem.
Will it be enough to carry the day in a college football playoff?
But neither of these guys loses very often.