Nick Saban turned the corner to the LSU practice field in his sports car in the early 2000s and came to a quick stop as he approached a sports writer. The writer’s column that morning detailed 12 reasons to abolish spring football.
“You just don’t want to have to come out here,” Saban said and sped off.
“That’s exactly accurate,” I said.
Nick Saban loves spring football and spring games. Alabama, fresh off a non-national championship season for just the seventh time under Saban since winning his first of six national titles with the Tide in 2009, will play its 15th A-Day spring game under Saban Saturday (3 p.m. eastern, ESPN+, SEC Network+), weather permitting. Thurnderstorms with wind and hail are expected throughout the day.
What Saban loves about spring football is the teaching aspect without the pressure of an incoming, real game. The former Kent State defensive back who was a secondary coach throughout most of his pre-head coaching days, can get down and dirty with technique and work with the backups who do not garner as much attention during the season.
“Depth of a route, a read of a quarterback, defensive players not having the right eye control,” Saban said Thursday night. “The real emphasis has been getting fundamentlly better execution and trying to show the players that if they do this that’s the best chance that we hae to have success.”
Wow! Appointment viewing at its very best, right?
Yes, spring football is important in building a complete team toward August practices and the season, but it is not cinematic. Even after Saban won his first national title in the 2003 season at LSU, only about 25,000 showed in Tiger Stadium for the spring game. Down there, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, crawfish boils, LSU baseball, and just sitting on the porch, then and now, still is more interesting to most than a glorified practice.
At Alabama, though, a capacity crowd of 92,138 showed at Bryant-Denny on April 21, 2007, for Saban’s first spring game with the Tide. This was a starving Bama Nation coming off three losing seasons and a 6-6 along with NCAA sanctions since 2000, and Saban left a two-year stint of 15-17 with the Miami Dolphins to be its savior after famously saying he would stay at Miami.
Fans actually had to be turned away that day.
“You know one of the things that I think really helped this program get off the ground is the first A-Day game that we had,” Saban said Thursday. “We had over 90,000 people. I think that sent a message to the whole nation about how committed we all were to having a first class program, a program that you could be proud of.”
Then Alabama lost, 21-14, to Louisiana-Monroe the next November and ended up in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, to wrap up a 7-6 season. But things did get better under Saban, even though he failed to change the date of this Easter weekend.
“For us to have a great crowd regardless of what the weather is Saturday will send a huge message about our passion and desire and support for our program,” he said. “I know it’s a holiday weekend. Sorry that the calendar worked out that way.”
Saban and his staff have much work to do. Gone from his team that lost the national title to Georgia are NFL Draft-bound players like wide receivers Jameson Williams and John Metchie III, tailback Brian Robinson Jr., offensive linemen Evan Neal and Chris Owens, defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis and linebacker Christian Harris, among others.
He still has outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr., a consensus All-American last year as a sophomore who won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy that goes to the nation’s top defender, and quarterback Bryce Young, who won the Heisman Trophy last season as a sophomore.
Saban will have his first team offense go against the second team defense and the first team defense oppose the second team offense for most of the game Saturday to avoid mismatches.
“I’ve done this 15 different ways,” he said. “This is more game like, which is really the ultimate goal of A-Day. This is an exhibition game. We’ll try not to show anything exotic. Simplifying helps players play fast and physical.”
And hopefully, it will go fast.
Other spring games Saturday and next Saturday:
Arkansas, Noon, SEC Network +, ESPN +
Mississippi State, Noon, SEC Network +, ESPN +
Georgia, 1 p.m., ESPN2
Vanderbilt, 2 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
Alabama, 3 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
South Carolina, 7 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
Ole Miss, 1 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
LSU, 2 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +