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There was a time when Tennessee tried to beat Alabama in football.
I remember those days.
Throughout my youth, year after year, Alabama beat Tennessee. It didn’t matter how bad the teams Bama trotted out wearing crimson jerseys were, the Tide won. That culminated in a 9-6 loss in 1990, a defeat so crushing that it represented the last time I ever cried over a sporting event.
Back in those days Tennessee fans hated Alabama with a white hot unbridled passion.
But those days are past.
Now Tennessee’s white hot hate has flipped, it’s in white-hot love with Nick Saban’s Alabama program.
After five straight losses to Saban, attempting to beat Alabama has become an afterthought. Now the Vol football program has gone all “Single White Female” on us. It wants Nick Saban so bad it grabs anybody with an association with Saban’s cursive “A” in a hope that somehow, someway, it can become him.
After Bama’s national title on Monday, anybody else picture coach Derek Dooley and athletic director Dave Hart falling back on to a settee and being fanned by low-level graduate assistants.
“I do de–clare,” said Dooley, hair unkempt for the first time in his life, cigarette dangling from his tremoring lower lip. “He is an attractive man.”
“Frankly, my dear, I do give a damn,” said Dave Hart, tie askew, belt unbuckled, eyes affixed to a crystal ball in Nick Saban’s hands.
Already, Derek Dooley is trying to become the first man to travel to China to have height reduction surgery, the better to look like Nick Saban on the sideline. His offseason coaching manual — “Running the Football for Dummies” — has been tossed to the side and instead he’s practicing his Saban sneer in the mirror.
And now Tennessee has done the predictable, it’s taken away another one of Nick Saban’s crew in an effort to replicate Saban’s magic in Knoxville.
First, Lane Kiffin snagged away Alabama linebackers coach Lance Thompson. Vol fans gushed: He’s Nick Saban’s ace recruiter!
That’ll really hurt Saban!
Except it didn’t, at all.
Then came Derek Dooley, the worst coaching hire in Tennessee Volunteer history.
The entire press conference announcing Dooley’s hire was basically an advertisement for how awesome Nick Saban was.
Dool-aid drinkers immediately got drunk on the possibilities — and two years some are still drunk.
He worked with Nick Saban seven years!
He’s a younger Saban!
He’s Saban with a Southern accent!
He’s Nick Saban crossed with Vince Dooley!
With these bloodlines, how could he fail? (You would have thought we were breeding a horse.)
Except despite the blood of Secretariat and the hair of Saban, Dooley’s 28-34 as a head coach. He had a losing record in the WAC and he’s got a losing record in the SEC.
But, but, Nick Saban…
So Mike Hamilton resigned as athletic director and what did Tennessee do?
It went down to Alabama and plucked out the number two man at Alabama, Dave Hart to be the new athletic director. What with the tens of millions Saban has rolling in the athletic department coffers, even Bernie Madoff would have looked good in that job.
Now Tennessee’s defensive coordinator leaves and what do the Vols do? Grab Alabama’s linebackers coach and promote him to defensive coordinator.
What do all four of these hires have in common? Nick Saban got all four of these men hired at Tennessee.
Every single one.
If Saban never goes to Alabama none of these men ever end up at Tennessee.
Look, I don’t blame Tennessee for being in love with Nick Saban — I’m in love with Nick Saban too. But I’m not in love with Nick Saban’s flunkies. Pay Nick Saban $10 million a year, or whatever it costs, and he’d win a national championship at Tennessee within four years. I have zero doubt about this. Neither do LSU or Alabama fans. Neither do any SEC fans.
That’s why I’ve consistently argued that Nick Saban is underpaid.
Nick Saban’s worth $20 million a year, he’s the best at what he does.
But Tennessee’s strategy isn’t to mortgage the entire state and hire Nick Saban, it’s to hire people who are great because of their affiliation with Saban. And you don’t beat the champ by hiring the champ’s training staff. You don’t write “The Sound and the Fury,” by stealing away William Faulkner’s typist.
Hiring someone in the penumbra of Nick Saban’s greatness flat out doesn’t work. Saban’s coaching tree has no branches.
Sadly, this is Tennessee’s entire strategy.
It’s the football version of going to China and buying a cheaper knockoff version of the premium brand. “Look at my new Gucci bag!” (Handle falls off).
It used to be Tennessee and Alabama were proud, distinct programs. Now Tennessee is so far behind the rivalry curve, you halfway expect for Dooley to come out in a houndstooth cap and serenade Neyland Stadium in a passionate dose of “Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer.”
If Tennessee fires Dooley at the end of this season — as it probably will do — do you know who it’s going to hire? Saban’s defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
Write that in blood, make the “A” in Smart, the cursive Alabama style.
And you know how much that will impact Saban?
Not one bit.
Saban’s going to keep right on winning.
Because he’s Nick F’ing Saban, the best coach of his generation.
Come next year or the year after, Saban will hoist another title high into the sky, meanwhile Saban’s JV squad will be toiling away in Knoxville, Music City Bowl here we come!
Roll, Vols, Roll.