In Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, which is about a time traveler who tries to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, the protagonist transfers through a time portal at a diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and transfers from 2011 to 1958.
Alabama football coach Nick Saban apparently has one of those, too. It must be somewhere in his office. Because players who have seen little action for years under Saban are somehow staying as if there is a time travel portal back to 2017 – before the NCAA Transfer Portal (BNTP), which has been a horror movie of King proportions for coaches trying to manage a roster.
Word is, if any single thing transfers Saban, who turns 71 on Halloween, to early retirement before he’s 80, it will be the transfer portal. Or NIL (Name, Image and Likeness), which is another cautionary tale of good intentions that could go awry and also bring the end of the world as we know it.
“When it comes to the transfer portal, I think players should have the freedom of choice,” Saban said during the Senior Bowl Summit gathering with fans in Mobile, Alabama on Feb. 1. “But, look, I’ve gone through three generations of people. My parents taught us the values of hard work, never quit, have perseverance, be the best you can be at whatever it is. And now, we have a situation where we don’t want anybody to fail, so we create an avenue for another opportunity to do something else if things get difficult.”
And even if things are just starting to get difficult – for like a week or so — considering the multitudes of true freshmen entering the portal because they’re suddenly not the star they once were at Riverdale High.
“No one really can be successful in life if they can’t overcome adversity,” Saban said.
What if Saban had tried to transfer out of Kent State when he didn’t play much early in 1970? He may not have learned as much about coaching from Kent State head coach Don James, and Saban’s father may have transferred him to his gas station permanently in Fairmont, West Virginia.
“You’re always going to have adversity in life, so you almost have to fail to succeed in a lot of ways,” Saban said as applause broke out at Mobile’s Saenger Theatre. “It’s great that the players have the freedom to do what they can do, but I also think we shouldn’t create circumstances where they don’t have to make commitments and then see things through.”
Or at least just see things through to their sophomore year.
The graduate transfer portal, which began in 2006, is great because the transfers are older, smarter, less spoiled, less emotional, and they have exhausted all their possibilities at one school. Case in point – Joe Burrow. After three years at Ohio State, it was clear he was not going to start or play much at quarterback.
Dwayne Haskins, who was just killed in an awful accident over the weekend, beat Burrow out at spring practice in 2018. Burrow graduated from Ohio State in May of 2018, transferred to LSU for two seasons, and the rest is Heisman and national championship history. No transfers until two years at your first school would be a good compromise.
But the any-time transfer portal is too often the brat or helicopter-parents transfer portal. Conceivably, kids could enter the portal at halftime if they just didn’t play enough or if the coach cussed at them.
“We have a lot of players who get disappointed in their circumstance because they’re not playing more,” Saban said. “Then they don’t practice well and don’t develop. Those are the guys who want to cut and run. And when we give them an opportunity to play in the game, they don’t play well. We had some guys in the national championship game who were upset all season long because they were young and didn’t get to play as much. We got guys injured, and they had to play. And not one of them could take advantage of the opportunity.”
But somehow, Saban convinced two such little-used players in recent years to enter his time travel portal — tailback Brian Robinson Jr. and, most recently, linebacker Jaylen Moody.
In 2017, Robinson was a backup, but went back in time and stayed. In 2018, he played a bit more, but he was still a backup and chose the travel portal over the transfer portal again. He did so again after backing up other backs in 2019 and ’20. Finally, in 2021 he got at Alabama what he maybe would have gotten at another school earlier.
Keyword: maybe. Robinson led the Tide in rushing in 2021 with 271 carries for 1,343 yards and 14 touchdowns as the Tide reached the national championship game. He is projected to be a second or third round pick in the NFL Draft, which begins on April 28.
“One thing that would be interesting is if we could figure out one year, three years, five years, 10 years down the road, if these guys really benefit from going some place else,” Saban said. “Or would they have been better off to stay?”
Learn to wait. It can be a great life lesson. Maybe not three or four years. But at least try one.
Robinson may have stayed partly because he is from Tuscaloosa. But Saban just got another player fresh out of his time machine in Moody, a senior inside linebacker from Conway, South Carolina.
Moody was a backup in 2018, ’19, ’20 and ’21. He kept entering Saban’s old school portal and kept staying year after year. He really thought he was going to start this last season, but Henry To’oTo’o transferred in from Tennessee and took his job. As much as Saban doesn’t like the transfer portal, he does take advantage of it because you have to, whether you like it or not. Many NFL general managers did not like the early days of the new free agency in the early 1990s, but reluctantly participated so they could win.
Moody entered the transfer portal last Jan. 13 — two days after Alabama lost to Georgia in the title game. Then he exited the portal on Jan. 21. On Jan. 17, starting inside linebacker Christian Harris entered the NFL Draft portal a year early, clearing a path for Moody to start.
Good things come to those who wait — at least at Alabama.
“Alabama has been a home for me for four years, and going into my last year, I want to make an impact,” Moody said Tuesday as the Tide continued preparations for its spring game on Saturday (1 p.m. eastern, ESPN +, SEC Network +). “What better place to do that than home?”
OK, so Saban’s time travel portal may have some side effects, like brainwashing. But it’s Moody’s time at Alabama, just like it was Robinson’s. And one year as a starter at Alabama may be worth two or even three at some other places — like LSU or Florida lately, to name two.
“Having this new process of being in the portal, it’s been different for everybody,” Moody said. “But I see a lot of guys — they want to be here. Alabama’s a special place. I just feel like it’s time.”
About time, that is.
“Having a chance to see Brian and how he handled everything, it really has helped me and motivated me,” Moody said. “He handled it very mature, and to see him just wait his turn, grind and stay focused helped me to stay the course and be ready for anything. When my time comes, I can be ready for any situation.”
Whether that’s at Alabama this season or anywhere he may be in the future in or out of football, at least he knows he didn’t cut and run through the NCAA Quitter Portal.
Staying the course and grinding are not only football terms. They are great life philosophies for any time period.