ATLANTA — Four or five decades have passed, depending on how you choose to reckon it, and the issue for Southeastern Conference football coaches is still the same.
Carthage must be destroyed.
Carthage was a seafaring power that dominated the Mediterranean centuries ago. In our current context, Carthage is Alabama. At least that was how an LSU Board of Supervisors member referred to it in an article written by Dave Kindred 35 years ago.
Kentucky has a similar empire in basketball, but frankly, no one in the SEC cares about that. Football is the measuring stick for everyone in this conference, and for decades Alabama has been in the highest percentile for height.
The program hasn’t changed, just the names. From the 1960s into the ’80s the problem was a guy named Bear Bryant.
Now the problem goes by the name of Nick Saban.
Current SEC football coaches have a Nick Saban problem. Saban has won three national championships since 2009. If his Crimson Tide beats Florida on Saturday in the SEC Championship Game, Bama’s next stop will be in a College Football Playoff semifinal in either the Cotton or Orange bowls.
The Crimson Tide should swamp the Gators, who are led by first-year coach and Saban disciple Jim McElwain. Florida and its fragile offense is probably here a year or two ahead of schedule. McElwain will probably have the Gators back quite soon.
And chances are, Saban’s Tiders will be staring at them from Atlanta’s other sideline.
Every other SEC program that fancies itself a national player — bass ponds should be as well-stocked as the SEC is with programs that think they should be No. 1 every year — measures itself against Alabama. And they all measure their coaches against Saban. So when their coaches lose, say, three games in a season, the fire under the other coaches’ seats burns hot.
“He’s really made it tough on them,” said former LSU All-American Marcus Spears, the SEC Network analyst who played for Saban’s Tigers from 2001-04.
To condemn coaches like McElwain and LSU’s Les Miles, and former Georgia coach Mark Richt and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, and Tennessee’s Butch Jones and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, and whoever else in the SEC who fancies themselves as a player for Saban’s throne, is to paint with a broad and unjust brush.
No other coach, save possibly Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, is in Saban’s area code.
“People have to realize this is once in a generation,” Spears said. “This guy is one game (from) or in the national championship every other year. If you’re comparing that and looking at how Alabama is doing things, you have to take a step back and say, ‘This isn’t going to happen the next 20 years.’ He’s an anomaly.
“It’s human nature to compare yourself to the best and try to figure out how we can get there. If you feel like you’ve given a guy enough time to get there and he hasn’t, then it’s easy to call for a change.”
It would be naïve to say that Miles’ five straight losses to Saban, starting with the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, weren’t a factor in the bind he only just recently wriggled out of. It would be equally foolish to say that Richt was sent off to Miami — not to retire but to coach the Hurricanes — because he never won a national title the way Saban does so regularly. So easily.
“It’s not easy at all,” Saban said Friday. “Consistency and performance define success. It’s not easy to deal with success. It’s not easy to deal with failure. So to have the right psychological disposition to be able to sustain all those ups and downs and look at every one of those challenges as a test, not a sign of what’s going to happen; it’s a test of how you respond to it, how you react to it and how you try to take advantage of it, good or bad.”
McElwain said anyone can copy Saban’s success. Kind of.
“There really aren’t any secrets,” McElwain said. “Now there are qualities that take a lot of discipline and self-drive to achieve, and I think the magical secret is he’s been able to move an entire organization in nine years — one that was probably floundering around a little bit when they got there — to arguably the most consistent college football program in the country.”
Sounds simple, Jim.
That’s probably what Carthage’s rivals thought, too.