Nick Saban shows more positivity

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has been critical, combative and just downright cranky for years.

The Alabama head coach has earned a reputation as a hard-nosed, hard-to-please malcontent. He has smiled as often as the harvest moon and tended his crop with a methodical, machinelike approach, his tunnel vision often coming off as an overly defensive posture.

His snippiness toward the media has been well-defined. It's an oral history of tirades and tongue-lashings, sometimes deserved and sometimes misplaced.

Saban has been called everything from overly blunt to "an uncaring robot win machine."

Said Heath Evans in a 2011 radio interview: "The guy's got some ways about him that I'm just like, 'Are you human?' I think he might be a robot." Evans played under Saban as a member of the Miami Dolphins in 2005. He also went to Auburn, so there might be an ulterior motive, but you get the picture. Not many stood up to argue otherwise at the time.

But that was then, and this is now.

As Saban enters his 40th year in coaching, the adversarial head coach doesn't have quite the same sharp edges. When he walks to a podium now, there isn't the same whistle of a lit fuse gaining speed in the background. He has been in high spirits, even bordering on jovial.

When Saban spoke in July at SEC media days in Hoover, Ala., the room sat stunned as he cracked jokes about Steve Spurrier's visor and poked fun at Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. Many waited for the old rope-a-dope tactic. It never came.

"Thank you, guys," Saban said as he left the stage. "Again, thanks for all that you do for college student-athletes."

Maybe age has softened the 60-year-old coach's stance.

Maybe there's more to it than that.

In the months since Alabama claimed its second national title in three years, Saban has been a different man. He has told stories and explained defenses. He even returned to the podium after a scrimmage to wish media members a happy holiday.

At one particular news conference, he recalled his biggest win at Michigan State, taking down the Wolverines when Tom Brady was their quarterback. He said it was "a really good team" and recalled being undefeated heading into a game against Purdue.

"We were ranked, and we couldn't live with success," Saban said with a smile. "We went and played Drew Brees the next week, and he drilled us."

"I remember that, too," he said, adding the punch line that drew a roar of laughter from the media.

Saban has seen it all. He took over an LSU team that won three games the year before he arrived. The following season the Tigers won eight games, and a few years later he won a national championship.

He has tried his hand in the NFL, and returned to the college game and resurrected Alabama. He took a team lying limp on the mat and turned it into a heavyweight.

It took a few years to get the program to where he wanted it, and now that he has, there's a sense of calm in Tuscaloosa.

After winning his first title with the Tide in the 2009 season, beating Texas at the Rose Bowl, Saban looked as though he was in pain during the postgame celebration. He went into the locker room, and he couldn't help himself. He picked apart the second half, when they were outscored 15-13. Without its starting quarterback, Texas got within three points halfway through the fourth quarter. Two late touchdowns made the outcome easier to print on a souvenir but not any easier for the detail-driven coach to swallow.

When the Crimson Tide beat LSU for last season's title on Jan. 9, the coach's tenor wasn't the same. He didn't stray from focusing on the details, but he enjoyed the result much more.

"I enjoyed the Gatorade bath two years ago," Saban told reporters the next day. "I wasn't expecting it and got kind of almost knocked out. The players improved in terms of their ability to deliver. I improved on my ability to accept, and everybody was happy."

And what is there not to be happy about around Tuscaloosa these days? Even after losing eight players to the NFL draft, the Tide were ranked No. 2 in the coaches' poll, the level of talent at Alabama speaking for itself.

The bevy of four- and five-star recruits the coaching staff has stockpiled has Alabama's future brighter than it has ever been. And with Saban at the wheel, it's reasonable to expect there's nowhere to go but up.

"We've obviously learned a lot at Alabama over the last five years," Saban said at media days. "The most important thing we've learned is you've got to stay on top of the little things. Things don't happen by accident."

Saban getting the program to where it is today was all a part of staying the course.

Before, to the rest of the world, that meant a bumpy ride. But after an offseason of relative ease, the seas are calmer around Saban and the Tide.

Make no mistake, it's still all about winning. Saban enjoyed the 2011 championship for at most 72 hours, then moved on to the task at hand.

Said quarterback AJ McCarron: "Not a whole lot of celebration around here. It doesn't matter how many you win. Like Coach says, 'It's not about what you did in the past, it's what you're doing right now.' That's all anybody cares about."