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November 2, 2010

Q-and-A: Alabama coach Nick Saban

Alabama's Nick Saban continues to add layers to perhaps college football's top program.

After debuting with a 7-6 record in 2007 that ended with an Independence Bowl appearance, Saban and his program have thrived. The Crimson Tide were 26-2 the past two seasons, including a 16-0 mark in SEC play. Alabama capped the 2009 season with a BCS title game victory over Texas.

This season, Alabama is 7-1 heading into Saturday's game at LSU, and the Tide's national title hopes remain very much alive. Alabama is the highest-ranked one-loss team in the BCS standings (No. 6), and many feel that if the Tide win out, they have a great chance to reach the BCS title game.

Rivals.com spoke to Saban he prepared to play at LSU in a huge SEC West showdown on Saturday.

The defense had to replace nine full-time starters from last season. Has it developed like you thought?

"I am not disappointed in the way we have matured and evolved this year, but we certainly have a long ways to go and a lot of improvement to do. But I felt like the last two games we played a lot better, played with more intensity, mental energy, made less mental errors, played with more effort, toughness and tackled better. So, hopefully, we can build on that."

Have you been pleased with Greg McElroy's season?

"I think Greg has done a good job. Like all guys, when you play quarterback, you probably get a little too much credit when you win and get a little bit too much criticism when you lose. When you look at the film, we didn't execute as a group like we need to in a couple games when we didn't play well offensively. It's really hard to put it on the quarterback. Now, he probably could have played better. He probably would tell you that, and I would, too.

"It's hard to play quarterback when the people around you don't execute and do the things they are supposed to do. We did a good job of that for a couple of weeks offensively. We were a lot better at Tennessee [in the most recent game, on Oct. 23]."

Why hasn't Mark Ingram come on a bit more since returning from his early knee injury?

"I think Mark had a great preseason, and the injury set him back a little bit. But he has come back and played well. He has had to manage that [the injury] a little bit. But it never has affected him in a game. I just don't think we have run the ball as effectively. I don't think he has had the opportunities. I think he has played well, and I think he has played with a lot of effort and toughness and made some great runs. But I don't think he has had as many opportunities to make big runs that he had a year ago."

No one likes to lose, but did that defeat at South Carolina take some pressure off being the No. 1 team?

"The problem had nothing to do about the ranking or how many games we had won because we were playing them one game at a time and preparing like we always do, focusing on the process of what it takes to be successful and not worrying about the results so much but just trying to be a good team. I felt like that was getting more and more difficult to do because our players got a little bit too satisfied with winning. I always say it creates a little complacency. ... Sometimes when you get beat, it gets everyone's attention, and there probably has been a little better focus toward some of those things since then."

Do you think it's fair that so many teams will have had off-weeks before playing you this season?

"It is something we don't ever complain about. I don't know if having a bye week is a good thing or a bad thing. Sometimes it depends on the circumstances with your team. Sometimes when you are playing good, you might [rather] not have a bye week. If you are beat-up and tired, it is welcomed. I don't know if it's an advantage or disadvantage. To have six is a little unusual [six Alabama opponents will have come in off a bye]. I would say that there should be, in fairness, some legislation that says that can't be. I don't think anybody planned it that way. I think it just happened, and it was a little bit of a quirk.

"In scheduling in the NFL, your record determines who you play. If you are a winning team, you play a little harder schedule, you draft a little later ... everything is done for parity to keep the playing field level. I don't think we have taken that step in college football.

"I don't think it's right that last year we played Auburn on a Friday and we had a game the Saturday before, so we had to play them on a short week. And Auburn had a bye before the game. That stuff is not good for the players. It's not fair, but it's not good for the players, either."

How would you solve the problem of "rogue" agents?

"I think we are making some progress. The NCAA, the NFL, the NFLPA -- everyone has come together to try to create a solution. I think we started back in the summer, when myself, Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Mack Brown and Jim Tressel all sort of had some conference calls with all of these groups, and I said, 'Look, this is not good for anybody. But if you all aren't willing to do something about it, we aren't going to be your minor-league team anymore. We aren't going to let you come and watch practice and scout our players. So everyone needs to wake up and say this is not good for college football to have all of these guys suspended because of agents. And there's nobody doing anything about it.'

"Players are responsible for what they do. Nobody is complaining about the players having to pay a penalty for doing the wrong thing. But the problem is nothing is ever happening to the agents. People say that you can take them to court, but that's hard to prove, and in some cases it happened in a different state.

"To me, the NFLPA should say, 'If you violate an NCAA rule as an agent, there will be a penalty for that, whether it's a fine or suspension or whatever. You have to respond to it, and you have to respond to the NCAA investigation.' I think there should be some penalty for those people.

"I also think there should be some penalty, post-college, for a player who does something illegal with an agent. Suspend them for four games. Let it affect their draft status, give them a huge fine. They do that for players in the league. I think we need to look at this in total. It's hurting football, it's hurting the NFL, it's hurting college football."

You are headed back to LSU for the second time as Alabama coach since leaving LSU as coach. Did anything memorable happen the last time you were in Baton Rouge?

"There are some things I'd like to forget. Look, I have a lot of respect for LSU; I have a lot of respect for their fans and the people. We were there for five years. We have special memories of something that we accomplished there that was a great experience with all the people of Louisiana and LSU. That's never left me, all right. I still have that same feeling and trust and respect for the institution and all of their fans. But I am the coach somewhere else and my loyalty is with that team and we are trying to do what we can to make our team the best and we have to compete against each other. That is my feeling about it all."

How have you changed as a head coach since your first gig at Toledo in 1990?

"I am sure you learn a lot along the way. I've had great mentors that prepared me to be a coach. You learn a lot along the way, probably not so much about football but about ancillary things: player relations, how to manage an organization and time, media and public relations. All of those kinds of things are what you learn the most about because there isn't a lot you do as an assistant that prepares you for some of those things."

Which coach has had the most influence on you?

"My college coach [at Kent State] who I was a G.A. for, Don James, had a great influence on me. I wouldn't be a coach if it wasn't for him, probably. George Perles gave me my first position of responsibility, naming me defensive coordinator at Michigan State. Bill Belichick, I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot from everyone I worked for. I just think those guys had the greatest impact."

You were head coach at Michigan State from 1995-99. Are you surprised by their great success this season?

"We had a really good team my last year there. But we lost a couple games. The league was really strong that year [1999]. We lost to Wisconsin and Ron Dayne and to Purdue and Drew Brees. We beat Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, but we lost a couple other games. Michigan State looks like it has a good team. Their schedule favored them a little bit, and sometimes you get fortunate that way. They don't play Ohio State."

Is coaching in college easier than coaching in the NFL?

"I don't know if one is tougher or easier than the other. Both are difficult. It is a way of life you have to love. I seem to enjoy college coaching more because of the age of the players and the impact you can have on them in personal development. There is an academic part of it. When you see a guy graduate, it makes you feel you have had some influence or provided some leadership to get them to do the right thing, so they could develop a career for themselves off the field. Just a lot of positive stuff, self-gratification and the great feeling in the community because of the spirit that surround a college campus. That's something that I just enjoy and has been a lot of fun to be a part of."

What are you impressions of Cam Newton?

"Obviously the guy is a great player. We haven't seen a lot of him because we haven't played them yet. They do a great job on offense and he's a great player to do it for them. He certainly has done a fantastic job so far."

Is Alabama your last coaching stop?

"I don't have many stops left, but I'm sure happy to be here. When I took this job, this was going to be the last thing that we do. I'm happy. I used to be driven for the next job. Even when I wanted to be a NFL head coach in previous years, when I got the opportunity, it wasn't what I thought. The league had changed a lot since I was last in it as an assistant before there was free agency. When I took this job, it was like, 'I'm happy to have a really good job at a really good place, and I want to develop relationships and be there for a long time.' "

What's the biggest misconception about you?

"I don't know. There probably are a lot of them. I used to always think that, public image-wise, people always thought I was something that I really wasn't. But I guess I was responsible for that partly, too. I got a lot of that 'Attila the Hun,' tough-guy mentality stuff. You want to have a tough team and be physical, disciplined and all that. But at the same time, we aren't unreasonable at all about how we go about what we do and the relationships we have with people. I don't think you'd ever hear that from anyone who ever has been in the organization, been on the teams."

What do you think of the statue that will be erected of you for winning the 2009 national title?

"I haven't seen it. It isn't up yet. They had some problems. They didn't have much to work with [laughter]. It's a little more difficult than the other ones they had to do. I don't even know when it will be done. The one thing I was really adamant about was I didn't even want it put up unless all of the players' names were on a plaque or something with the statue. That should be a symbol of what the team accomplished, not what a coach did."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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