HOOVER, Ala. — The contrast between the haves and have nots in Southeastern Conference football can occasionally amuse, as long as you’re not in the middle of it, I suppose.
For example, Alabama’s Nick Saban understands that many in the Crimson Tide fan base are on full panic mode about a 2013 season that started 11-0 and finished 11-2.
Of course, I understand that losing to Auburn counts as multiple losses in the mindset of Alabama fans.
“Our situation as a team is a lot different than it’s been the last couple of years when we were coming off of successful, championship seasons,” Saban said with a straight face at SEC Media Days last week. “The challenges are so much different in terms of trying to deal with success and complacency. Having lost our last two games last year, I think it’s a bit different mindset with our players.”
Comment: Yeah, it’s practically like being the lone survivor at the Alamo, if there’d been such a person.
“We have to reestablish our identity as a team at Alabama,” Saban said. “It’s going to take every player to have a tremendous amount of buy-in for us to be able to do that.”
Bud Dupree, a senior defensive end at Kentucky, understands the irony of what Saban is referencing.
“Alabama said they lost their last two games ... we only WON two games,” Dupree said here Thursday, referring to the Wildcats’ 2-10 record last season. “We have to change everything.”
Pay for play
All 14 SEC coaches were represented at Media Days this past week, and each coach brought along three of their players. Many of these players were asked by the some 1,300 media members about their views of being paid some kind of stipend to play college football, beyond the currently allowed tuition, room and board, and so on.
I was pleasantly surprised by how cautious and pragmatic most of the players were about the issue. You’d think there’d be a few who’d say, yeah, we deserve tons of money for all this work and all the revenue we bring in. But I didn’t hear any of that.
“I think players should get paid because of some ways that their families are set up that they don’t have money, so if you could give something to their families, that would be a good situation,” said Kentucky senior defensive end Za’Darius Smith. “But, at the same time, I’d say no, because a lot of college kids would change and probably not go as hard to try to get to the next level and make money.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said he talks to his players about the issue.
“The number one thing I tell our kids and remind them every single week is to not forget the blessing,” Freeze said. “They are blessed individuals to be at an SEC program, to receive compensation to play athletics, and for your education. Many, many people would trade places with you. So don’t forget that. Don’t lose sight of that. You’re blessed.”
This may be neither here nor there, because I don’t know any of the SEC head coaches beyond the most superficial way, but if I had a son good enough to play major college football, I’d have no qualms with him choosing to play for any of the SEC guys.
Even Saban. As many jabs as I send Saban’s way, I know enough to understand he’s a fabulous coach, and he strikes me as a guy who cares very much for his student-athletes. I have no doubt that if my son was strong enough to survive four years under Saban, he’d come out a much better young man than he went in.
That said — again, this is just my impression — but if my son left his college football choice up to me, I’d tell him to play for either Mark Stoops at Kentucky or Mark Richt at Georgia.
But back to Saban.At the end of his Media Days appearance Thursday, he said this to the media: “I know you pick a winner in the conference every year, but you’ve actually been wrong 17 of the last 21 times. You have not picked the right team the last five years in a row.”
At that, all of us in the media hung our heads, clearly chagrined. We looked up at Sir Nick, and there was an awkward pause.
Finally Saban concluded, “So just to let you know that we’re evaluating you.”
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is a dreamer, though he’s not the only one.
“Our expectations are to find a way to get to Atlanta,” said Mullen, referring to the site of the SEC championship game that annually pits the winner of the conference’s West and East divisions. “That’s what we can control and compete for – that SEC championship this year.”
Mullen may be one of the more well rounded sports fans among his SEC coaching peers. His mother is a British citizen, and Mullen says that’s one reason why he’s a huge fan of soccer. He was glued to the recent World Cup, and is known to get up before dawn on Sundays for a workout and a 6 a.m. English Premier League soccer match.
“I do think SEC football could be compared to European soccer,’’ Mullen said. “The passion our fans have is equal. That’s one of the things that makes this league so much fun. It’s a pretty neat deal.”
Touchy in Texas
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was more than a little touchy when asked about the absence of Johnny Manziel, the iconic quarterback he coached the past two seasons, who was known by some as much for his off the field mischief as his on field superlatives.
The first question to Sumlin this past week at SEC Media Days was this: “What’s it like not coaching Johnny Manziel?”
After making fun of the question, deserved perhaps, Sumlin went into a spiel about player turnover on college rosters and then said: “Your question is irrelevant.”
A few minutes later, another reporter tried again to get Sumlin to talk about Manziel, suggesting that Manziel’s off-field exploits might provide teaching tools for his current Aggies.
“Is this the SEC Media Days?” Sumlin asked, smirking. “That’s a great question about the Cleveland Browns. Anybody else got something?”
Sumlin was asked if he was surprised at how much Texas A&M has dominated the University of Texas in in-state recruiting since he came to College Station two years ago.
“If I was surprised, I wouldn’t have taken the job,” Sumlin said. “How is that?”
Comment: I’m curious to see if Sumlin is still so smug after Charlie Strong has a chance to set up his recruiting base at Texas.