When Jalen Hurts spoke out publicly two weeks ago about his dissatisfaction with the way Alabama’s coaches were conducting the team’s quarterback competition, many, myself included, expected Nick Saban to take the opportunity Hurts’ insubordination presented into a legendary rant. Not that Saban isn’t capable of biting his tongue, but the opportunity to vent about leadership, sacrifice and entitlement gifted him on a golden platter seemed too good to pass.
He did pass.
I still think there was at least a stern conversation between Saban and Hurts behind closed doors. What might have been said there we’ll never know.
What we do know is that when Saban was asked publicly about Hurts’ comments, he said this:
“Every player has a right to express what he feels and what he thinks.”
A conversation I had last week gave me a new perspective on how Saban handled this issue I hadn’t considered before.
Jack Ebling has been covering Michigan State football since the early 1980s. Ebling was in East Lansing when Saban first arrived there. He watched a young coach grow from an assistant to an NFL defensive coordinator, and then finally into the head coach of the Spartans.
“Nick is one of the smartest coaches I’ve ever been around,” Ebling told me. “He’ll be smarter tomorrow than he is today. He seldom makes the same mistake twice.”
That lead us into a conversation about former Spartan wide receiver Plaxico Burress. Burress would go on to be a huge NFL star, as well-known for his mouth as his talent.
In 1998, while playing for MSU, Burress was asked by the media for his thoughts about playing Michigan?
“It’s like taking candy from a baby,” was Burress’ cocksure, headline-grabbing response.
Saban wasn’t happy about that.
“Burress was off limits (from the media) for the rest of the year,” Ebling said.
Although what Burress said had nothing to do about his coaches or teammates – the way Hurts’ controversial remarks did – the difference in how Saban handled Burress then and Hurts now shows his maturity and understanding of circumstance. Twenty years ago, a young Saban silenced one of his best players whether it was necessary or not.
“One thing I can guarantee you is that Nick has spoken to Lonny about this,” Ebling said.
He is referring to Lonny Rosen, a sports psychologist who works at Michigan State who has had a huge impact on Saban’s career and how he deals with players.
“If I’m Saban, it’s counterproductive to what I need right now to ban (Hurts) from speaking his mind,” Ebling said. “Saban is one Tua injury away from needing this guy to be in the mindset to lead this team to a national championship.”
Saban’s reaction was more analytical and less emotional. He understands the dynamic at play here.
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