Ben Cook is a veteran sportswriter and broadcaster whose work has appeared nationally in such magazines as Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News and Event. His newspaper columns have been syndicated nationally by the Scripps Howard News Service and appeared in newspapers all across the United States. He is currently an editor with Lindy’s Sports Publications and is editor of lindyssports.com and al.com.
He is currently working on his fifth book, which will be released by Crane Hill Publishers in the spring of 2008, entitled The Best Darn Sports Book Ever.
Ben, you’re a fixture on the SEC sports scene. With this lineup of strong coaches and star athletes, are we in a sort of golden age of SEC football?
Without a doubt we are, especially when it comes to the national picture. Since the SEC went to division play, the conference has won five national championships and has cornered the market on coaches who have won national titles. Financially the conference has become the biggest cash cow in the country. In fact, I wrote a column on that very thing on the Lindy’s website, and how it has caused a jealous reaction around the country. As far as play on the field, it’s hard to compare eras but the players are bigger, faster and stronger than they have ever been. That would lead you to believe the play is the best it has ever been.
The A-Day game drew a capacity crowd. When was the last time you saw this much excitement in Tuscaloosa?
It has been amazing, but it is understandable. Alabama fans are spoiled, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the last few years have been embarrassing, and the Saban hiring was the signal that the administration finally admits it and is ready to do whatever it takes (within the rules, of course) to get Alabama back to a position of strength. I think the fans came out in such a huge number just as a way of saying, the bad times are over and we are ready for a change.
The furor over the coaching change has died down, and Nick Saban is in place. Putting aside the controversy and being objective, was it time for Shula to go?
Yes. He had an undisciplined football team that had enough talent to win eight to nine games and it didn’t happen. Players were openly critical of their coach and often laughed at him behind his back. The football program was on a slide to mediocrity.
How will Mal Moore be remembered as an Athletic Director?
I think he’ll be remembered as the man who oversaw the greatest improvement in facilities in Alabama history. He took below average facilities and upgraded them to where they match Alabama’s rich athletic history. He will also be remembered for hiring Nick Saban, which may be good enough to make people forget he also hired Mike Shula.
Coach Saban has an icy relationship with the media. Does this help or hurt him? Does this all-business approach work on the recruiting trail?
I don’t think Saban’s relationship with the media will have any affect on his recruiting. Recruiting comes down to face-to-face relationships between coaches and players, and I think Nick has shown in the past he is strong in that area. As far as his relationship with the media, it might hurt a little if things don’t go well because there are some media people who will be looking for any reason to blast him. If things go well and Alabama wins big, the Alabama media won’t do anything to rock the boat.
What’s your take on the difference in coverage of Saban and Billy Donovan?
Saban started out with a bad reputation with the media while Donovan did not. So, the reaction to what Billy did has been soft. I personally think he hurt himself so much more than Saban, because while some media and fans like to yell about Saban being a liar, they are naïve when they think coaches are always telling the truth, especially when it comes to their future employment. One thing to remember, and I’ve said this for years: All coaches lie. They have to sometimes because the media won’t let some things go. Donovan came out of this situation looking extremely bad in going back on his commitment to the Orlando Magic.
Is there really an anti-Alabama bias in the national media, or do we have a persecution complex?
I think there is an anti-Alabama sentiment just as there is an anti-Ohio State or anti-Texas. I think it is just a ready bias built in toward top-of-the-line programs. Alabama has not been good enough recently to really be in the public’s crosshairs. The biggest thing was an anti-Saban bias because he’s not overly popular with the media anyway and he had the temerity to leave the sacred NFL for a college job.
Lindy’s has the Tide ranked 34th in the nation. Given Bama’s schedule, talent level and depth, and the new coaching staff, do you see this team breaking into the top 25 this year?
I think they have a shot at cracking the Top 25 for sure. I think they will be good enough to have a say in who wins the SEC West. A win over LSU or Auburn will certainly impact the race and – who knows? – with a break or two it’s not inconceivable for them to slip into the SEC Championship Game.
Where do you expect to see the greatest improvement in the team over last year?
Discipline. I don’t expect to see the stupid, silly penalties that Alabama was famous for last season. I expect to see a team that plays hard from the opening kickoff to the final gun, which we did not see the past few seasons.
Who will be Alabama’s toughest opponent in 2007?
LSU, without a doubt. LSU is loaded. Auburn will be extremely good and Arkansas has a shot, if the Razorbacks can get over their winter of turmoil.
Major Applewhite’s Rice offense set school records last season, while Alabama averaged just over 16 points against conference opponents. Can we expect significantly more scoring this season, or does he not yet have the ammo?
I believe Alabama’s offense will be one of the biggest surprises of the season. With a veteran offensive line, a strong quarterback and a host of great receivers, Alabama is set to roll under a new offensive philosophy. Let me put it this way, I don’t expect to see many field goal tries on 4th-and-1 from the 1-yard line.
Coach Saban’s a defense guy. How will this defense compare to last year?
That’s the big question. The defense lost some talent last year, but I think that can be overcome. Saban’s defensive touch will help, but I think, at least early in the season, the offense will need to carry the team until the defense gets it feet on the ground.
Finally, is the streak broken this year, or does Auburn have to use two hands to count?
That’s a good question. I think Auburn is going to be very good and I believe Alabama will surprise people. By the time this game rolls around, it could be a tossup. I’ll say this: for the first time in several years, when the two teams take the field this fall, Alabama and Auburn will be playing on an even field when it comes to coaching.