For followers of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Sept. 16 was one of the bleakest days in many years. Alabama Football muddled through a bad game in Tampa, winning 17-3 over a then FBS doormat, South Florida team.
To Alabama fans, the USF game was evidence of possibly the worst Crimson Tide team since Nick Saban's first season in 2007. Even the most optimistic Bama fans admitted the 2023 Crimson Tide was not close to championship quality.
After the game, Nick Saban praised his team for winning.
"A lot of guys played really well. I want our players to be happy about the fact they won."- Dan Wolken
What Dan Wolken, and others, including Chris Low, later recognized was Nick Saban knew immediately what his players needed to hear. They needed to hear he believed in them.
On Friday, Kevin Steele's media session included a response to the standard Nick Saban retirement question. Steele acknowledged that he, like everyone else, knows nothing about Saban's future career plans. Another comment Steele made about Saban was more noteworthy.
"I think people forget, and I've seen it, that he has an uncanny ability to know what each team needs, what each group of guys need and what each side of the ball needs"- Chris Low
Saban's uncanny ability was never needed more than it was in September. In back-to-back weeks, Alabama lost to Texas in Bryant-Denny and played one of the ugliest football games of Nick Saban's Alabama Football Era against USF.
After the USF game, a 'Saban has slipped' narrative exploded. It was persistently repeated well into November. A Nick Saban 'is done' theme did not completely fade until after the Crimson Tide's win in the SEC Championship Game. Now many are accurately discussing that the 2023 season might be Nick Saban's best coaching performance ever.
There have been signs in recent seasons that Nick Saban has mellowed. Terry Saban has been quoted as saying becoming a grandparent has brought out a softer side in Nick. That 'softness' that is part of his non-football life, does not seem to have changed Nick much on the practice field, or the sideline during games. His wrath can still be intense.
But the Nick Saban of ten seasons ago, maybe even five seasons ago, would have never been so positive after the South Florida game. Saban's obsession with never being satisfied has propelled him to seven National Championships. Saban has said he wants his players to have a relentless discontent. The model for it is his constant pursuit of perfection.
In September, Nick Saban knew discontent without belief would not drive the Crimson Tide to championship competitiveness. Because he believed in them, his players believed in themselves and more importantly in each other. Going into Monday's Rose Bowl, it matters not if the 2023 Crimson Tide is one of Alabama's greatest teams. What matters is Alabama players believing they can be champions. They believe, in no small part because Nick Saban believed in them, while others doubted.