If you didn’t suspect it already, recent developments might lead you to speculate that Constance Gee isn’t the only one who’s been smoking at the Vanderbilt chancellor’s mansion. In fact, this might be a good time to require random drug testing not just for SEC athletes but also for presidents, board members, coaches and athletic directors throughout the conference. The $32 million, eight-year deal that the University of Alabama just concluded with Nick Saban to be their personal lord and savior—or as his contract more mundanely puts it, “football coach”—suggests that a whole lot of folks have been enjoying an abundance of a leading agricultural product.
Of course, many reality-based people thought Gordon Gee was several bubbles off plumb when he abolished Vanderbilt’s Athletic Department and announced that the SEC’s most academically integrated sports programs would become even more so. Few shared Gee’s belief that this ripple might swell into a current that could remake the face of big-time college sports.
But after this most recent football season, even those who held out hope that the Vanderbilt model might spread may wonder if the genial Gee is sporting an illegal smile. So quixotic does his quest for reform now appear, especially in this part of the country, that someone should present him a horse, a lance and a sidekick.
Earlier this year, University of Georgia president Michael Adams explained why the school will continue to admit athletes who fail to meet its admission requirements—despite low graduation rates for its football (41 percent) and men’s basketball (9 percent) programs—by reminding everyone: “We still have to compete in the Southeastern Conference.”
At Auburn, footballers have been able to rack up precious As and Bs in sociology through the miracle of independent study courses that allowed them to bypass the banality of classroom attendance and, in some cases, of even having to meet with a professor.
Despite the coach’s professed intentions to make the streets of Knoxville safe again for ordinary citizens, UT’s football players have maintained such a steady flow of encounters with law enforcement that one blogger has begun giving points for the Fulmer Cup, awarded to the program that establishes the highest profile in hooliganism.
Yet there’s no drug testing for any of these guys. They see clearly that SEC football is a ruthlessly competitive entertainment business, far too important to be subject to swishy rules that would turn elite players into mere student-athletes.
But if we needed still more confirmation that to “reform” SEC football is to joust at the most formidable of windmills, here come the folks at Alabama. In ordinary times, no one sets the standard for insane expectations any higher. Now, they’ve outdone even their own bad selves, joining Gee in the land of dreamy dreams while reminding us that people will support spending more money if they understand football as religion instead of a business.
On their rational side, Alabama’s boosters recognize that when you’ve lost to Auburn as many times in a row as Alabamans with all their fingers can count on one hand, you must be willing to bear any burden or pay any price to put the Tide back on a roll. And so Alabama made history by becoming the first “non-professional” football program to outbid a pro football organization for the services of a coach.
But that’s not what makes me suspect the brain trust in Tuscaloosa (wow, just typing that phrase made me vomit a little inside my mouth) has started some new program in hemp studies. After all, as Saban’s agent observed, by the end of his client’s contract, $4 million per year will seem like a bargain for a top coach. And if it weren’t for the coach’s salary, that $32 million would have been spent on something frivolous, like academic scholarships or English as First Language courses.
No, what makes the Bama boys such strong candidates for the kind of tests that require peeing into a cup is that they didn’t get just any coach for their money. In Saban, they hired a coach whose most recent team, the Miami Dolphins, recorded a mark of 15-17 during his brief tenure. They also hired a coach whose word is at least as good as Kim Jong Il’s. He told the folks at LSU he was there for them, until he wasn’t, and then he told the world he would not be the coach at Alabama, until he was.
Given Saban’s track record, you’d have to be many tokes over the line to think that he’ll still be in Tuscaloosa eight years from now. That’s the most charitable explanation I can think of for why Alabama AD Mal(adroit) Moore would fail to include a clause in Saban’s contract putting him on the hook for the remainder of his salary should he leave early.
But that failure is indicative of the trippy thinking that pervades the Heart of Dixie these days, proving that old Southern maxim, “Whom the football gods would destroy, they first make mad.” For anybody not named Bryant, Alabama fans are a tougher crowd than a biker bar on Dollar Beer Night. (Just ask Bill Curry, who got a brick through his window the year his squad went 10-1.) With the certainty of End Times prophesiers, Tide boosters maintain that the old dynasty is just on temporary hiatus and that every coach in America covets the Alabama job.
Now, when a coach—Rich Rodriguez, in this case—prefers to stay in West Virginia than accept millions to come to your state, that should tell you something. Maybe it should have told Saban something, too.
Whatever it said, it was undoubtedly drowned out by the sound of $32 million talking. For that kind of whipout, you’d have to be smoking dope not to take the job. Still, we’d wager that, before it’s all over, Saban will wish he had a big stash of medicinal doobies, just to take some of the edge off the nuthouse he agreed to work in.