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July 26, 2007
Saban knows Tide expectations are high
HOOVER, Ala. – Dozens of Alabama football fans wearing crimson-and-white T-shirts and black-and-white checkered caps crowded next to a "No Loitering, No Autographs" sign in the Wynfrey Hotel lobby on Thursday morning.
The scene resembled an "Extreme Makeover" reveal.
In a way, it was.
The faithful waited for coach Nick Saban, the new face of Alabama football, to descend down an escalator.
They were there to cheer him and perhaps even touch his garment so that once again they might see.
See the Crimson Tide win another national championship, that is.
That would indeed require an extreme makeover. The Crimson Tide is coming off a 6-7 finish in 2006, and is in the midst of a five-game losing streak against rival Auburn.
But Saban isn't getting $4 million a season to take the Tide to lower-tier bowl games. The Alabama media guide projects confidence for the future with a photo of Saban and a caption reading: "The Process Begins."
How long will the process take? No doubt, the rabid fans of Alabama expect the process to be quick.
"We would not want to coach some place where they didn't expect us to win," Saban said. "So expectations are something that can be very, very positive.
"At the same time, I think that you want to be realistic in the expectations that you have relative to who you are, where you are and how you're going to get there."
Right now, the Alabama football program is in a place of uncertainty. Last season's record was demoralizing, and it led to the firing of Mike Shula – Saban's predecessor.
However, three of the losses were by three or fewer points. Saban put the Tide – which returns nine starters on offense and five on defense – through rigorous offseason conditioning drills to improve their chances of winning close games.
"That was the toughest thing mentally and physically I've ever been through since I was here," junior offensive lineman Antoine Caldwell said. "It was tough. He made you toughen up mentally. We shed some pounds and got tough physically. But we focused on the mental aspect of it."
"You didn't really have a choice: you either finished or you finished," he said. "They wouldn't let you quit. There was a lot of running. One of the things they want us to learn is that you have to outwork your opponent, so they would simulate a lot of that in training. I definitely think it will pay off."
The Tide hopes so. Last year Alabama ranked 77th nationally in rushing offense by averaging just 123.1 yards per game. Improving that total figures to be one of the ways the Crimson Tide will return to national prominence.
But those fans in the hotel lobby are more interested in when they will return, not how.
Saban guided LSU to the 2003 national championship in his fourth season in Baton Rouge, so Alabama fans seem to see that as a fair timetable.
"I'm not one of those fans that think we're going to win the national championship just because he's here. It will take time," said 28-year-old Joel Sears of Talladega, who took a day off work from his job at Regions Bank in hopes of getting an autograph on a miniature Alabama helmet. "It would be great if we go 9-3 (this season) with a win over Auburn.
"Looking at the past and the way he did at LSU, I wouldn't be surprised if in three or four years we're contending (for the national championship) on a consistent basis. That's what I want."
That's what they all want.
Jerry Platt, a 55-year-old retiree who wore an Alabama T-shirt, had an Alabama cell phone cover and carried a portrait of Saban from last spring's "A-Day' game, drove two hours from his home in Scottsboro, Ala. He seemed to have a slightly quicker time table.
"It's probably going to take three years," Platt said. "He's got to get his players in. It could be three or four years before we win a national championship, but I believe he's going to do it."
Patience is easily found in July. Whether the Tide faithful – who demanded Shula's ouster just one year removed from a 10-win season – remain patient in September and October remains to be seen.
Still, Saban's track record – he's posted 106 victories in 13 years as a collegiate coach – indicates he can bring a championship to Alabama, though he offered no timetable.
He said creating a championship team required assembling talent, developing it and building unity and chemistry.
"There's no waving a wand and making all that happen," he said. "But we work hard and we go from where we are right now to try to get to where we want to be. There is no real formula for what the time table to do that is."
Makeovers are quickly completed, especially extreme ones.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.