TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The start to my collegiate football coaching career began ominously. I was lost within minutes.
Was I supposed to show up at the north endzone or the south?
Which direction was north?
I pulled out my iPhone and checked Google Maps. I was in the right spot, thank goodness. I couldn’t afford to screw up my first day.
Waiting in the corridors of Bryant-Denny Stadium alone, I checked my watch -- 15 minutes early. Apparently my fellow media coaches didn’t understand the Bill Parcells rule: if you’re on time, you’re already late. Certainly, Nick Saban would appreciate my effort and award me the play-calling duties.
I had a play dialed up and ready to go: take a knee and let the defense do the work. I’m not lazy, just an educated pessimist. I’ve seen Adrian Hubbard and Jesse Williams get after the quarterback, and if I were AJ McCarron I’d want nothing to do with them. It’s April, not October. Punt the ball and get my quarterback the heck out of there.
Surely, Saban would appreciate my concern for McCarron’s health and my regard for his defense.
I enjoy defense. I like seeing the other guys get killed and make mistakes that my kicker can turn into points.
I hate kickers but I love field goals. I’m addicted to gambling on how well a foot, a leather ball and two gigantic yellow uprights can get along.
I’m old school. I’d stick with the veer before some kind of Red Bull induced spread offense that lacks consistency. Not me. Give me a solid defense and a reputable kicker.
Unfortunately, Saban did not see the wisdom in my scheme. In fact, he didn’t even ask for my opinion when the rest of the coaches and I entered the home locker room an hour before kickoff.
That’s fine, I thought. His loss.
I threw on my university issued polo shirt and nixed the complimentary hat. If I wouldn’t call plays, I’d get my summer tan started early.
As I listened to Saban address the team prior to kickoff, two things struck me: A) He demands a lot of his players and stresses personal responsibility like none other. And B) Every single player is tuned into his wavelength. His quiet intensity is infectious. Rookie or veteran, they look into his eyes and accept his mantra of accountability -- not an easy message to get through to teenagers and 20-somethings.
When we broke into our respective teams, I went the way of the first-team defense. In a street fight, I liked my odds. With defensive coordinator Kirby Smart on my side, I knew we’d be ready for a battle.
And here I thought I could get fired up on my own. Then Smart started cussing up a storm. It was A-Day, a scrimmage less nationally relevant than Latin. Still, he was geared up, barking orders in a tongue that resembled something of the dead language itself -- familiar yet totally incomprehensible.
He shouted terms like “dime rabbit” and “Charlie” and signaled plays like a game of charades, rubbing his sternum on one call and another he pressed his fingers together and stuck out his pinky as if he were snobbily sipping a cup of tea.
It felt like I was lost in the Italian Renaissance, learning etiquette and ancient languages with a group of hulking athletes sitting rapt in attention.
Just before we broke for the field, the energy spiked. Some players fell silent while other began jumping and yelping excitedly. At one point the opening lines to the Archie Eversole hit “We Ready” were chanted. Although the song has always struck me as cliché in television and films, inside the Fail Room it felt right. My blood pressure was hitting McDonalds-induced levels. I started sweating and suddenly craved a McRib Sandwich.
We huddled and broke for the field, and I even jogged off like the players and coaches. I felt out of shape. I longed for sweet tea and a sofa.
The game went by like a blur. Luckily, I took notes. Here’s what stood out:
Hubbard is a giant of a man. He seems to occupy all the linebacker positions at once. He can get after the quarterback with a deftness reminiscent of Dont’a Hightower.
T.J. Yeldon is going to be special. He already has an SEC build and handles the game like a seasoned pro. Not once did I see him smile. It doesn’t seem to be a game to him, more like a profession.
Not much has changed in coaching in the past 30 years. Coaches still use projectors and scribble nonsensically on white boards. Alabama may have some of the best resources in the country but nothing beats a white board when it comes to drawing up plays.
Smart never stops talking. He spouts off directions like a machine gun and exhibits a brand of wittiness unique to coaches. At one point he went up to Yeldon and asked if he knew what stoney ball was. Yeldon shook his head and Smart laughed, “You just pound the rock.”
Honestly, Smart can have his Saturdays on the sidelines. After walking away with a wicked sunburn, I prefer life in the press box. Coaching A-Day was a great opportunity to see the inner workings of the team, but I’ll stick to my judgments from afar.
I’m retiring from coaching profession. It’s been fun. I’m getting out of the biz while I’m undefeated.