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S.E.C. Media Days: Nick Saban Soars, Urban Meyer Crashes and Burns

The S.E.C. Media Days continued on Thursday after opening with a moderately quotable Wednesday.

Yesterday's interviewees included Alabama's Nick Saban and Florida's Urban Meyer, two men with similarly stellar Southeastern Conference coaching resumes who came into the day with distinctly different public personas and may have reversed their respective roles during their sessions with the press.

Coach Saban was commonly viewed as prickly and brusque, whereas Coach Meyer was all the rage after the Gators' 2006 title run. However, on Thursday, the Armani Bear came across as a smooth operator, while the Urban Legend made one wonder whether the man who has never before coached a quarterback he recruited might yet prove to be the Urban Myth.

Coach Saban has been criticized here before for making ill-considered remarks, but, in this instance, the new Alabama head coach acquitted himself extremely well. He began by declaring it "[g]reat to be back in the S.E.C." and followed that up by telling the members of the news media that he "thank[ed] each and every one of you for the job that you do."

He praised the Southeastern Conference as "even tougher now than ever before"---a statement for which a case objectively could be made---without belittling any other leagues in the process. He concluded his opening statement thusly:

It's great to be optimistic. It's probably not so good to be pessimistic. But it's best to be realistic, to stay focused on the process of things you need to do to continue to improve so that you can reach your full potential and have every individual player reach his full potential so that you can have the best possible team that you can.

That's where our focus is. That's what we're trying to do. That's what we're anxiously looking forward to doing in this fall camp and early in this season.

Coach Saban made numerous references to his family, noting that "we certainly appreciate the passion and support that our fans have" and frequently mentioning "the Sabans." While the accuracy of his characterization of his initial response to the availability of the Alabama job is open to debate, he gave a plausible answer to a reporter's question about his original denial before concluding, "Maybe we could have handled it a better way."

When asked about the reaction of the L.S.U. faithful to his return to the S.E.C. West, Coach Saban began by noting that he had "a tremendous amount of respect for the people of the state of Louisiana." He even praised Les Miles for doing "a tremendous job there in the two years he's been there."

Regarding non-conference scheduling, Coach Saban offered a reasonable and intriguing observation:

Philosophically, and I know there's a debate and a dilemma on this all the time, but we have a very difficult league. It's tough from top to bottom. If you're going to have success in the league, it's difficult to play a tough out of conference schedule.

But maybe it's from being at Michigan State for 10 years. We always played Notre Dame. We always played somebody out of the league in one of our three non-conference games that gave us a national recognition, prominence, whatever you want to call it. I still philosophically believe that's important.

I am hopeful that we can try to find one opponent each year that we can do that. The thing with Florida State this year, even though they have a great program, all that, I think is healthy for the S.E.C. I think it's healthy for our program at the University of Alabama.

We're trying to work something possibly for next year, then '08 and '09. We do have Georgia Tech in the future, Penn State in the future in some of those years. Philosophically that's what we're trying to do.

One of the things I think would be more beneficial to our league in doing that and, again, this is kind of coming from the Big 10, we didn't start the Big 10 season until like September 20, the fourth week of the season.

We played our three non-conference games right off the bat, all right, which I think is an advantage because if you play a good opponent and you don't have success, your team can continue to improve and you can prove in those three games before you come into league play.

Like this year we play one game, and then we play Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and Georgia. Later on in the season, when the players are geared into the S.E.C., we have non-conference games we have to try to play. I think if we change that as a league it would be much more beneficial to all the teams and would benefit us all a little bit and would help scheduling. I think people would be more in tune to playing an opponent early on that was a quality opponent.

But philosophically that's what we're trying to do. I think it's important to kind of get the national exposure. People who have done that give themselves a better opportunity to win and be recognized nationally. With our current system, I think that's important.

Coach Saban worked in a few of the usual platitudes ("I think that sports is a metaphor of life"), emphasized his humble upbringing, and discussed the influence of the book The Road Less Traveled on his spiritual development. He even worked in a "y'all."

Reasonable sports fans may debate the sincerity of Coach Saban's responses, although there seems to be no particularly good reason on this specific occasion for accusing him of engaging in noncommittal coachspeak any more so than any of his colleagues. I give the man credit for saying what needed to be said in a way that not only did not stir the pot further, but actually worked to calm down an inflamed situation.

This brings us to Urban Meyer.

Coach Meyer provides a clear example of how fine a line there is between success and failure in major college football. He comes into this season as the fair-haired boy of the league, having captured a national championship in just his second season in the Southeastern Conference.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that, but for a couple of blocked kicks against South Carolina, Coach Meyer would enter this season as the occupant of the hottest seat in the league outside of Fayetteville, Ark., as the Gator faithful wondered whether he would ever beat Steve Spurrier.

Perhaps it is the presence of the Ol' Ball Coach in the Eastern Division, but, for all his outward arrogance, Urban Meyer comes across as a guy whose bluster only barely conceals his dire need to take a Dale Carnegie course to boost his self-confidence.

When describing the S.E.C. as "so traditional rich," Coach Meyer felt the need to compare the spring game attendance of the defending national champions to that of a team that finished 2006 with a losing record: "I think we had 70,000. They had 90,000."

Urban Meyer's acute consciousness of residing in Darth Visor's shadow is painfully apparent. When asked about Nick Saban, the Gator skipper turned the discussion to the Evil Genius:

Steve Spurrier going to South Carolina was a big deal, too. Any school that has a coach come in with a great tradition and obviously an excellent record, you're going to see that.

When describing the S.E.C. East, Coach Meyer also referred to "see[ing] South Carolina with a coach that has a record that's as good as anybody that ever coached."

As usual, Coach Meyer made bold pronouncements harkening back to his days at Bowling Green and Utah, apparently forgetting Lewis Grizzard's rule that we are happy to welcome northerners into our environs, so long as they don't keep telling us how they did things back in Cleveland.

When addressing a subject on which "[o]pinions are strong," though, Coach Meyer was so clumsy in his evasiveness that he felt moved to sum up his answer by saying, "Pretty good way to not answer your question, wasn't it?" Coach Saban never came anywhere near calling attention to the man behind the curtain so ham-handedly.

Intense hyperactivity typifies many successful coaches, but Urban Meyer comes across as being almost comically fidgety and jittery. He declared himself "awful anxious to get going" and said of Tim Tebow: "He's got the 'it.' Everybody wants the 'it' in that position."

Perhaps his affinity for text-messaging has impeded his ability to articulate a thought verbally. This would explain why Coach Meyer talks like a teenage girl . . . and why he seemed to be caught completely off-guard by the inevitable question about what would happen if Tebow was injured:

Ooh. Turn around and punch him right in the mouth, will you? Next question. I don't know. Make sure your punter . . .

To be fair, Coach Meyer did make one cogent point about the effect of demographics on recruiting, observing (albeit awkwardly):
I think the population base has moved to the South. It's not by accident that those teams, Miami, F.S.U., Florida, have really when you look at the history of college football, that wasn't a real strong history back when Ohio State and Michigan because the population base where I'm from was much greater than it is now.

In saying so, Coach Meyer sounded a bit like Peter Applebome, although he muddied the waters once more when he made the cryptic remark, "In my personal opinion, making it through the S.E.C. injury-free is a secret." A secret? What, do the other coaches in the league not know about it?

Bookending Thursday's marquee coaches were Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson and Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom, the latter of whom laid it on the line at the outset:

I feel a great deal of pressure. The same pressure I felt when I was in the ninth grade when Tuscaloosa Junior High played Eastwood Junior High. Tuscaloosa Junior High won. Same pressure I felt then. The pressure of winning a game and having bragging rights after the game's over.

If you're asking me whether I'm worried about whether I'm going to get fired, no. I've coached for 30 years. I've never had to go look for a job. I've always had one. The good Lord has blessed me with one. I know we're doing things the right way.

Coach Croom may or may not have a job in the Southeastern Conference a year from now---my bet is that he will return in 2008---but, clearly, he has the self-confidence that Urban Meyer only pretends to possess, which may account for why the Gator coach, despite being the toast of the town, was the fourth most intelligible S.E.C. coach to have spoken to the media on Thursday.

Go 'Dawgs!