More than a week after Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said Nick Saban might be experiencing a viral respiratory syndrome, the head football coach took the field with a team-issued face mask as a defensive end who had had surgery recently caught an onside kick in the final minute of a game against Kentucky.
The Crimson Tide won, 50-17, and the mask appeared to reduce how often Saban exhaled.
Auburn, however, is without a coach. This year’s team saw its boss, Gus Malzahn, leave after less than a year when he became mired in a controversy over a new offensive scheme.
“It’s a very tough job,” Saban said Thursday after accepting the nation’s top coach award at the American Football Coaches Association awards ceremony. “You know, it doesn’t matter who’s coaching the team, you try to get your players to play as hard as they can.
“You know, everything is, you know, in a certain way, everything’s in a certain way, and you are kind of encouraged to do the best that you can in your environment that you are in.”
For the third year in a row, Saban captured the honor with six teams in the top 10, one of the strongest stretch of seasons in the history of college football. He has coached teams that have won 10 games or more a remarkable 23 times, which matches the mark for any coach who has been in the job at least seven seasons.
In 1997, Saban led the Tide to an unbeaten season, finishing the season 10-0-1. That achievement earned him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame and a pro football job with the New England Patriots.
On Thursday, Saban’s second straight year receiving the honor, he defended college football’s controversial emphasis on the traditional power of the class from which each of his teams emerged.
“I’ve just been a fan of the game,” Saban said. “I’ve always been a fan of the game, you know, being a part of the game in the same way I’ve always been a big supporter of college football and was always involved. I just was really excited about this team.”
He added, “We’re ready to play. We’re not going to sit around here and not play.”
Saban offered another clarion call on the need for college sports to adopt a salary cap that would require the inclusion of some teams’ athletic budgets as allowed under the tax code.
“There’s a lot of things that are coming up in the conversation that I think kind of highlight the importance of what we have,” he said. “I think the issue of, you know, the inequity of our system is pretty obvious. And in a lot of ways, probably, I think it’s just a reflection of the way our system of government works. I just think that the U.S. Congress ought to act on it.”
While he was aiming for Congress, Saban’s microphone contained a sigh of relief. Before the win, his face appeared to be grim, a likely indicator of the diagnosis the head coach had received earlier this week.
“The amazing thing is,” he said, “I don’t know who’s laughing more.”