ATLANTA – Lane Kiffin makes coaching for Nick Saban sound only slightly more enjoyable than, say, a 40-minute wait for a cheeseburger and frosted orange drink.
Fun? Ehhh. It isn’t really that, Alabama’s outgoing offensive coordinator told reporters on Thursday, three days ahead of Washington’s College Football Playoff semifinal against the Crimson Tide in the Peach Bowl.
Rewarding, certainly. Kiffin parlayed three years as an assistant at Alabama into a head coaching gig at Florida Atlantic, where he’ll take over after the playoffs. Coaching under Saban, the best in the business by a country mile and then some, had to be beneficial.
But was it fun?
“We don’t use that word a lot,” Kiffin told reporters, with a laugh, at Peach Bowl media day. “But obviously it’s been a great experience and I’ve learned a ton. In my opinion, winning is fun. So, it’s been fun.”
This, in many ways, encapsulates the tremendous pressure faced by Alabama coaches and players on a daily basis. Winning is fun, and they do that all the time, in 25 consecutive games dating to September of last season, which culminated in ’Bama’s fourth national championship in a seven-year span.
Winning is the only acceptable outcome. As such, Tide players, under Saban’s rule, are taught to despise failure more than enjoy victory.
“We hate to lose more than we love to win,” Alabama running back Damien Harris said. “We’re trying to make sure that we don’t lose, and we go out and dominate our opponent to where they say they don’t want to ever play us again.”
There are different stakes, then, for the Crimson Tide and the Huskies, despite this being a national semifinal game with the winner headed to the Jan. 9 national title tilt in Tampa, Florida.
If Alabama wins, the Huskies will be disappointed. No doubt. They’re competitors, too. They hate losing, too. But a loss in this game will not color what has already been one of the most successful seasons in school history.
If Alabama, favored by as many as 15 points, were to lose?
“Honestly, if we don’t win the national championship, it wasn’t a good year for us,” Harris said. “And Coach Saban has kind of developed that kind of mentality around him, and that’s something that we carry, and that’s kind of the mindset that we have coming into every game.”
It would seem that Alabama should feel most of the pressure, if it is staking the success of its entire season upon running the table. Yet questions posed by media to UW players and coaches this week suggest so little belief in the Huskies’ chances of victory that the only pressure facing the Tide might be what they apply to themselves.
Questions to UW players tend to go something like this: How big of a challenge is this Alabama defense? What do you guys think of the point spread? Do you believe you can move the ball? Where is Seattle, again?
(OK, we made that last one up.)
Questions to Alabama players tend to go something like this: Where does this defense rank among the best in Alabama history? At what point can you tell when an opponent has quit against you? Do you think about where this team ranks among the great sports dynasties? Will you quit the sport if you don’t win by 50?
(OK, we made that last one up.)
“I look at my sophomore year, when we lost to Ohio State, as a lost year for us,” said Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen of his team’s final record of 12-2 in 2014. “We won the SEC. So we just have high standards and high expectations for ourselves, and when we don’t meet them, we’re disappointed.”
It was noted to Allen, winner of the Nagurski Trophy as college football’s top defensive player, that such a high demand for excellence might lead to a joyless existence.
“I wouldn’t say joyless existence,” he countered. “It’s just the kind of philosophy you have to have if you want to be great, if you want to have a legendary legacy. Everybody wants to be great. Everybody wants to be remembered and have their name etched in stone, so if you want to do that, you’ve just got to have that relentlessness to your work ethic and your grind.”
That’s not to say that Washington doesn’t. Saban and UW coach Chris Petersen dressed in suit and tie and exchanged platitudes for a bit at a mostly useless press conference Friday morning, though Petersen’s first remarks might have been the most telling.
He was asked about the week’s bowl festivities, and what the best part was.
His reply: “Well, probably a lot of that has to do with how the game goes.”
Indeed, a loss on Saturday might ruin the Huskies’ week.
But a loss by the Tide would ruin their entire season.
In that way – and maybe only in that way – Washington is in an enviable position.
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