Those who were fortunate enough to have been involved with Alabama football during the Paul Bryant era frequently think about those times in the 1960s and 70s (actually, 1958-82). It is likely those who are a part of the Nick Saban era of Crimson Tide football (2007 and counting) will have similar memories. That’s because the two coaching giants share many of the same, positive characteristics.
It was a bit of a surprise when Alabama Coach Nick Saban was faced with a “Bear Bryant” question during Southeastern Conference Media Days this week. It was not a surprise that he handled it cleanly and with humility, defusing the extraordinary Saban accomplishments – back-to-back national championships and three in four years – while extolling those of Bryant. It is one more way in which two incomparable college football coaches know how to do things.
Current college players can hardly be expected to have an appreciation for Bryant. Saban is the rock star of college football today. But without realizing it, Crimson Tide offensive guard Anthony Steen hit on another similarity during his interview at SEC Media Days.
On the outside, it is assumed that men like Bryant and Saban are leaders by intimidation. That is not the case. They are leaders by example, the hardest workers, the most demanding of themselves. The only fear in working or playing for Bryant was the fear of failing to please him.
Steen said the success of the Alabama offensive line is “more of trying not to disappoint Coach Saban. It makes us go that much harder every day to try to make him happy We were more of a pride thing, to not want to get beat. I think that fueled us.”
Steen, a 6-3, 309-pound upcoming senior from Clarksdale, Miss., has started at right guard on Bama’s two most recent national championship teams. Late last season – when accolades were piling up for Bama linemen Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, and D.J. Fluker – Saban said, “Steen is just as good as those guys.”
Journalists at SEC Media Days took note of that endorsement and included Steen – the Tide’s most experienced offensive lineman with 25 starts – on the pre-season All-SEC first team.
Steen said he hasn’t thought about the legacy of Saban’s Bama teams yet. “I don’t think it’s really hit me yet,” he said. “It might be 10 years down the road when I get old – although I feel old now.”
Meanwhile, Steen is thinking about the future, the immediate future.
He said that the 2013 Alabama offensive line “is the same -- The Kouandjio brothers (left tackle Cyrus and left guard Arie), me, Kelly (center Ryan Kelly), and Shepherd (right tackle Austin Shepherd). And nothing is set in stone. If the freshmen are good enough, then they can take a position. Everything is up for grabs.”
Alabama players have been in Tuscaloosa all summer working out, but officially report Aug. 1 and begin practice Aug. 2. The Crimson Tide opens the season Aug. 31 against Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
“I know it’s not going to be one of those easy games,” he said. And even though Steen is an adherent of the “one game at a time” philosophy, he knows the second game. After Virginia Tech, Alabama has an open date.
“I know in that bye week we’ll flipt that switch on for Texas A&M,” Steen said. “We already know both games will be tough for us.
“I think I'd rather not even have the bye week. I think that bye week's just going to make me nervous about it. I know it's going to be a nail-biter and I heard that Aggie Stadium is a tough place to play. Of course, I've never played there. I'm excited for it.”
A&M and its Heisman Trophy quarterback, Johnny Manziel, spoiled a perfect season for Alabama last year with a 29-24 win over the Tide in Tuscaloosa. This year’s game is Sept. 14 in College Station.
Steen acknowledged that part of the motivation for the game against the Aggies is the game tape being played constantly on the dozens of television sets in the Alabama weight room during summer workouts. “Virginia Tech comes first,” Steen said. “Once that switch comes on for A&M, I promise you we’re going to be pumped.”
Some other observations from Steen:
He’s not surprised that Kelly has stepped in and performed well at center. “Barrett was hurt for a while last year. I played beside Kelly 17 practices. We got used to each other. Last year I knew he was going to step in and do just fine.”
Steen is glad to have junior college transfer Leon Brown working at tackle on the offensive line. “I’m glad coach brought him in,” Steen said. “It’s going to push Austin and make him work that much harder for a starting job.”
One of the incoming freshmen offensive linemen who has been working out has caught the eye of Steen. “Grant Hill,” he said. “He’s fast and strong. Grant Hill’s coming out there and he’s trying every day. He obviously wants to start.”
Alabama’s continuing improvement in facilities helps motivate Steen. One of the additions is a hallway recognizing former Tide players who have been NFL first round draft selections. “That makes me want to be up on that wall,” Steen said.
Alabama football could hardly be said to be under the radar. It is the gold standard. But, Steen pointed out, “We might not be the flashiest. We don't have flashy uniforms. I think here it's more of a tradition. Old school, hard-nosed, hit you in the mouth football. That's what I like. I'd rather keep it simple and I don't care if we let you know where we're running. Go ahead and try to stop us. That's just how I am and I think that's how Coach Saban is.”