On college football

Saban, Weis on different paths

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / December 5, 2008
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In many ways, they are similar, eerily so in some instances.

Both came to storied programs that were on downward spirals, confusing and outraging their fans.

Both arrived at their schools with a sense of confidence that bordered on arrogance.

Both had links to Bill Belichick, as former assistants.

But now they are headed in opposite directions and the question about Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and Alabama coach Nick Saban is why?

Saban is the flavor du jour in college football. Two years after he arrived in Tuscaloosa, the Tide are 12-0, ranked No. 1 in the polls, and one victory away from a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game in Miami. The last hurdle will be formidable - once-beaten and lava-hot Florida in tomorrow's Southeastern Conference title game in Atlanta.

Weis, after a strong start his first two years, has almost fallen off the charts with a woeful 3-9 record last season and a stumbling 6-6 finish this year, which had some people calling for his resignation. On Wednesday, however, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Weis would be back next season.

It's not that Notre Dame is losing, it's the way it is playing, or not playing. A narrow victory over Navy, a stunning collapse against woeful Syracuse, and the expected blowout loss to Southern Cal last week.

But the bar at Notre Dame has been lowered to such a level that the Irish are shopping around for any bowl that will ignore their record and bank on the Notre Dame name.

It is so bad that, even though Weis will be coming back for a fifth season, his long-term future is in question.

In comparison, Saban has done what he's always done at places such as Michigan State and Louisiana State, where he won the national championship in 2003. Although his stop in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins was too short to render a final grade, it is clear Saban knows how to coach and win.

And perhaps that is the difference here. Before Notre Dame took a gamble on Weis, a former student, he had never been a head coach in college or the NFL. The last time Weis ran his own shop was as a high school coach.

No one can question the success he had as Belichick's offensive coordinator with the Patriots. But Weis left and the Patriots still won, still ran a smooth, precision offense led by Tom Brady.

Maybe Weis is more coordinator than coach and needs to drop a level. Those are questions that are being asked now in South Bend.

In Tuscaloosa, as Alabama continues what has been a dream season, Saban talks of the past and present with the quiet confidence of someone who has done this before.

"The biggest thing is that everybody on this team cares," said Saban. "It's reflective of how a team plays, how it responds to challenges. It's been a really fun team to coach. Not many teams have won 12 games at this point in the season. There's a lot to be proud of for what this team has accomplished."

What is obvious over the last two years is that Alabama has gotten better, going from a 7-6 record to perfection (to this point, at least) in one season. The Tide got better and it showed in their record and performance.

Such was not the case for Weis and Notre Dame, as they went from 3-9 to 6-6 without appearing to get any better and actually getting worse as the season progressed.

It could be argued that Alabama's 12-0 record is misleading. The Tide have beaten only one team ranked in the top 25 of the BCS (Georgia) this season. They have beaten only one team (Georgia again) that has won more than seven games.

This week, Saban talked about the team's attitude and "degree of commitment." He also talked about the Belichick influence on him and, ultimately, Alabama.

"Bill has a great ability to cut through the clutter, to get to what's important," Saban said. "We try to do that so people will focus on the right things. We've done a pretty good job of that."

Yes, they have, and Alabama, which is the seventh-winningest program in college football history, is once again among the elite of the elite.

Notre Dame, the third-winningest program, behind Michigan and Texas, shows no signs of regaining such status.

So as another football season winds down, Charlie Weis and Nick Saban, two men with similar backgrounds and ambitions, appear to be headed in opposite directions.

Globe Top 10
1. Alabama
2. Florida
3. Texas
4. Oklahoma
5. Southern Cal
6. Penn State
7. Utah
8. Boise State
9. Texas Tech
10. Ohio State

Game of the Week: Some people around Boston College said they would like a more high-profile opponent than Cincinnati if the Eagles win the Atlantic Coast Conference title over Virginia Tech and get the Orange Bowl bid. The Southeastern Conference is waiting in the Music City Bowl if BC doesn't hold onto the ball against the dangerous Hokies. BC 23, Virginia Tech 21.

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