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June 26, 2014

TOM LINDLEY: Spurrier livens up the offseason by needling Nick Saban

Some would never admit this, but thanks must go to South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier for returning everyone’s attention to the 2014 college football season. It’s official: Class is back in session.

The Old Professor, ah, make that Ball Coach, used an interview with The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., to raise the possibility that Alabama, despite all of its glory and attention, may have under-performed during Nick Saban’s seven seasons at the helm.

Has Spurrier been in the sun too long? Did he stumble and fall into a sand trap?

Probably nothing like that. More likely is that Spurrier felt it was time to pump some life into an off-season where recruits take their five-star status and commit to a team one day, only to de-commit and begin looking elsewhere the next.

This was Spurrier being Spurrier, and there’s nothing he enjoys more than putting an elbow into Saban and giving the sporting world something to debate on those days that beg for a new topic.

In the interview, published on The State’s website devoted to University of South Carolina sports, GoGamecocks.com, Spurrier discussed his off-season approach, which includes an occasional relaxing round of golf. It’s those moments where he recharges his competitive juices. Workaholics don’t gain an edge by rarely leaving the office, he said.

“I have read stories that people who last a long time have outside interests. I can’t grind on football 11 months a year maybe the way some of these coaches do,” Spurrier said.

He noted some other coaches who work 13-hour days in the offseason: “I don’t know what they do. They say they are working.”

Readers didn’t have to work hard connecting the dots to figure out who held Spurrier’s fascination. He led them right to Saban.

Then he questioned the rewards of the Alabama coach’s well-known work ethic.

“He’s won three nationals (championships), but he’s only won two SECs in eight years,” Spurrier said. “Now, if you had the No. 1 recruiting class every year and so forth, I don’t know if he has maxed out potentially as well as he could.”

Ouch. It’s not too often that the king gets called out. But Spurrier is different from others in his profession when it comes to speaking his mind.

He wasn’t finished.

“I told Nick Saban one time, I said, “Nick, you don’t have to stay there until midnight and your teams would be just as good and win just as many,’” Spurrier said. “He said, ’If I could do it the way you do it, I would, but I don’t feel comfortable unless I try to cover every base, every angle, be totally prepared.’”

Saban is as close to a perfectionist as one will find in college athletics. It’s all about preparation and chasing excellence. His dedication and the demands he places on his players and coaches are his program’s hallmark.

It might not be for everyone, but it gets results.

Sometimes, though, one is left to wonder if his task is truly enjoyable. Even when all goes well, there seems to be little time for celebration. There’s always the next game, the next recruiting pitch, the next problem to solve.

There’s truth in what Spurrier says about burnout. There’s also proof that Saban’s taskmaster approach produces championship rings.

It’s fodder for a good debate and a question that eludes easy answers. Thanks go to Spurrier for raising the subject. Class dismissed.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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