I opened the email and read the assignment from the bosses: “Hey McGee, you’re headed to the LSU-Alabama game, so why don’t you knock out a column about this awesome season that Bama is putting together?”
Sounds easy enough, right? I mean, Alabama really is awesome this year. On Saturday night, the Crimson Tide will be looking to extend a 17-game home winning streak. Alabama’s defense leads the nation in efficiency. Alabama’s offense is averaging 47.6 points per SEC game, on pace to break Florida’s 21-year-old conference record of 47 ppg. Alabama has won its last six straight against LSU. Alabama is 8-0 this year, winning by an average score of 43-10.
But here’s the issue. I’ve already written all of that. Or said it on the radio. Or recorded it on a podcast. Or spouted it on TV. And I’ve been doing all of the above about this same team, led by the same coach, for the last decade.
I’ve written about where this run — four national titles and five SEC titles in 10 seasons — ranks in the annals of college football history. I’ve written about where Nick Saban ranks among the greatest coaches to ever prowl a sideline. I’ve written about the Saban era versus the Bear Bryant era, and even broken it down to compare the Saban era to the two separately successful stretches of the Bryant era.
What I’m saying here is this: Yes, bosses, Bama is having an awesome season. But it always has awesome seasons, earned by awesome players by way of awesome performances against would-be awesome opponents. So awesome, in fact, that those opponents even say that Alabama is awesome. Like, literally. Over the last 12 months alone Dabo Swinney of Clemson, Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M, Butch Jones of Tennessee, Jimbo Fisher of Florida State and Dan Mullen of Mississippi State have all used that very word when talking about the Tide, most after having just been whipped by them.
Problem is, I’ve run out of ways to say “awesome” with a script A.
“Well, let’s see here,” the librarian said to me as she peered through the lower half of her bifocals at the massive book before her.
Here in the South County branch of the Mecklenburg County (North Carolina) Library near my home, I had asked for help finding synonyms for awesome.
“We keep this edition of Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus out on permanent display in our reference section for people in a bind similar to yours,” she said. “It appears we have 34 possibilities here. Astonishing … grand … mind-blowing … stupefying … wondrous … Would any of these work?”
I paused to think. As I did, I looked over and we were being watched by a guy in a Mark Ingram jersey.
— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) November 2, 2017
Then she scrunched up her face in that inquisitive way that seems exclusive to librarians. “Well, this is interesting. A lot of these synonyms are darker than I would have expected. Daunting … imposing … overwhelming … terrifying … I doubt these would work, would they?”
“Well,” I deadpanned, proudly. “I think they’d work if you were another coach in SEC West.”
I laughed. She did not.
“OK then,” she replied, flatly. “Is there anything else I can help you with, or are we done here?”
As I walked back to my truck, I realized the selfishness of pity. Sure, I have to write about Alabama a lot, but what’s a lot? Maybe a few times a month? The real plight is suffered by those who have to chronicle the Tide on a daily basis. The Bama beat writers, those poor souls, have to fill multiple pages of their papers every Saturday evening after yet another multi-touchdown stomping of an opponent, one that looks pretty much like the one a week before it and all weeks before that. What’s more, a reading audience raised during the internet age has become ravenous, expecting to click and consume multiple “Alabama is awesome” stories not per week, but per day.
“We were just having a discussion about this challenge just today,” confessed Michael Casagrande, who covers the Tide for AL.com and its affiliated newspapers throughout the Yellowhammer State. His two stints on the Bama beat add up to eight seasons, all within this decade of domination. “There is a point where it feels like you are covering an assembly line. On one hand, you marvel at what you are seeing, but on the other, there is the challenge of, ‘Well, it’s working so well, but it sure does look a lot like it did last year and the year before, and, well, 2009, you name it.'”
“I think we all have a great appreciation for what we’re witnessing, it’s coming up with new ways to express it,” added Alex Scarborough, who has handled on-the-ground Alabama coverage for ESPN.com since 2012. Earlier this season he penned a piece titled “Why the Alabama Death Star is fiercer than ever” in which Saban grouses and barks and complains after defeating Ole Miss 66-3. “We’ve called them the Death Star, a dynasty, whatever title you can come think of. But they aren’t slowing down, so we’ll have to keep coming up with new titles. If that’s possible.”
Every coach has an early weekday meeting with the media. Depending on the team and market and their combined strength, many of those rooms contain only a small handful of media members. Saban’s Monday morning Q&A is packed wall-to-wall, writers and broadcasters sitting in seats that, fittingly, look and feel like a professorial lecture hall in one of the nearby classroom buildings.
The members of that group are often pegged — in most cases, unfairly — with that most dreaded of media labels.
“I go back all the time and review what I’m writing because I want to make sure I’m not doing anything to be perceived as a homer,” said Aaron Suttles of the Tuscaloosa News. His first year on the beat was ’09, Saban’s first national title with the Tide. “I’m not going back and saying, ‘Man, I really need to be negative more often’ but what do you do when there’s really only overwhelmingly positive things happening?”
Oh by the way, in the middle of it all, Saban walked into that media room and said that daring to document that positivity was the worst thing that beat writers could possibly do. You remember his “rat poison” rant, right?
Well, Coach, we don’t want to be like Lily Tomlin in “9 to 5,” but unfortunately, there’s no Skinny & Sweet in the cabinet. All you’ve given us to put in your coffee is Rid-O-Rat.
For Suttles, he digs into the analytics whenever he can. Even that becomes just another way of saying “Bama is awesome.” Just this week, he wrote about the team’s efforts to keep its stable of running backs fresh versus what felt like a more taxing workload a year ago. “Then, you realize that a big part of why they are able to keep [the running backs] fresh by using so many of them is, frankly, just a byproduct of the fact that they’ve only played one four-quarter game this year, against Texas A&M. But even that game was a 15-point game with 20 seconds left.”
That was back in Week 6, when the Tide won by “only” 27-19. The closeness of the contest was a bit of a gift because it gave Saban something to legitimately complain about and thus gave those who cover him something to legitimately dig into.
“Yeah, and that lasted all of one week,” Scarborough reminded. “In the two games since they’ve won 86-16.”
Added Casagrande: “The assembly line paused for a little maintenance and then started back up again.”
The same happened with Tuesday night’s reveal of the initial 2017 College Football Playoff rankings, when the assembly line was pushed into the backseat. Alabama was ranked second, behind (gulp) another SEC school, Georgia.
“That was on Halloween, which was also Saban’s birthday,” explained Jay Barker, former Alabama QB and now longtime staple for the state’s morning commuters as the co-host of Opening Drive on WJOX radio in Birmingham. “It was a gift to Saban because it gave him some relief from the rat poison and maybe some motivation to throw at his team. It was gift to us because it actually gave us something to talk about. But honestly, the fan base on Wednesday morning wasn’t as outraged as you would’ve expected. They were more like, ‘Well, we are still pretty awesome and we have LSU coming up this weekend, so we’ll be OK.’ I was like, ‘Man, we weren’t even able to ride that for as long as we thought we could.'”
So where do we go from here? The librarian, clearly done with me, pointed me in the direction of the sports section and shoved me toward a collection of really old, dusty books penned by some of the greatest names in the history of the press box.
Grantland Rice — charged in the pre-World War II days with covering the likes of Ty Cobb, Red Grange, Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey — chose to run directly into the light of greatness. He unapologetically pumped air into the balloons of their legends. This is the man who compared the Notre Dame backfield to the Bible’s four horsemen. He declared that Christy Mathewson vacationed in Florida to sip from the Fountain of Eternal Youth, and to describe Cobb he, as he often did, turned to poetry.
“There are seven Browns in the Major Leagues
And four Smiths on the job
There are still five others by the name of Jones
But there’s only one Ty Cobb.”
Jim Murray, the legendary L.A. Times columnist of the century’s second half, was known for his unmatched humor, but also his unvarnished honesty. When Iowa made it to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champs, he wrote of their fans rolling into Southern California: “… thousands of people in calico and John Deere caps in their Winnebagos with their pacemakers and potato salad, looking for Bob Hope.”
He, too, was willing to call out greatness when he saw it, as he did when trying to describe Bill Russell when the Boston Celtics were in the middle of winning 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. Almost desperate to make sure people appreciated what was happening before them, Murray wrote: “He is Henry Ford at an assembly line. Abraham Lincoln at a platform. Babe Ruth with a bat. Jim Brown with a football … He is Bill Russell and he owns the game of basketball in fee simple. As no one ever has and no one ever will again. He is alone for his time and his specialty as Shakespeare, Caesar — or Bridget Bardot.”
Murray, in 1965, hadn’t foreseen the arrival of Michael Jordan a couple of decades later. The man who covered Jordan’s Chicago Bulls — which won six NBA titles in nine years as Jordan racked up five league MVP awards — was Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune. He feels the pain of those of us charged with coming up with new stuff to say about Bama. Well, sort of.
“Because of the way that college football is structured, you aren’t given what we were given when Michael was in Chicago. We talked to him every single day. We had so many games to write about and so many other personalities on the team to look into, we had more options,” Smith said. “You pretty much have the coach to write about and that’s it. And while he is quick to talk about the importance of his players and not himself, he’s really the only one doing the talking.”
Smith was so well-respected on his beat that even after writing a somewhat negative book about Jordan and his team, “The Jordan Rules,” the player never froze him out and the team eventually hired him to write for its website.
Smith paused for a second, thinking about the plight of covering Bama. Then he practically licked his chops.
“What you should do is just start writing about nothing but the players, give them all the credit,” he said. “Perhaps their talent is overcoming the overwhelming coach. See how that goes over.”
Bob Harig, ESPN’s senior golf writer, covered all 14 of Tiger Woods’ major championships and estimated he was there for at least 45 of Tiger’s 79 career wins. His advice? Keep plowing. It’s what the people want, even if they tell you otherwise.
“I’m sure what you or anyone covering college football hears is the same that I’ve always heard about the coverage of Tiger,” he said. “They complain, ‘Oh man, not more Tiger stuff! Aren’t you tired of that already?’ And do you run out of angles or people to ask about him? Sure. I can’t tell you how many weekends he would jump out to a huge lead on Thursday and it was like, ‘Well, here we go again.’ But there’s also a neverending appetite for it. No matter what people might say, the great ones are the story. Even when they lose.”
Oh yeah, losing. That does happen, even if it becomes hard to recall.
“If anything, the advice I have for people covering a great team or athlete is take a moment and appreciate what you are seeing,” Harig added. “I look back now and we really took Tiger’s success for granted. At the height of it, you are assuming every record will fall and that’s just how it’s going to be. Then it stops.”
Adds Smith: “You hang around long enough and you will cover great teams but you will also cover awful teams. Believe me when I say that the problem of trying to find new stories with a great team is a much better problem than trying to figure out a new way to say, well, they lost again.”
Believe it or not, Alabama has lost before and will lose again. Just ask the media member with the deepest Crimson Tide ties.
On Wednesday afternoon, sitting on the set of his SEC Network show, Paul Finebaum prepared for what he expected to be a four-hour deluge of callers wanting to know why in the world their beloved team was sitting second instead of first in the CFP standings. Finebaum has been covering Alabama football since 1980, starting at the Birmingham Post-Herald while Bear Bryant was still basking in the spotlight of perhaps his finest season. Only four years later, he was dead and the program was set adrift for nearly a decade. “What was the gold standard for Alabama football before Nick Saban? It was 1979,” Finebaum said of the Tide’s 12-0 year that ended with the team’s second consecutive national title. “But how many people even remember that? To so many now, it’s like the program didn’t even exist before Nick Saban.” Finebaum was among the first to openly speculate that Saban might be the greatest college football coach of all time. At the time, he was ridiculed. Now he catches hell anytime he dares even bring other names in any greatest-ever conversation. “The true mark of greatness is when we stop comparing someone to other people and start only comparing him to himself,” Finebaum said. “That’s where we are now. It’s not, how does the 2017 Alabama defense compare to the ’92 defense or the ’79 defense, it’s how do they compare to the 2012 defense?” He smiles. “I have seen bad Alabama football teams. So have you. We’ll both see one again one day. But not today. So, we talk about and write about what we see, whether people want to hear it or not. And how would you describe what we’re seeing?” It’s … sigh … awesome. “Exactly.”
On Wednesday afternoon, sitting on the set of his SEC Network show, Paul Finebaum prepared for what he expected to be a four-hour deluge of callers wanting to know why in the world their beloved team was sitting second instead of first in the CFP standings. Finebaum has been covering Alabama football since 1980, starting at the Birmingham Post-Herald while Bear Bryant was still basking in the spotlight of perhaps his finest season. Only four years later, he was dead and the program was set adrift for nearly a decade.
“What was the gold standard for Alabama football before Nick Saban? It was 1979,” Finebaum said of the Tide’s 12-0 year that ended with the team’s second consecutive national title. “But how many people even remember that? To so many now, it’s like the program didn’t even exist before Nick Saban.”
Finebaum was among the first to openly speculate that Saban might be the greatest college football coach of all time. At the time, he was ridiculed. Now he catches hell anytime he dares even bring other names in any greatest-ever conversation.
“The true mark of greatness is when we stop comparing someone to other people and start only comparing him to himself,” Finebaum said. “That’s where we are now. It’s not, how does the 2017 Alabama defense compare to the ’92 defense or the ’79 defense, it’s how do they compare to the 2012 defense?”
He smiles. “I have seen bad Alabama football teams. So have you. We’ll both see one again one day. But not today. So, we talk about and write about what we see, whether people want to hear it or not. And how would you describe what we’re seeing?”
It’s … sigh … awesome.