Much has been made over the last six months of Nick Saban's return to college football and the awkward way in which he handled his departure from the Miami Dolphins.
The south Florida and LSU contingent screamed foul, labeled Saban a traitor, challenged his integrity and acted as if he were some self serving, money grubbing bum who flips his allegiance quicker than a silver dollar pancake at IHOP. Literally, Saban has been held up by at least some, as the "poster boy" for all that is wrong in the college football coaching profession, if not all that is wrong in America itself.
Have there not been other coaches to leave college ball for the pros only to decide college coaching better suited their talents?
Did Steve Spurrier not come to the identical conclusion just a few years back? Years of success at Florida including a National Championship only to be lured to the Washington Redskins. After wollowing in mediocrity for a few years and finally coming to his senses, did "the ole ball coach" not head right back to the very same S.E.C. from which he came? Only this time to South Carolina?
Was America calling for Spurrier's head on a platter after such a move? Did fans across dixie declare Spurrier the Benedict Arnold of college football played south of the Mason Dixon line? How then did Saban's departure from LSU and then the Dolphins somehow come to represent the ultimate in collegate betrayal and greed?
Now I am not here to defend Saban nor am I about to attempt to address how he might have communicated his decision to the press better. Frankly, I don't think he needs defending. What I will do however is remind you that while there has indeed been deceipt and betrayal in college footbal, Nick Saban's decision six months ago in no way qualities him for consideration. However, since so many seem anxious to identify the "Darth Vador" of college football, a man that does represent the lowest common denominator in coaching ethics..... I would simply remind you of one Dennis Francione.
Francione started his college head coaching career in 1981 at Southwestern College in Kansas. He then proceeded to Pittsburg State (also in Kansas), Texas State, New Mexico and finally found himself at TCU.
After the 2000 season and with the dismissal of Mike Dubose as Bama's head coach, Francione got the call from Alabama's Mal Moore. After toiling as a head coach for nearly 20 years, Francione would finally get his shot at the big time. "Thank you Alabama".
Now Alabama was under NCAA investigation, Francione knew that along with every other football fan in America. What we also all knew, was that Alabama was guilty and would shortly be placed on probation. The only question was how severe would the sanctions be?
As most already know, juniors and seniors playing for schools placed on probation may transfer to another school without sitting out the customary one year wait time. A frightening prospect for anyone coaching a program about to go on probation. It would be tough enough being placed on probation, imagine struggling through it without your most experienced players?
So almost immediately, coach Fran began a campaign of challenging the juniors and seniors to "stay with the program" once the investigation was over and final verdict in. He literally called every single junior and senior into his office and begged them to stay the course. His plea was a good one, well thought out and seemingly sincere. "Sometimes in life" he would argue, "we have to place our own self interest aside and sacrifice for the greater good".... "This program and it's legends of fans need you here" he would rationalize..."to get this program back on it's feet and see us through the rough times"... "Alabama deserves", as he wiped away a tear, "your loyalty during these troubled times"...
The pitch worked. When the much expected verdict finally came down, not one single junior or senior transferred. Not one!!! As a result the Alabama program appeared at least to be set with all the motivated and loyal players it could muster. While it would not be easy, Alabama would at least be assured of having the help it needed to somehow endure the crippling loss of scholarships, bowl bans and years of probation that would follow. The Crimson Tide also seemed ready to benefit from the stability and consistency a Francione regime would bring during the troubled times that lay ahead.
In Francione's second year, after the penalties were announced but before the scholarship losses took affect, and due in large part to the fact that not one Alabama player transfered, Alabama went 10-2... complete with bowl appearance. Francione the press would argue, was a genius. His plea for loyalty and sacrifice had worked. With one exception.
After Alabama's bowl appearance, Francione flew back to Tuscaloosa, and without so much as saying a word to anyone, got on a private jet and was whisked away to College Station to become Texas A&M's new head football coach. It seems that all the while he had been preaching the gospel of loyalty and sacrifice... of staying the course and of placing Alabama's best interest ahead of self interest, coach Fran had secretly been negotiating his own defection to A&M...
As if that betrayal was not enough, Dennis Francione had neither the class nor integrity to meet with his players and coaches to say goodbye. Maybe he was just not comfortable looking anyone in the eye and even attempting to explain how it could possibly be, that Dennis Francione would be the lone defector. Instead, he called an assistant coach from his private jet and had him break the news to his players. Players as it would turn out, he had willingly used to bolster his own coaching record. Only to desert them at a time when they desperately needed him most.
Now I am not saying that Francione did not have the right to entertain offers from other schools. Nor am I saying he did not have the right, like Saban and Spurrier to make a move. After all, this is not all that uncommon.
What I am saying though is that Francione took the Alabama job knowing it would be placed on probation, knowing that the Tide would struggle with scholarship losses, knowing that once the probation hit, times would be tough. And yes, knowing that what Alabama desperately needed the most, was the stability a seasoned coach could bring.
What I am also saying and what places Dennis Francione in a league of his own, is that he is guilty of taking the Alabama job with absolutely no intention of ever staying. Rather, he intended only to use a marquee program to advance his own personal career and then once the sanctions hit.... he would simply jump ship rather than ride out the storm. And he did so while shamelessly pleading with his players to do that which he himself was not willing to do. As it would turn out, the only person that did not truly believe in and embrace the Francione plan, was Dennis Francione.
One final thought. During the last four years at Texas A&M, while coaching a program free from probation in a conference arguably not as rugged as the SEC, Francione has won 25 games. Alabama, scrambling to find a new coach, dealing with the Mike Price fiasco, stuggling under Mike Shula, competing in the SEC, saddled with scholarship losses and under crippling probation, has won 26. Some are starting to say that as a coach, Francione has been a disappointment at Texas A&M. I would argue that as a man, he was a disappointment before his private jet ever landed in College Station.
So the next time you feel like holding up a poster of the coach that demonstrates the worst in college football. The next time you want to rant and rave about the lack of loyalty in the head coaching profession... the next time you want to challenge the integrity of a coach and berate those who desert schools and players to promote their own self interest... Don't hold up Nick Saban, just remember Dennis Francione.