Is Alabama in for a bad 2009 season?

Is Alabama in for a bad follow-up to its superb performance in 2008? If you watched any of Nick Saban’s Monday press conference, you might be worried.

Don’t be.

However, it would be wise to temper expectations because Nick Saban’s teams rely heavily on the players’ personal responsibility. And you never know if a team is going to have that during the first hours of spring practice. It takes time to build, and we really won’t know all the answers until this iteration of the Alabama Crimson Tide makes it to fall camp. Remember the good indications filtering out of last year’s fall camp? Those paying attention were able to forecast the win over Clemson based on the good factors present in last year’s team.

There is a tendency from some fans to dismiss Saban’s press conference as nothing more than coachspeak. That too would be wrong. Saban is sending a message to players and fans—and his audience would do well to grasp it. Saban’s message was simple, there are gaps on this team that only hard work and the right attitudes can fill.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the right attitudes at this stage of the game.

“We are out there coaching guys that are young guys that can’t play a lick, and they get upset every time you say something to them,” Saban said. “They are so sensitive about getting criticized. Rather than being worried about what we are saying to you, why don’t you listen to what we say to you and try to do it and it might help you get better. We are not evaluating you when we correct you. We are teaching you. So, if we are teaching you, why would you get upset about it? We have a bunch of young ones out there that have hard time with that.”

Hopefully, that changes over time as players get more exposure to the coaches and more repetitions. As Saban said, this is why you have spring practice—to develop players and a team.

“You have to let things like (leadership) develop,” Saban said. “The team has to be able to develop a personality and it comes from the individual players and how important all of these things are to them. So far that is something that this team needs to develop. It is going to take time. It is not just going to happen. That is kind of why you have spring practice. I think it is why you have summer conditioning. I think it is why you have the offseason program. I think it is why you have fall camp.”

But there is no guarantee any team will really get the message and blend together. In Saban’s book written before he headed to the NFL, he makes a stark admission that only one team in his forty years of football actually developed all the attributes necessary for success—his 2003 national championship LSU team.

It would be interesting to see where he ranked the 2008 Alabama team. It appeared to get the message better than anyone could have expected as it won 12 games, and came within a fourth quarter of the national championship game.

That level of performance has expectations soaring for the Crimson Tide. It isn’t necessarily a good thing. You could even say it is dangerous to have such a sense of entitlement.

“Do I think we have a cultural problem here in terms of expectations and all that stuff? Absolutely. I mean, I love our fans. I think we have the best fans in the world, but we’ve got an issue with that. We are not process-oriented in terms of what we need to do to be as good as we need to be. We think that because we did something last year, we’re going to do something this year. And that doesn’t mean anything.”

Resting on your laurels is tempting, but in athletics the 2009 record is 0-0. It is easy for fans and players to forget that. In fact, the tasks are daunting for the 2009 team. It must develop as individuals and a team before the first game can be played, much less won. Saban provided a few tasks the team must accomplish moving forward.

“This team needs to develop a chemistry, an attitude, a leadership, and they need to understand what they want to accomplish, how important it is to them, and what is it worth to make the investment you need to make to do that,” Saban said.

In other words, it boils down to attitude and work.

“If this team thinks it has arrived, we’ve got lots of problems,” Saban said.

If the team buys into the process, then 2009 can be a good year. How hard do the players want to work? When we know that, we’ll know how 2009 will go.