ATLANTA – It did not take long.
About 15 minutes after Nick Saban walked through the automatic sliding glass doors of the Omni Hotel, a radio broadcaster asked him about it, even if he did so in an unlikely way. “Do you know how to spell Tagovailoa?” the broadcaster asked.
“Probably not,” a smiling Saban responded, “but I can spell Tua.”
More questions followed over the next three hours regarding one of college football’s hottest storylines: Alabama’s starting quarterback competition between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. Reporters volleyed more than a dozen questions toward the coach and his three player attendees on the third day of Southeastern Conference media days.
“Will Jalen transfer?”
“How do you choose between the freshman who saved a championship and a veteran who’s 27–2 as a starter?”
“How does one of them ‘win the team,’ as Saban wants?”
“What’s it like playing on a team with such talented QBs?
“Does it matter that one is a lefty and the other a righty?”
And, finally, one of the last questions about the position to an Alabama player, “Who will win the job?”
“Whoever Coach Saban decides,” smiled running back Damien Harris.
No one representing Alabama here Wednesday—not Harris, center Ross Pierschbacher, linebacker Anfernee Jennings and, of course, their coach—gave any real insight into a competition that Saban claims the media has turned into a “controversy” during his news conference in the main room of media days at the College Football Hall of Fame. “I know you’re all champing at the bit” to ask about the quarterback, he told another room full of reporters.
Saban has not picked a starter, as the competition is still in “we’ll see” mode, he says. No, he does not know what Hurts’s future plans are, but he hopes he remains in Tuscaloosa, noting that the quarterback graduates in December, and he’d “rather have two quarterbacks than zero.” The selection of a starter isn’t the end of this thing, either, he says. His staff will create roles for both quarterbacks because they’re both capable. He “loves both guys,” and they’re well liked on the team, “good people,” he says, who are fierce competitors.
“I think it will all be determined by what the players do the rest of the summer, how they win the team and what they do in fall camp,” he bellowed from the main stage. Winning the team means playing well, suggested Piersbacher when asked about his coach’s comments. “Prove it on the field,” the lineman said. “You can say all you want about being a leader, but prove it on the field.”
So it comes down to who’s the best, not that that’s surprising. And who’s the best is unknown, Bama says, even if most are dubbing the Hawaiian sophomore Tagovailoa as the clear favorite, his nifty feet and big arm having been responsible for the Crimson Tide’s second-half rally to beat Georgia in the national title game. Both quarterbacks have “proved their mettle,” the coach said, something that makes this competition a bit different than others in recent Alabama history: Blake Sims vs. Jake Coker (2014), Coker vs. Cooper Bateman (2015) and the hodgepodge battle among Hurts, Blake Barnett, Bateman and David Cornwell (2016).
The quarterback position is just another “yet to be determined” spot on an Alabama team that Saban says has more uncertainty than most of his rosters entering a season. The Crimson Tide return only about 10 starters, and just three of them are on defense. Saban must replace most of his secondary, and the offensive line could see some rotation early on in camp. That’s fun for any coach, watching guys, young and old, battle for starting positions while evaluating reserves to solidify depth. He’s still having fun, and, no, he’s not near retirement, a yearly question that pops up here for a man who turns 67 in October. “Miss Terry,” he said of his wife, “does not want me home.”
He made sure to clarify something else, too: the boat in which he and some players were stranded on earlier this summer did not run out of gas. The fuel pump broke, he told a room of reporters. Because of the confusion, he’s ended up with 100 gas cans. “If you need one, let me know.”
This is Saban’s 17th media days and 12th at Alabama. At least 10 of the other 13 SEC schools have employed at least three full-time head coaches during Saban’s stay in Tuscaloosa. He’s the old man around here, the grizzled, championship-winning veteran who fills interview rooms more than any other coach, which wasn’t always the case. Gone are personalities like Les Miles and Steve Spurrier who won big on the field and at media days, as are colorful characters like Bret Bielema and Butch Jones.
Media days relocated this year, from the heart of Alabama in the Birmingham suburbs, to a bordering state where a different red is preferred. Still, the Tide fans flocked to downtown Atlanta, doubling in size any other fan group over the first four days. They gathered in the lobby of the College Football Hall of Fame, holding their outstretched memorabilia over velvet ropes along a blue—not red—carpet.
Saban finished the day by walking past them, through some glass doors and up onto a raised platform that serves as a stage for SEC Network’s live telecast, where, as you might expect, his day was brought full circle. He was asked about his quarterbacks.