Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
ATLANTA — In the interview room of the Georgia Dome on Friday, Gary Pinkel and Nick Saban stood behind the Southeastern Conference championship trophy, shook hands and smiled for an extended photo opportunity.
We won’t know until later today (3 p.m. KRCG-TV) which of their teams, Missouri or Alabama, respectively, will take that trophy home this year.
Here’s what we do know, thanks to the coaches’ press conferences:
• These coaches have a lot of respect for each other.
Pinkel and Saban played together at Kent State and began their coaching careers together as graduate assistants under Don James.
The two friends talked about their mutual admiration Friday.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Gary, the great job he’s done wherever he was a coach, coordinator at Washington, head coach at Toledo, now the 13 years he’s been at Missouri,” Saban said. “I think their program has always been very, very good. Just to think because they went from one league to the other, there was going to be this huge transition — they’re a very well-coached team. Fundamentally sound in just about everything they do. They have good players who buy into doing the things the way they want to do them, and they win a lot of football games. … (It’s) not a surprise to me that they’re here this year and that they’ve been here two years in a row.”
Pinkel added: “Nick is a really good guy. … I remember being in the library at Kent State University (with Saban). We were probably both 21, 22 years old, done playing. Talking about coaching college football. How we thought it would be really cool to do that. Paid to coach football. Are you kidding me?”
• Oh, and Pinkel is a year younger.
“I just want to make that very clear to everybody, OK?” he said.
• Pinkel denied being approached by other schools for currently open high-profile coaching jobs.
“I’m just coaching Mizzou football here,” he said. “That’s where my focus is.”
• Missouri isn’t thinking about its last game against Alabama, a 42-10 loss in 2012.
“We really haven’t talked about that game at all honestly,” Pinkel said. “As a staff, we went back and looked at it, because you want to be responsible, attention to detail, do all the right things. But our players see Alabama enough. They have great respect for Alabama. In this league you have great respect for everybody. If you don’t, you’re in trouble.”
• Pinkel was disappointed with his team’s play early this season.
“We didn’t play very well the first part of the season, to what my expectation was,” he said. “My expectation was higher. I thought we should have been playing better than what we were. For whatever reason we weren’t.
“Then Georgia came in and beat us. We turned the ball over five times, but they beat us. So kind of for us it was a time, that Sunday afterwards, the sense of urgency became a whole new phrase for us.”
• Saban thinks Missouri is playing the best defense in the SEC right now.
“I think their entire defensive team is well-coached, play well together, do a great job of executing their scheme,” he said. “I don’t see any bad players out there at any position. They have a lot of good players. Their team sort of reflects what they want to do on defense. They have bigger corners who are good tacklers, more physical players. They play a lot of cover two. They jam people a lot. So their players fit their style and their players do a really good job of playing their style.”
• Alabama has prioritized focusing on the pace of play on defense, which has hurt tackling some.
“Until recently we always emphasized the fundamentals,” Saban said. “We didn’t play very well when the pace of play was faster. This year we tried to put more emphasis on pace of play, and I do think there is a bit of a downside in terms of fundamentals. Tackling is one of the most critical fundamentals of playing defense because the ultimate objective is tackle the guy with the ball.”
• Saban isn’t surprised by offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s success in his first year at Alabama.
“He’s a really good play-caller,” Saban said. “He’s done a great job for us this year. I think I got exactly what I expected. I don’t think anybody else expected what I expected, to the point where I even got criticized for doing it by a lot of people. But I got what I expected. You all didn’t get what you expected. That’s what you really want to write about.”
• Pinkel thinks Alabama receiver Amari Cooper is one of the best players in the country.
“Yes, yes, yes and yes,” he said.
• Saban believes there is one downside to the new College Football Playoff.
“How many of you can remember you spent all day New Year’s Day watching every bowl game? They were all good games with all good teams,” he said. “Now, the only game that anybody’s interested in is the teams that are in the playoff.”
• And Pinkel, who was videotaped dancing in the locker room after Missouri’s Cotton Bowl win last year, doesn’t have a victory dance planned for a potential win today.
“The answer to that is no,” he said.
As for the rest of the answers, we’ll have to wait for kickoff.