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Column: Saban restless in a way rest of us are not

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Column: Saban restless in a way rest of us are not

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) At some point, all that success should have brought real joy, or at the very least, some satisfaction. Instead, it's only made Nick Saban chase each win more relentlessly than the last.

On the eve of Alabama's pursuit of its third BCS crown in the last four years, more than a few people wondered whether Saban might open up, the way Urban Meyer did while still coaching at Florida a while back, the way plenty of his predecessors have when their legacy, like Saban's, was secured. Saban did - just not the way most expected.

He began with a story about inheriting his uncompromising work ethic from a father that he and everyone else in their tucked-away corner of West Virginia always called ``Big Nick.''

``There was a bum that used to come to my dad's service station early in the morning because he'd give him free coffee and doughnuts,'' Saban said. ``We had had a tough game the night before, I don't remember whether it was basketball game, a football game or whatever. The guy was giving me a hard time and I sort of sassed him. I was 17 years old. I got the strap right on the spot.

``It was the right thing,'' he added quickly. ``I needed to learn a lesson. I was disrespectful to an older person, regardless of the situation.''

Saban rarely comes off as a man who speaks from the heart. More often, he sounds like someone cobbling together bits and pieces culled from a shelf's worth of books on motivational speaking, which Saban, not surprisingly, has turned into a lucrative second career. Maybe that's what made that story he told about his father seem even more revealing when the subject came up a day later.

This time, the lesson was not about respect, but about always striving for ``a standard of excellence, a perfection.'' Saban recalled being 11 years old, already working at that same service station by then. His responsibilities ran from pumping gas and collecting the cash to checking the oil and tires, and finally, washing the cars with great care.

``I hated the navy blue and black cars, because when you wiped them off, the streaks were hard to get out. And if there were any streaks when he came,'' he paused, referring to ``Big Nick'' once more, ``you had to do it over.''

Sports is hardly the only place where the father-son dynamic ignites a spark of ambition that grows and grows until it becomes a consuming flame. And there are men like Saban at the top of every profession. They clamber up the ladder without regard for the consequences, treating each job like an audition for the next one. His story is especially instructive that way.

Saban played defensive back at Kent State, despite standing only 5-foot-6, and the determination he showed won him a job as a graduate assistant there in 1972. Next came a half-dozen more stops as an assistant - including a season with the NFL's Houston Oilers - before Saban landed his first head-coaching job at Toledo in 1990. He brought the school a Mid-American Conference title in his one and only season there, bailing out to take a job as defensive coordinator with the NFL's Cleveland Browns under then-coach Bill Belichick.

In the ensuing 15 years, Saban burned through three more jobs, each one good enough to be considered a ``destination'' among his peers - first at Michigan State, then at LSU, where he won his first national title, and finally with the Miami Dolphins. Instead of feeling like he'd arrived, Saban remained restless in a way the rest of us are not. After two years, including his first losing season as a head coach, he flat-out denied he was leaving for the vacant job at Alabama - and then lit out for Tuscaloosa in 2007, anyway.

Saban is still there six seasons later, longer than his tenure lasted anywhere else. He's been so successful that he not only owns the town and the state; he's even won over those fans and alumni who once insisted once that no coach deserved the Crimson Tide job without some connection to the legendary Paul ``Bear'' Bryant. Some of the most stubborn hold-outs now even use the ``D-word (dynasty)'' to describe what Saban has accomplished there.

In the meantime, he sunk roots in the community, including relocating the ``Nick's Kids Fund'' charity he and wife Terry set up more than a decade ago. It's actually named for ``Big Nick,'' the blue-collar taskmaster and former Pop Warner League who taught his son never to take on a job unless he intended to do it right.

Whether Saban has learned that lesson might be open to debate, though measured strictly by his winning percentage, he's certainly done right by nearly every team that hired him. The only remorse Saban feels when he remembers the debt he owed ``Big Nick'' is that he didn't figure it out sooner.

``Probably when I was a senior in college, that's probably when I realized it,'' he said. ``And my first year of graduate school was when he passed away. I never really ever told him,'' he said, ``which I regret.''

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Friday’s loss to the Florida Panthers was disappointing in a number of ways for the Capitals, but some good may yet come from it with the emergence of the third line.

A poor performance in the opening frame led to Todd Reirden switching up his lines to start the second. No change had a greater effect than the addition of Jakub Vrana to the third line in place of Andre Burakovsky to play with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly.

The move yielded instant results.

Connolly scored his first goal of the season less than two minutes into the period and added an assist. Vrana also recorded a goal and an assist, while Eller had a three-point night with three assists.

“It was just to make something happen,” Eller said, “Not that [Burakovsky] did something wrong, but just to make something happen and it worked. We kept riding the wave from there on and got two in that period. That seemed to work so that was positive.”

Vrana, Eller and Connolly were three players who had been playing well for the Caps, but were just not producing.

Heading into Friday’s game, Vrana and Eller both had only one point apiece on the season. Connolly had four, but three of those points came earlier in the season while he was skating on the team’s top line.

Friday was his first goal of the season.

“It’s good to get a goal,” Connolly said. “Getting some assists and all that and being a factor on some goals, but it’s nice to see one go in. I’ve had a lot of chances to start the year, thought I’ve been playing well. Lot more shots, lot more chances than I had last year and throughout the last two seasons per game. So I feel I’m ahead of the game right now in terms of that.”

Depth scoring has been a major weakness for the Caps so far in the early season. Washington had gotten only two bottom six goals prior to Friday’s game, and both came in the team’s blowout win over Boston in the opener.

They needed a spark to get offense from the bottom six, and they just may have found it on Friday with that third line combination.

Don’t be surprised to see that Vrana-Eller-Connolly trio stick together in Vancouver for the Caps’ next game against the Canucks.

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Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

The Capitals managed to earn a point on Friday in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, but the game felt like a missed opportunity for Washington. After giving up four goals in the first period, seven power plays including two 5-on-3s, and two power play goals, the Caps knew they had no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

“We were still not quite there maybe emotionally,” Lars Eller said.

At least not for the first period. The Caps allowed four goals in the opening 20 minutes to dig themselves into a 4-1 hole. Each goal came from the slot as the Caps had no control over the front of their own net.

“Just tough to start that way, to kind of dig ourselves a big hole,” Brett Connolly said. “Obviously, it’s good to come back and get a point but we don’t need to do that to ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to get back in that game.”

Washington battled back to tie the game at 4, but penalties ultimately derailed their momentum, allowing Florida to retake the lead.

After scoring three straight goals, the Caps took three minor penalties in the final three minutes of the second period.

Alex Ovechkin was called for interference on Aaron Ekblad as he made no attempt to play a loose puck that trickled past the Florida defenseman. He was clearly focused on delivering the hit and nothing else.

Less than a minute later, Eller was caught on the ice a tad early, and Washington was called for too many men.

“I see Backy coming for a change, they had full possession,” Eller said. “I don't see behind my back, I think the guys are telling me he has one skate over so I think it was an unnecessary call, but what am I going to say? It's a tough one.”

With 1:15 of a two-man advantage to work with, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the go-ahead goal late in the period.

Even after a furious comeback, the Caps could not escape the second with the score tied because of the penalties.

Just 43 seconds after Huberdeau’s goal, Washington went right back to 5-on-3. Evgeny Kuznetsov was tossed from a faceoff by the linesman and argued the call, eventually earning himself an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He said something he shouldn't have said to the referee,” Reirden said of the call.

The Caps' penalty problems were exacerbated by the continued problems of the penalty kill.

Heading into Friday's game, Washington was only killing off 72.2 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed another two power play goals Friday as they continued to struggle when facing the extra man.

“We have room for improvement for sure,” Reirden said of his penalty kill. “It’s a new system, new with the way we’re killing, its new personnel. We’re learning. We’re missing a key guy in Tom on that as well. It’s not easy, either, when you’re 5-on-3 when they’ve got talented players that can convert in that spot. It’s definitely a work in progress and I didn't expect it to go smoothly to start with. That’s one of the areas that we knew was gonna be new to our team this year and it’s gonna continue to take some work. It’s something that definitely is a work in progress.”

Mistakes put the Caps down 4-1, they put them down 5-4, they cost them a valuable point against a previously winless Panthers team before a four-game road trip through Canada, and they are ultimately why the defending Stanley Cup champions are only 3-2-2 to start the season.

And they know it.

“We’re still trying to find our game,” Connolly said. “Would we have liked to have picked up where we left off? Yes. But it’s not easy. We played a lot of hockey last year and a short summer and you come in here and there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of that kind of stuff. We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some not so good things.

"I think if you look at last season we weren't very good either at the start. We weren't at our best. Just take the positives and know that we can overcome that. It hasn’t been disastrous. We’re still getting points, we’re still above .500 right now with a tough couple back-to-backs to start the year. So not the worst start, but obviously we have another level.”

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