- Covers the SEC.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of Auburn University.
SPORTS PSYCHOLOGIST DR. Kevin Elko was sitting across from Alabama coach Nick Saban in 2019, relaying postgame gossip he’d seen online. Not only had LSU beaten the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, apparently the Tigers had made a spectacle of it, toasting themselves as if they’d won the national championship in early November.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron had gathered his team around the 50-yard line and, in full view of reporters, shouted, “Right here on the middle of the damn field, let’s break it down! Tigers on three! Because this is our house from now on!”
It was a bold claim for a program that had gone nearly a decade without beating its rival, so Elko pointed out to Saban that he thought it was an excessive celebration.
Saban changed the subject.
Elko doubled-down later in the conversation, bringing up LSU again because it wasn’t just one slap they dealt Alabama, but two.
Later that night, a video from the visitors’ locker room went viral in which Orgeron was heard telling his players, “We’re going to beat their ass in recruiting! We’re going to beat their ass every time they see us! You understand me? Roll tide, what? F— you!”
Again, Saban gave Elko nothing.
“He spoke — believe it or not — positively about Ed Orgeron to me,” Elko recalled. “He talked about how the game was big and [Orgeron] built them up and gave them faith.”
Elko was surprised in the moment, but looking back he knows he shouldn’t have been. He’s worked with Saban for 20 years, and not once, he said, has he heard him utter a negative word about another coach.
“I have,” Elko admitted. “He hasn’t.”
On Saturday, LSU returns to Tuscaloosa for the first time since Orgeron’s proclamations (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), though it will be the final time Orgeron visits Bryant-Denny Stadium as the Tigers’ head coach. In October, after the collapse of the program in the 21 months since beating Alabama and winning the national title, Orgeron agreed to step down at the end of the season.
But with LSU back in town, is Alabama out for revenge? Well, not exactly.
“That’s not in Nick’s makeup,” Elko said. “He’s real different than people would think.”
If the attitude of a football team is a reflection of the personality of its head coach, then Alabama is nothing if not methodical. Saban’s so-called “Process” isn’t about feelings. If anything, it’s about how everyone has a job to do and every play has a life of its own — how what is said, and even what the scoreboard says, are distractions to be ignored.
“He has a presence,” former linebacker Christian Miller said. “If you’re around him, you can tell he has that strong, silent confidence.”
The equation is simple. Emotion can create anxiety, especially in meaningful games, Saban said, “and anxiety can be detrimental to performance.”
AT LEAST ONCE during Saban’s tenure at Alabama, that message of restraint didn’t hit its target.
It was 2015, a year after Ole Miss upset Alabama in Oxford, fans rushed the field, tore down the goalposts and carried them out of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in a celebration that lasted into the next morning. Looking for retribution at home, with both teams undefeated and ranked in the top 25, the Crimson Tide instead laid an egg and wound up losing once more, 43-37.
Alabama was sloppy and committed an uncharacteristic five turnovers in the game. The defense allowed 433 total yards — nearly double the average of its previous two games. Afterward, Saban said the team was too emotional, too anxious and “it sure didn’t help us play very well.”
Defensive end Jonathan Allen said there was “too much emphasis on revenge and all that stuff,” and “I feel like we messed it up ourselves.”
Miller was a redshirt freshman in that game, and the lesson stuck.
“It’s a physical, violent sport and it’s too easy to get too emotional,” he said. “Scientifically, when you get emotional and you’re running too hot, you don’t make the best decisions.”
Miller, who was drafted by the Carolina Panthers and is now a free agent, mentioned a common refrain from his former head coach: “So what, now what?” It’s a phrase Saban and Elko use that’s about moving on, whether it be from the success of winning a national championship or the failure of coming up short.
“What’s in the past is in the past,” Miller said. “[Saban] is not in the business of trying to hype you up.”
And revenge? How much does Saban talk about that?
“It’s never harped on,” Miller said. “It’s not too personal. Because I think if you’re a human being you already know in the back of your mind. There’s not much you need to say. I think the last thing he wants to do is have guys playing too emotional.”
Revenge, Saban said, creates an “emotional psychological disposition which may not last.”
“You want to play games with emotion,” he said, “but you don’t want to be emotional. People make a lot of bad decisions when they’re emotional. And so you’re always trying to find the balance.
“But I do think, on the other hand, humiliation is still a real human condition that creates a lot of motivation for a lot of people. And even though it may not be something that you use, I don’t think you can ever discount it.”
Two weeks after the loss to Ole Miss, Alabama wouldn’t again be baited into an emotional response when a large group of Georgia players confronted the team, jumping around and talking trash, as the Tide came onto the field in Athens for pregame warmups. Alabama players didn’t stop to talk back, instead jogging forward to their side of the field.
The Tide were ranked 13th at the time, the Dawgs eighth.
Final score: Alabama 38, Georgia 10.
“When we used to see teams fired up, it was almost like we were getting them where we wanted them,” Miller said. “Because we’re trained on mental toughness and controlling that and playing the whole game, but we know other teams aren’t quite as trained as we are. They can have that in the pregame and the first quarter, but we know that ultimately, they can’t keep up with us for 60 minutes.
“When you see that you get excited like, ‘This is going to be fun.'”
ALABAMA RUNNING BACK Brian Robinson Jr. remembers all too well what it was like to lose to LSU in 2019. On Monday, he said that Orgeron’s comments on the field and in the locker room two years ago serve as motivation.
“We make sure people know just the disrespect that was with that, how it made us feel and everything we have to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Robinson said.
But then there’s Alabama defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis, a Louisiana native who said he doesn’t even remember the 2019 game.
“We’re not worried about that,” he said. “We just worry about getting better this week, focus on what we got to do to go into this game and be dominant.”
When Saban addresses his team Friday night or in the moments before kickoff on Saturday, the most players are likely to get out of him is a quick walk down memory lane — not necessarily a retelling of what LSU said or did in 2019, but how Alabama felt after losing.
“He might throw [the 2019 celebration] in there, but it’s never the main mission to get payback,” Miller said. “It’s like, ‘Let me remind you what these guys did.'”
Not that they’ve forgotten.
Former Alabama assistant Mike Locksley, who is now the head coach at Maryland, remembers walking through the weight room during the offseason and seeing all the screens replaying the TV broadcasts of the previous year’s losses. You couldn’t miss it if you tried.
“It wasn’t talked about,” he said. “It was just there, subliminally, to show you.”
It’s a delicate balance of not living in the past while also acknowledging its effect on the future.
“I guess I’ve been Sabanized in that there’s no place for revenge,” Locksley said. “You can’t spend a lot of time in the past because you’ll get stuck back there.”
While revenge is a natural human instinct, Elko said, what’s important is how you use it. He likes the concept of “positive anger” because it denotes the ability to take something bad and turn it into something good.
In the context of Alabama and LSU, Elko doesn’t even think “revenge” is the most accurate word since it’s too emotionally charged and implies that the goal is to get something from the other team as opposed to creating something for yourself.
Elko recalled a scene from the movie “Tombstone” in which the famous lawman Wyatt Earp runs off a band of outlaws. Afterward, it’s suggested to Doc Holliday that Earp is driven by revenge. Halladay responds, “Make no mistake: It’s not revenge he’s after. It’s a reckoning.”
A reckoning, Elko said, is about putting things back the way they should be.
Alabama doesn’t lose often, and rarely does it lose twice to the same team. They might not seek revenge, but in so-called revenge games the Tide are 13-2 under Saban.
“Nobody likes to get disrespected, and I think when you lose a game you feel that way to some degree,” Saban said. “I think it’s human nature to try to make it right.”
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