There have been many notable candidates for the Nick Sucker Award over the past ten months, as the horde of delusional UAT fans and in-state media employees (please pardon the redundancy) sought to outdo each other in praise of the latest Savior. Paul Finebaum was practically Saban's unofficial press agent, at least until Alabama dropped two straight last month (although it should be noted that even after those Shula-esque collapses, Paul was back on the party line by Tuesday of the following week).
But even Finebaum falls short in the Nick Sucker sweepstakes compared to Birmingham News employee Ray Melick, who in a typically-turgid column on Tuesday managed to set off a media fracas between Saban and South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt. The only part you need to read is the following quote, elicited by a question from Melick (although Melick himself didn't identify it as such in the column):
"The distribution of players is not the same for everybody," said Alabama head coach Nick Saban. "There's a significant amount of players who don't qualify (at some schools) and they end up being pretty good players at some other schools. I think there are six guys starting on South Florida's defense who probably could have gone to Florida or Florida State but Florida and Florida State couldn't take them. And if you do a good job of recruiting that way..."As you might imagine, that didn't sit well with Leavitt, a coach who turned down the job Saban currently holds not once but twice. In the Tampa Tribune, Leavitt said,
'That's amazing, a guy can make a quote like that when he doesn't have any idea,' Leavitt said. 'The truth is we have two non-qualifiers out of 110 on our team or I'll resign tomorrow. And those two will both get their degree.Leavitt was certainly right about the last part; the Alabama media barely reported on the USF coach's response (other than nothing Leavitt was upset and had denied Saban's charges), didn't report on the factual details of Leavitt's rebuttal, and certainly didn't report on his calling out Saban and Melick for getting their facts wrong. But the story didn't end there.
'Why that bothers me is it takes a hit at the credibility of our program that we can't do it with just hard work. There always has to be some reason. That is the heart and soul of our program. So he's attacking the heart and soul.'
Saban's comments were not about schools admitting non-qualifiers, but about schools having different admission policies, said The Birmingham News' Ray Melick, whose story contained Saban's quotes.
'Six starters on our defense? He Saban doesn't know what he's talking about,' Leavitt said. 'Why's he making a statement like that? Florida, Florida State didn't recruit those guys anyway.
'I think he blew it, they Saban and Melick blew it. ... They'll hide behind the shroud of this and that. Nobody takes responsibility. If they made the comment, they need to come out and say I'm wrong.
'What bothers me is that story goes all over Alabama and they'll accept that as truth. That's why I get upset about media. There's no way I'm going to go out there and share this with 3 million people. It's not the truth. That's too bad, that's sad.'
In a post to his al.com blog, Alabama graduate and Huntsville News UAT beat writer Paul Gattis reported on Leavitt's reaction and took a few shots of his own at the south Florida media.
(As an aside, the mind simply boggles at the chutzpah of Gattis, a former sports editor of the UAT student newspaper and leading Nick Sucker in his own right, referring to Saban "Giving his ol' media buddies in Miami something to shill about." Gattis is the about the last newspaper employee on the planet with any business referring to others as "shills." But I digress.)*
The interesting portion of Gattis's post was when he more accurately quoted Saban's original statement:
I think that the distribution of players is not the same for everyone. We can't take Props (partial qualifiers) in the SEC. They can't take them in the ACC. And there's a significant amount of players who don't qualify. And they end up being pretty good players at some of these schools. I think there are six guys starting on South Florida's defense who probably could have gone to Florida or Florida State but Florida and Florida State couldn't take them. And if you do a good job of recruiting that way--now the Big East has passed a rule that they aren't going to take Props at some time in the future. I don't know if it's next year or the year after or whenever.On Wednesday, Melick was asked about the differences in the quotes on a WJOX Birmingham radio show he regularly co-hosts, in particular Saban's use of the term "Props," which was often used to describe NCAA Proposition 48, a now-obsolete term for incoming recruits who don't qualify academically. Melick, who changed Saban's actual quote from "Props" to "players who don't qualify" was asked why he didn't quote what the coach had actually said. Melick's response: "I was trying to protect Nick."
"Now, will that affect their league? It shrinks the pool of players that they can recruit from. I'm not saying it's not a good rule by the NCAA that we have NCAA eligibility requirements. I think that's a good rule. I'm not saying that. But it's not the same for everyone and it does create a lot of parity when you're playing those schools, you're playing against guys you couldn't recruit."
Now, I don't think it's all that big of a deal to clarify "Props" or even "Prop 48's" (we're not sure which version Saban actually used) to "players who didn't qualify." "Prop 48" isn't just obsolete, it's also fairly esoteric to the casual fan. If Melick had made the change for the sake of clarity, that's no big deal, even if he did turn out a disingenuous column in the aftermath.
But "to protect Nick?" Since when is it in the job description of a newspaper employee, much less an alleged "journalist" to be 'protecting' a $4 million-a-year football coach? That's so far outside the bounds of media ethics, one has to wonder what else Melick is 'protecting' Saban and Alabama from. He certainly hasn't had much to say about the Alabama boosters on staff at Hoover High School who've been allegedly involved in grade fixing for UAT signees, for instance.
I took it upon myself to ask Melick just what business he had "protecting Nick" in an email, and received a non-response worthy of Saban himself. Apparently Melick is among the many media employees who believe that asking and expecting to have answered pointed questions is for me, but not for thee.
So, Ray, congratulations. You're the Nick Sucker of the week. It's an award I've no doubt you'll wear with pride.
*Incidentally, Gattis was quite right about the south Florida media taking its shots at the man known as "Flipper." This particularly delicious column by Ray McNulty is my favorite to date. Best line: "I mean, we're talking about Alabama, which is little more than Ole Miss with indoor plumbing."