By Scott Latta
UA Media RelationsBIRMINGHAM, Ala.-
Alabama head coach Nick Saban
addressed members of the SEC media Thursday at the 2007 SEC Media Days, calling the SEC a "tougher" and "more competitive" conference since his last stint as a head coach in the league when he coached at LSU from 2000-2004.
"I've been asked the question on several occasions already today, What is the difference in the league now than when you left? And my response to that is: it seems like it's even tougher now than ever before," he said. "The competition from top to bottom, the great coaches in the league, the great programs, more good teams, lots of great players. But I also think that's what makes this an outstanding, competitive venue."
Saban fielded questions for almost 40 minutes from the hundreds of media members from around the country Thursday and greeted large crowds of Alabama fans that had assembled at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover.
Along with South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, he is the second SEC coach to leave the NFL and return to the SEC in the last three years. After coaching the Washington Redskins for two seasons, Spurrier accepted the South Carolina head coaching position in 2005.
Saban said that despite his love for college football and the SEC, coaching in the NFL for two seasons was a learning experience that gave him a lot of respect for the league's players and coaches.
"I appreciate pro ball, too," he said. "It was great competition in that league. There's a lot of great players, a lot of great coaches. Everything's about football. You have an opportunity to learn a lot.
"I've always had a tremendous respect for college football, the players who play it, how we can impact them as coaches to help them be successful. I certainly feel that way, but I think I certainly have a lot of respect for coaches in the NFL who have made a tremendous accomplishment in that league because it's very difficult relative to the parity, the system you have to compete in there, as well," he said.
Saban said his immediate focus at Alabama is to improve incrementally despite the high expectations that may come with coaching college football in what many think is the nation's toughest conference.
"I think we're the type of team that improvement is going to be a big part of our success in terms of we're learning new stuff so we're going to have an opportunity to improve more," he said. "How our team improves, how they can stay positive, work through some of the ups and downs we'll go through, I think, is going to be imperative to our being successful as a team. That's something I'm not sure about until we get into more competitive situations."
Saban was joined at SEC Media Days by senior cornerback Simeon Castille
and junior offensive lineman Antoine Caldwell
, two of Alabama's 14 returning starters to a team that finished 2006 with a 6-7 record and 34-31 loss in the Independence Bowl to Oklahoma State.
Castille, who was the lone Alabama player voted to the first-team 2007 Southeastern Conference Coaches Pre-Season All-SECTeam, said Saban's defensive experience, especially with defensive backs, will go a long way in improving the Alabama defense.
"I've been playing defensive back for a long time, but it's amazing how much he taught me in just one spring," Castille said. "I was excited when I heard he was coming because I knew he was a defense guy. In the spring, I got to see just how involved he was. Every time I, or someone else at defensive back, would do something wrong, he'd be right there to correct us, teaching us what techniques to use."
Caldwell will anchor an offensive line in 2007 that returns all five starters. He said that despite the high intensity level that comes with the new Alabama coaching staff, the new Alabama coach is also personal with his players.
"Coach Saban is really intense," Caldwell said. "He is fiery, but he is also genuine. If you have a problem, you can go to him and he will sit down with you in his office and talk to you. He comes off as intense, and he is on the field, but he is really genuine."
Saban will coach his first game at Alabama when the Crimson Tide's season kicks off Sept. 1 against Western Carolina at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.