Tim Sullivan's Sports: As Alabama Enters Louisville For March Madness, A Dark History Looms

Mar 23, 2023 at 6:39 pm
Head Coach Nate Oats speaks to the media in the Alabama men's basketball team's locker room at the KFC Yum! Center on March 23, 2023.
Head Coach Nate Oats speaks to the media in the Alabama men's basketball team's locker room at the KFC Yum! Center on March 23, 2023. Photo via Crimson Tide Photos / UA Athletics

Though fate currently finds him in charge of the best team in college basketball, Nate Oats knows his place.

To coach hoops at the University of Alabama is to stand in the shadow of a sequoia. Football is king on the Tuscaloosa campus, where Nick Saban rules as if by divine right. So when the seven-time national champion said Monday, “There’s no such thing as the wrong place at the wrong time,” completely contradicting Oats’ defense of his players’ presence at the fatal shooting of Jamea Jonae Harris, Oats was smart enough to avoid making matters any worse than he already had.

“He and I talked that night,” Oats said of Saban Thursday afternoon at the KFC Yum Center. “I didn’t take it that way [as criticism] at all. I got a ton of respect for Coach. . . He may be the best coach for team sports in modern sports history.”

If Oats failed to detect the rebuke implicit in Saban’s statement, the hearing-unimpaired required no auditory aids. Though Saban’s worldview is notoriously narrow — he claimed to have been unaware it was Election Day in 2016 — he could hardly have missed the fallout from his school’s feckless response to the death of a 23-year-old woman for which former Alabama forward Darius Miles faces capital murder charges. Among the current Alabama players at the scene was its star, Brandon Miller, who delivered the gun.

It's possible Saban was unaware that Oats had clumsily minimized Miller’s role in the tragedy with his “wrong place, wrong time” comment. It’s conceivable Saban’s presence at Alabama’s Wednesday basketball practice was completely unrelated to damage control. But whether he did so deliberately or coincidentally, Saban has set a tone to which Oats and others would be wise to adhere.

“You’ve got to be responsible for who you’re with, who you’re around, and what you do; who you associate yourself [with] and the situations that you put yourself in,” Saban said. “It is what it is, but there is cause and effect when you make choices and decisions that put you in bad situations.”

Saban was speaking specifically about freshman defensive back Tony Mitchell, who was charged last week with possession of marijuana with intent to sell and/or deliver. But given his particular choice of words, and the grim backdrop of Harris’ death, it was easy to extrapolate.

"There's nothing to clarify," Saban told reporters at Alabama football’s pro day Thursday. "I don't watch a basketball coach’s press conference. How many years have I been coaching? I've never watched one. I never listen to what other people say. That was strictly about our program. It had nothing to do with anybody else; I don't make comments about anybody else. We hope the basketball team does really, really well."

That no charges have been filed against Miller is most easily interpreted as a sign of his value as a cooperating witness. That the university has declined to impose discipline on Miller, not even so much as a token mid-season suspension, supports suspicions of an empathy and values vacuum from Oats all the way up through the Alabama administration.

“The ease with which Oats and Alabama abandoned all principles because they see Miller as their ticket to a national championship is shameful,” Nancy Armour wrote for USA Today. “The way they’ve treated Miller, as a means to an end rather than a young adult in need of guidance, is callous.”

Alabama arrived at Louisville’s South Regional with 31 wins in 36 games, anointed as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the school’s history. To reach the Final Four, the Crimson Tide must subdue fifth-seeded San Diego State Friday night, and then defeat the winner of the Creighton-Princeton regional semifinal on Sunday.   

“We’ve never lost sight of the fact that we have a heartbreaking situation surrounding our program,” Oats said Thursday. “The fact that we have such a good group of guys enables them to keep that, as they should, [as] a serious matter, and it has been, but, you know, you play basketball from the time you were young to get to these moments, and we’re going to enjoy these moments. They’ve earned the right to enjoy the moment they’re in, and I think our guys are having a lot of fun.”

Inarguably, it has been awkward. Alabama has its best basketball team under some of the worst circumstances imaginable. The Crimson Tide are in the right place, it seems, at the wrong time.