HOOVER, Ala. - Alabama football coach Nick Saban believes more class should be displayed from both sides of the intense rivalry with Auburn.
The desire to win the game, however, is greater than ever.
Alabama and Auburn have won college football's past two national championships, but the rivalry took an ugly turn in February when longtime Crimson Tide fan Harvey Updyke was arrested for poisoning the 130-year-old oak trees at Auburn's famed Toomer's Corner. Tide fans upset with the act rushed to aid their Auburn counterparts in trying to save the trees, and Tigers fans offered their assistance in late April when tornadoes decimated Tuscaloosa and claimed 44 lives.
"I think we have two great institutions, and I think we have a lot of wonderful people who support those institutions in a very positive way," Saban said Friday as the Southeastern Conference media days drew to a close. "I think the respect we have for each other is very, very important and in no way should affect the competitive rivalry we have with each other."
Hundreds of Alabama fans greeted Saban in the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel, including one man wearing an "I Hate Auburn" T-shirt. Saban, who has reeled off a stunning 36 victories the past three seasons, was asked what he would tell that fan if he had the opportunity.
"I would tell him that it's not personal, that it really isn't personal," Saban said. "I think that we can all be a little more respectful to each other and still have just as fierce of a competition on the field as we've ever had."
One of Alabama's closest calls during its 2009 championship season was a 26-21 victory at Auburn, a game the Tide didn't lead until less than two minutes remaining. Last year the Tigers returned the favor by winning at Alabama 28-27 after falling behind 24-0 in the second quarter.
Last year's result is eight months old, but it's as fresh as ever among the Crimson Tide players who see reminders throughout their athletic facilities.
"I feel like that's something we can never put behind us," junior tailback Trent Richardson said. "We were out there grinding and winning, but we gave it up. I think those boys worked hard for that championship and that's what they did. They wanted it more than us, and it tears me up watching replays.
"I've got a sign up in my room, and it says, 'Never again.' We've got signs up around the locker room. It probably wasn't even 24 hours when those signs went up."
Although Saban wasn't too thrilled to hear about it, his team was picked to roll through the league. Alabama had nine first-team preseason All-SEC selections, which are the most for one school in the 27 years media days has existed.
The biggest question offensively entering camp is whether redshirt sophomore AJ McCarron or redshirt freshman Phillip Sims will win the quarterback job. Saban bristled Friday when asked how that race stands.
"It doesn't stand anywhere," he said. "It stands like it stands. We're going to continue to manage those guys through fall camp. Neither guy has a tremendous amount of experience."
Alabama's defense is loaded with five first-team All-SEC picks, but Saban is hoping to find some push up front in camp. Most of the Tide's pressure is expected to come from Courtney Upshaw, an outside linebacker who plays a lot at defensive end, while Dont'a Hightower and Alex Watkins are linebackers who can do the same.
"I think that we have a little different type team this year defensively," Saban said. "In the last few years, we always had dominant down guys that had pass-rush ability, with Marcell Dareus being the most recent. I'm not sure we have those kind of dominating down guys right now."