Now, McCarron says it's more like a “second Dad and son type thing.” The BCS championship game MVP is a driven perfectionist who loathes even small mistakes in practice. Dad No. 2 can relate.
“That's why our relationship's so special, I think,” the quarterback said. “We talk about everything.”
The bond has evolved since McCarron arrived in Tuscaloosa, three years and two national championships ago. Offensive tackle D.J. Fluker said Saban and McCarron are “just like brothers.”
McCarron is no longer the precocious teenager to whom Saban delivered a hard swat on the backside after an ill-conceived pass against Mississippi State in 2010. (YouTube views: 115,000-plus). He hasn't tried to chase down any opposing defensive lineman since a late hit against Florida when his reaction drew a furious on-camera expletive from Saban.
McCarron chalks it up to tough love in a relationship that started developing when Saban was the only head coach to personally handle all the recruiting visits to Mobile.
“I know he's going to chew my butt,” McCarron said. “He knows what I'm capable of doing and what he expects of me. When I don't do the right things and I don't fulfill what he expects of me then it's hard on him.”
Those expectations have only risen. McCarron is trying to lead the second-ranked Crimson Tide to a second straight national title and third in four years, starting Sept. 1 against No. 8 Michigan in Arlington, Texas.
This is clearly McCarron's team. He's not fighting for a starting job the way he was last August. Star tailback Trent Richardson is in the NFL and the go-to receivers are TBA.
Saban said McCarron's work ethic didn't suffer a bit with that ego boost of a national title game, when he completed 68 percent of his passes without an interception against LSU. He affectionately calls his junior quarterback “a perfectionist” and then compares McCarron to himself. Around Tuscaloosa, that might be the ultimate compliment.
“Every play that doesn't work in practice, you can see him kicking the sand or whatever with his gestures,” Saban said. “He always bounces back for the next play. He's a really good competitor. It means a lot to him. He really wants to do well, and really has developed into a really, really good leader in terms of how he affects other people.”
“People always ask, ‘How do you sustain? You've been doing this for 30-something years.’ Well, that's never the question. It's how you're driven to be who you are. I would be this way if I were still pumping gas at my Dad's service station. It's just the way you are, and that's the way AJ is.”
The quarterback might have been at his best after Saban let AJ be the way he is on the field.
McCarron said that's what happened after the regular-season loss to LSU, realizing he plays better with emotion and feistiness. Kind of like how Saban coaches.
“I was real laidback the first game, real quiet,” McCarron said. “Just not my normal self. That's not how I play the game. When the second time came around, I knew I had to come out playing like I'm capable of playing and how I played my whole life since the age of 4 when I started football.”
The statistical difference between the first meeting with LSU and the BCS championship game wasn't all that dramatic, but the result was: From a 9-6 loss to a 21-0 win.
The passes that stick out in McCarron's mind are a couple of missed balls to Brandon Gibson and close friend Brad Smelley. That's what he was talking about walking to dinner after the title game with his father, Tony.
“I said, ‘Out of all the passes you made, the only thing you can think of is the bad ones?’” said Tony McCarron, a driver with Mobile Fire and Rescue. “He goes, ‘Well, it's the bad ones you remember. It ain't the good ones. The good ones, you can easily forget, but the bad ones never leave you.’”
He doesn't think McCarron's success has changed him. The big man on campus is still quiet, still wears hats out to dinner hoping to go incognito and still gets embarrassed instead of relishing the attention. McCarron says he's “not a party guy.”
“For somebody that's in the limelight, that gets as much attention as he does, he's very shy,” said Tony McCarron, whose son Corey is a sophomore tight end for the Tide. “He doesn't say a whole lot. He's very reserved. He's been taught well by coach Saban, and AJ trusts him just completely.”
McCarron, who seldom spoke to the media last season at his own request, lets his actions speak for him — and his tattoos. He has “Truly Blessed” and “A-10” — his jersey number — on his right hand, “Family First” on his left. He has an elaborate tattoo on his chest and stomach, including among other things “Bama Boy,” an image of Jesus, a crystal football with “MVP” through it and doves representing family members who have died.
“It's basically everything he loves in life and everything that means anything to him,” Tony McCarron said.
McCarron's responses during a recent interview frequently include the common theme of Saban's lessons absorbed.
What about not being a preseason first- or second-team All-SEC pick?
“That goes back to the mind-set that coach Saban has kind of instilled in me, why worry about anybody else?” McCarron said.
How do you keep plugging away after being the national title game MVP?
“I think it should drive you to want more,” McCarron said. "I know a lot of people get complacent when they achieve what they've always wanted and what their goal's been their whole life. But if I have one and I have a chance to get three while I'm here, I'm going to try to get three. I'm not just going to stick with that one. That's not the way I was raised.
“That's not how I play sports. If I'm going to play it, I might as well be the best at it and push myself to be the best at it. That's the way coach Saban thinks. That man doesn't care how many national championships he wins, he just wants to keep winning. I think that's the mind-set that I've taken from him.”