After every blowout win this season, Alabama head coach Nick Saban has come into the post-game press conference with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.
He glares down at reporters from the podium, his prickly personality in full effect as he goes into an opening statement about where his team could have done better and where they need to improve for next week.
After No. 1 Alabama beat Missouri 42-10 in rainy Columbia, Mo. last Saturday, Saban told reporters that he was upset with himself for not getting the team’s intensity up after a 38-minute rain delay that came in the second quarter. Up until that point his Crimson Tide was playing just about perfect football and had a 27-0 lead.
But when play resumed (and Jeremy Shelley knocked down the lingering extra point from the touchdown running back T.J. Yeldon had scored before the lightening strike to make the score 28-0), Mizzou’s Marcus Murphy returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and just like that, the Tigers were not only on the board, but had momentum.
A couple of series later, the Tigers knocked down a field goal. The Tide hadn’t given up 10 unanswered points since the Auburn game in 2010.
After the game, Saban was mad at himself for the team's lack of energy after the rain delay. He was visibly still frustrated when asked about it the following Monday.
“Well, I tried to fire myself this week,” he said, tone heightening. “When we were in the locker room, we had great focus, great attention to detail. We were going over all the things like it was halftime and everybody had the right look in their eye. We didn’t come out and play with the same kind of energy and intensity. I’m responsible. I need to do a better job.”
When players make mistakes, they have to answer to Saban. But when Saban admittedly messes up, who holds him accountable?
“If you have any ideas of what I could do to [punish] myself, I’d be glad to do it,” he said. “I feel bad about it. Any time our team goes out there and I don’t think they’re playing the way they should, then I’m constantly searching for what I could have done better.”
And that’s what Saban does on a regular basis. He’s always trying to conjure up ways he can get better and his team can get better. After Alabama won national championships in 2009 and ’11, former offensive coordinator and current Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain recently recalled that Saban didn’t even celebrate but rather called a staff meeting for the following mornings to discuss next season, who they have coming back and recruiting.
“He shook our hands in the locker room and said, Thank you, which was nice,” McElwain said. “We’ll have time to celebrate, we’ll have time to look back when we get done. There’s always work to do and that’s they key.”
That type of vigor and determination is why the Tide is en route to another national title, why this program seems to be a step ahead of everyone else and why players want to play for Saban and Alabama.
What does it take to play for Nick Saban?
A passion, an open mind, a willingness to learn, a desire to get better. Not just in football, but in all aspects of life.
It takes a certain type of personality. He’s not a coach for everyone. He’s not a coach for the weak. There’s no babysitting in Tuscaloosa.
“You can’t be a guy who just wants to get by,” said senior center Barrett Jones. “You have to be a guy that wants to be the best and wants to win.
“I love playing for him because he’s extremely intelligent. He sets a standard for what he wants and he has clear consequences and you gotta respect that.”
Players weren’t allowed to go into detail about Saban’s consequences, but Alabama Sports Information Director Jeff Purinton explained the repercussions are what one might expect—extra running, conditioning, push ups, etc.
However, Saban takes it a step further, Purinton said. If a player makes a mistake or doesn’t meet the team’s standard, he’s called into Saban’s office for a one-on-one meeting, which is comparable to one’s worst fear of going to the principal’s office times a thousand.
“He takes the time, no matter what he’s doing, to meet with a player,” Purinton said. “It’s one thing to say you’re going to be held accountable, it’s another thing for the players here to know they’re going to be held accountable.”
The most recent example comes from Alabama redshirt freshman defensive end LaMichael Fanning. Late in last Saturday’s game against Missouri, he was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after suplexing Tigers’ running back Russell Hansbrough.
Saban does not condone that type of play, so he took punishment into his own hands, meaning that Alabama would handle the situation rather than the SEC. He would not say if Fanning would be suspended for the Tennessee game this weekend, but told reporters Fanning’s consequences: he had to write letters of apology to Hansbrough and Mizzou head coach Gary Pinkel. Why? Because it was the right thing to do and he wanted to teach Fanning and the rest of his team a lesson.
“Our emphasis with him is to learn from this experience, as well as all the players on our team to help them make better choices and decisions in the future,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes. I make them. It’s part of being human. But when you make a mistake and you make a poor decision, you have to understand the consequences and learn from them.”
Senior defensive end Damion Square learned about consequences and discipline growing up because his mother and grandmother ran a tight ship.
“It could be overwhelming if you’re not used to it,” he said. “My grandmother, what she told you to do is what you were supposed to do, nothing less, nothing more. And you’d be getting the punishment she told you she was going to give you if you didn’t do it.
“And it’s the same thing with coach Saban. You have an obligation and he’s going to let you know what’s going to happen if you don’t do it. So it takes a certain type of guy. Some guys adjust, some guys don’t.”
Saban is a teacher. He may be a very intimidating one, but he’s all about “The Process” and helping develop young players into men. If a player makes a mistake in a game or practice, sure Saban will yell and scream, but he’ll also take the time to go over what went wrong so that it doesn’t happen again. Kind of like mandatory office hours.
Square explained that on Monday’s before moving onto the next opponent, Saban goes through every mistake made in the previous game and has his team run the exact same plays they messed up on.
“We go out there and see what we did wrong just in case we see it again because you never want to get beat on the same thing twice,” Square said.
Some players—the ones who embrace his wrath and understand he’s there to help them—view Saban as a father figure, in a sense.
Sophomore safety Vinnie Sunseri grew up in a football family. His father Sal was the Crimson Tide’s outside linebackers coach from 2009-11, but has since become Tennessee’s defensive coordinator. Vinnie committed to Alabama for a lot of reasons, but one was that his family was a part of the program.
When his father left, Vinnie thought about following, but stayed at Alabama because of Saban.
“He’s, in my eyes, the best all around,” Sunseri said. “He is someone I really ended up looking up to the whole time I’ve been here. Once [my dad] left, I was trying to figure out why I wanted to be here, why I’d stay. Coach Saban is the reason I stayed. He’s one of the best DB coaches out there and I wanted to learn from the best.”
Saban and the Alabama coaching staff have the luxury of recruiting the nation’s elite players with the following resume: one SEC title, two national championships, 18 first-team All-Americans and 24 NFL draft picks with 11 coming in the first round. And those are just accomplishments since 2008.
Saban’s first recruiting class from start to finish was in ’08, a talented group that included the nation’s No. 1 prospect Julio Jones, future Heisman winner Mark Ingram, plus Marcell Dareus, Terrence Cody, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, and current seniors Barrett Jones, Michael Williams, Damion Square and Robert Lester.
Since then, the Crimson Tide’s recruiting classes have finished in the Scout Top 10 every year, which simply illustrates that the best players want to be coached by Saban.
“When I was getting recruited, I looked at a lot of different schools,” said Jones, who was a four-star prospect with offers from Alabama, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida. “Every coach kind of tells you the same thing. You’re gonna win championships, you’re gonna have success, they’re gonna make you successful as a person and a player.
“But something about when coach Saban sits down in your living room, and tells that to your parents and looks you in the eye and lays out his plan, it’s special. I don’t know why, but you just believe him and you want to be a part of it.”
Jones also explained that when Saban recruits a kid, he doesn’t beg him to commit.
“He doesn’t come to you and say, ‘We really need you to come, we’ll start you definitely,’” Jones said. “He doesn’t make any promises. He says, ‘Here’s what we’re doing and we’d love for you to be a part of it.’ And that was just really appealing to me.”
But Saban’s track record for winning on the biggest stage in college football isn’t the sole reason why kids come to play for him.
“The development all the way around, for life, for the workplace, for football, he just teaches you the foundation of being a good person,” Square said. “Being someone that somebody would want to hire. Someone that somebody would want to play with. Someone that somebody would want to be around. That’s always his thing. Doing what’s expected of you when it’s expected and knowing when it’s expected.
“You know, a lot of people don’t know what’s expected of them.”
This is where the famous “Process” comes into play.
“He’s really given us a different mindset to life,” Jones said. “How to focus on the little things and how to not focus so much on results.”
Senior safety Robert Lester was recently asked what he was most proud of when looking back on his college career, and his answer had nothing to do with winning two national championships. Why? Because Saban teaches that winning is not enough.
“I would say just the development of the players here,” he said. “When I came here, I thought I was ready to play. But I can look back on film and just tell I was nowhere near ready. And it amazes me how coach Saban can see that at an early stage.”
Winning isn’t enough, never settle, never rest, there is always room for improvement.
Those are things Saban preaches and if you’re one of his disciples, those are things you have to practice on a daily basis in order to one day be satisfied.
And that begs the question, Will Saban or anyone who has ever studied under him be satisfied?
“Maybe when he’s on his pontoon boat up at this lake in North Carolina he may look back and say, ‘You know what, that was a pretty decent run,’” McElwain said. “But you know, he won’t be satisfied with the way he tied the knot on the boat to put it on the dock. I mean, he’s driven and that’s how we all should be. You can never be satisfied because once you’re satisfied, you become mediocre and that constant push, there’s always things we can do better in everything we do, not just football.”
And that is the allure of Saban.
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