Making Nick Saban
By BJ Bennett
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If Nick Saban's foundation was built at his previous stops, historic success at Alabama has expanded his iconic image.
While his unrelenting drive for efficiency and excellence is now legendary, Nick Saban's organizational obsessions are nothing new. With three national championships in the last four years at Alabama, some are now comparing the 5'6'' West Virginian to the man whose accomplishments have long been viewed as absolutely immeasurable: the iconic Bear Bryant. Though talk of Saban being the greatest of all time has just recently started, this is an evolution that dates back decades.
A former defensive back at Kent State, Saban finished his playing career and went directly into coaching. There never was anything else. He stayed there, in Ohio, as a graduate assistant through 1974 before serving as a defensive assistant at his alma mater in his first official stint. From that point on, the occupational square dance that welcomes most coaches to the big leagues took complete hold.
One year at Syracuse turned into two years at West Virginia, then two more at Ohio State. After one season at the Naval Academy, Saban briefly settled in for the first time in his young career. He worked as defensive backs coach, then defensive coordinator at Michigan State from 1983-1987. There Saban developed valuable relationships and established his reputation as one of the top young assistants in the game. A slight course correction with the NFL's Houston Oilers precluded the now four-time national champion's initial opportunity to captain his own ship.
In 1990, Saban became a head football coach for the first time in his career. He was formally introduced at Toledo, then promptly went 9-2 after the Rockets were 6-5 the year prior. In his one season at Toledo, Saban's team lost their two games by a combined five points. Gary Pinkel, now with Missouri, would take over after Saban turned eleven games with the Rockets into a rare defensive coordinator position with the nearby Cleveland Browns.
During his second NFL stop, Saban worked under now New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. This weekend, Belichick will face the Baltimore Ravens with a potential spot in his sixth Super Bowl on the line. Saban was Belichik's defensive coordinator for four years in Cleveland and furthered many of his philosophies on infrastructure and methodology there. From operating within an extremely insulated core to focusing largely on the small details, various similarities between the programs of Belichick and Saban are quite palpable today.
After sharpening his skills under Belichik, Saban was hired as the head football coach at Michigan State in 1995. He replaced George Perles, who finished one game above .500 in a dozen seasons in East Lansing. After going 25-22-1 in his first four years, Saban's Spartans burst onto the national scene in 1999 with a 9-2 regular season that included triumphs over Oregon, Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Though Saban was just beginning to make his mark as a head coach, the effects of his legacy were in full motion.
"There would be days at practice when Coach Saban didn't call me by my name at all. Then, afterwards, he would ask how class went and about your personal life. And you're thinking, 'just a half hour ago you were on me and now you care'," former MSU running back T.J. Duckett recalled on "Three and Out" on the Southern Pigskin Sports Network. "When you don't blur the lines and you understand that his focus is about making his players better, his team winning and his kids graduating, you understand the intensity that he has and why he is that way on his players. He takes these young men, who are very talented, he gets them focused, he molds them into amazing athletes and better students."
During Saban's tenure at Michigan State, championships were not yet being won. His impact, though, was already being felt.
"Coach Saban, in my opinion, is the best college coach that has been on the sidelines. For him to be my first experience, the professionalism, the discipline, the demands...the high level of energy that he expects daily out of a young man. The pressure that he puts on you to create a great player, I didn't understand it at that time. He expects greatness, he expects perfection," Duckett acknowledged. "These young men have a lot of talent and to put those talents aside for a team goal in this day in age, that's amazing. Having played in his system and knowing how he approaches practice, how he approaches class. Knowing these things and then they go out and win the championship, that says so much about Coach Saban. Every single student-athlete he has will be very successful with what they have learned, whether that's in the game or after they get their degree."
From Michigan State in the Big Ten to LSU in the SEC, Saban's profile began to grow as the size of the stage increased. Taking over the Tigers in 2000, he immediately changed the status quo. From 3-8 the very year prior, Saban's first team in Baton Rouge went 8-4 and rallied to win five of six down the stretch. The next season, LSU claimed their first outright conference crown since 1986 and won their first Sugar Bowl since 1968. Two years later, the paradigm officially shifted.
Following a 2003 SEC Championship Game thrashing of Georgia, LSU advanced to the Sugar Bowl and edged Oklahoma 21-14 to finish the season 13-1 and win the BCS National Championship. The victory completed a meteoric rise for Saban, who catapulted directly to the college football forefront. Despite the new attention, old habits were leading the charge.
"He is hard on the kids, he is hard on his coaches. He demands excellence. We were always prepared, you felt like you went into the game more prepared than the guy across the field from you. You felt like a machine because you practiced every situation," explained former LSU quarterback Josh Booty on the SPS Network. "Our practices were like NFL practices. When I went into the NFL, I felt like our practice sessions at LSU were a lot tougher and more detailed to a certain degree than they were in the NFL. Saban thinks about every situation and you will not play if you mess up."
His famed football mindset aside, much of Saban's success can be attributed to his tireless off-season efforts. From his travels to the time he puts in, Saban will simply not be outworked.
"He recruits phenomenally well. I was in Birmingham coming through last year in the off-season and I called up to his office to see if he was there," Booty continued. "His secretary answered and the sweet lady said 'he is going to be in five states today recruiting'. He had got up at the butt-crack of dawn and was out recruiting. That is what wins championships."
If Saban's foundation was built at his previous stops, historic success at Alabama has expanded his iconic image. After one year to set the table with the Crimson Tide following a tour with the Miami Dolphins, Saban's Alabama went 12-2 and advanced to the SEC Championship Game for an encore. That Crimson Tide team opened the season with a dozen consecutive victories, wins over Clemson, Georgia and LSU among them. A Sugar Bowl disappointment versus Utah left a major void for Saban and his players. The following year, Alabama made sure they left no doubt.
The 2009 Crimson Tide team set a school record for victories, a staggering 14, and marched through their conference schedule, a league title tilt with Tim Tebow and Florida and a national championship bout with Texas en route to their first title since 1992. That proved to be a record-setting season as running back Mark Ingram became the first player in school history to claim the coveted Heisman Trophy.
That run included, Saban has fortified an iron-clad, modern day dynasty the likes of which the current college football landscape has never seen. After back-to-back national championships in 2011 and 2012, titles earned by a combined score of 63-14, Alabama has currently won 26 of their last 28 games. It's an empire ruled with a stern-fist, yet a soft-heart. From the outside, Saban's reign appears as a complex mix of innovation and intelligence, tenacity and toughness. To those inside the tight-knit circle, it's a much more straightforward creed.
"When I first met Coach Saban, we were sitting in his office and talking. I think this is the most resounding statement as to why Alabama is so good. He said, 'there are two pains in life. There is the pain of disappointment and the pain of discipline. If you can handle the pain of discipline, you will never have to handle the pain of disappointment'," former Alabama tight end Colin Peek reflected on the SPS Network. "That is why Alabama is good. Because we know how to handle the pain of discipline."
Saban's Alabama is one that harkens back to an earlier day. One where crimson was the gold standard and it was houndstooth that had the sharpest bite. Bryant's winning percentage during his time in Tuscaloosa was a remarkable 82.4%. To date, Saban's rate is an astonishing 82.9%. In 17 total years as a head football coach, Saban has four national championships. In 38 seasons, Bryant won six.
Looking ahead to the fall of 2013, Alabama will likely be college football's pre-season number one team. Contention isn't Saban's expectation, continuation is.
"We were trained to always believe there was always something better, something greater that you are striving for. I think that goes back to Coach Saban and what he teaches. I think that is why you see Alabama consistently in the hunt, the race, the title game. Three out of four years, there is a reason why there is no complacency on that team and why they always want more. One championship is good, well what about two? Two is great, but what about three? It just keeps compiling on, what you can do that nobody else has done," Peek concluded.
Saban's development has gone from one of wandering conception to Waterford Crystal. To quantify his work, you can certainly look back at what has been done. To fully appreciate it, however, like him, you must focus on what has yet to be completed.