The Sabanization of college football
They pulled on their garnet-and-gold polos and gathered in the ballroom at the Hilton in Ocala, Fla., for a cocktail hour followed by a glimpse into the future. It was May 2010, and Jimbo Fisher had been Florida State's head coach for four months. As he looked out across the ballroom, Fisher saw eager faces beseeching him to share his plans for restoring the Seminoles to the national championship peak of the Bobby Bowden era. The Seminole Boosters wanted a pep rally. Fisher gave them a sales pitch.
Fisher explained that since taking over, he had hired a nutritionist to monitor what players ate. He had contracted a mental-conditioning coach to change how players thought. He had inherited two strength-and-conditioning- assistants, then hired six more and was on the verge of bringing on a seventh to ensure that players received more individual attention in the weight room. Fisher then asked the boosters to dig deep because he needed more. He wanted better dorms for the players and an indoor practice facility. Basically, he wanted everything his old boss, Nick Saban, had at Alabama.
Fisher wanted to duplicate the Process.
Nick Saban has led Alabama to two BCS titles in three years thanks to the Process, a culmination of all he's learned in the college and NFL ranks.
Instead of talking about wins and championships, Saban speaks about the Process. In its most basic form, the Process is Saban's term for concentrating on the steps to success rather than worrying about the end result. Instead of thinking about the scoreboard, think about dominating the man on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. Instead of thinking about a conference title, think about finishing a ninth rep in the weight room. Instead of thinking about graduating, think about writing a great paper for Intro to Psych. Since Saban has won three of the past nine BCS titles (LSU in 2003, Alabama in '09 and '11), the phrase has morphed into the mission statement for Saban's program-building philosophy. After watching the Tide coach raise all those crystal footballs, athletic directors and coaches across the country are trying to replicate his philosophy and results. Call it the Sabanization of college football.
"People want the blueprint," says Florida coach Will Muschamp, who was Saban's defensive coordinator from 2002 to '04.
When the Tigers won the 2003 BCS title, Fisher ran LSU's offense. Derek Dooley, now Tennessee's coach, ran the special teams. Today each heads a program that has won at least one national title since 1998. The three former LSU assistants face a steep climb back to college football's highest echelon, and each works under the assumption that anything less than a national championship will, in time, get him fired. All three know they were hired to use Saban's blueprint to do what he has done at Alabama and LSU.
The three former LSU coaches aren't the only ones Sabanizing their programs. Mark Dantonio, who worked for Saban at Michigan State from 1995 to '99, had the Spartans one win from the Rose Bowl in 2010 and '11. Jim McElwain, who was Alabama's offensive coordinator from '08 to '11, became the head coach at Colorado State in December. Even Texas coach Mack Brown, whose own admired blueprint produced a 101-16 record from '01 to '09, had Saban in mind when he brought two new assistants to Austin after the '10 season to help the Longhorns evolve to win in a new decade.
To duplicate what Saban has done at Alabama will not be easy. Plenty of schools have money and eye-catching facilities to dazzle recruits. But few other schools have won as consistently as Alabama since 2008. After a frustrating first season in Tuscaloosa -- which included several off-the-field issues and a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe -- Saban has gone 48-6. In the past three seasons Saban has won two titles and lost only four times.
Every few years the game becomes enamored with a system or scheme, and it rushes to declare the birth of the sport's Next Big Thing. In 1991, Houston quarterback
The difference between Nick Saban's system and the spread or the run-and-shoot is that Saban's on-field schemes involve no gimmickry. He runs a 3-4 defense that utilizes zone blitzes and disguises coverages exceptionally well. While he works mostly with the defense at practice, Saban encourages his offensive staff to build around a large -- but not huge -- athletic line. The quarterback need only be a competent game manager, buttressed by a fast, hard-running ball of muscle at tailback. The line blows open holes, and the back breaks tackles on the second level. If teams pack the box to stop the run, the game manager throws to receivers athletic enough to exploit man-to-man coverage. None of this is revolutionary.
While Saban has always surrounded himself with coaches whose X's and O's acumen allows them to make the right calls on game day -- just look at his budding coaching tree -- the true success of his system hinges on the selection of players and the way they are trained once they arrive on campus. That is why Saban's system can endure when schemes can't, and it is also why several programs have made big bets that it can be duplicated.
Every player currently recruited by Alabama, Florida and Florida State gets graded using a similar list of criteria. Coaches calculate the grades by scoring each recruit based on three sets of criteria: character/attitude/intelligence, position-specific critical factors and a height/weight/speed chart. On Saban's grading scale the critical factors for a cornerback are:
• Can he judge the ball?
• Can he play man-to-man?
• Can he tackle?
The ideal height for a cornerback is between 6 feet and 6'2". The ideal weight is heavier than 180 pounds. The ideal speed is less than 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Saban is quick to point out that these are not firm requirements. For example, Javier Arenas, who was recruited by Mike Shula and inherited by Saban when he first came to Alabama, was only 5'9", 198 pounds, but he helped the Crimson Tide win the 2009 national title with two picks in the championship game. Saban says he would have recruited Arenas because he scored high on his critical factors and in the character/attitude/intelligence department.
Those evaluation forms didn't originate with Saban. They came from Don James, who coached Saban at Kent State and made Saban a graduate assistant while he killed a year waiting for his wife, Terry, to graduate. (Saban intended to go into the automotive business afterward, but once bitten by the coaching bug, he changed course.) James, who later went on to win six Pac-10 titles at Washington, borrowed the idea from former Colorado coach Eddie Crowder, who forbade his assistants from watching film of recruits and required them to grade based on in-person observation and discussions with high school coaches. At Kent State, James tweaked the criteria to suit his own preferences. "We were looking for guys who could start right away," James says. "We weren't sure we were going to be around for two or three years."
While a defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns from 1991 to '94, Saban worked for another critical mentor, Bill Belichick, who not only gave Saban a master course in defensive philosophy, but also taught Saban how to get the most out of his staff and players. Saban took note of the sign Belichick hung in the Browns' complex. It said do your job. Saban loved it because Belichick clearly defined the expectations for every employee in the organization. "Everybody says, 'Be accountable,' but sometimes nobody ever tells you exactly what the expectation is," Saban says. "Bill was good at defining what he expected from everybody, and everybody buying in. Then the team had a chance to flourish because of it." Every year Saban provides everyone who touches the program with a list of responsibilities and expectations, from defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to media-relations director Jeff Purinton. Smart can accept the occasional tongue-lashing because he knows what Saban expects of him. "Is he demanding? Yeah," Smart says. "He requires you to do your job. And I appreciate that."
Though it may come as a shock to many, Saban is more comfortable than most of his colleagues in admitting what he doesn't know. In his quest to train the whole player, he realizes he can't address the mental aspect of the game as well as a sports psychiatrist. When he was head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Saban hired Trevor Moawad, the director of performance at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to work with his players. He now uses Moawad as a consultant at 'Bama. While Moawad's efforts don't provide empirical data -- a change in attitude can't be quantified like an increase in bench press -- Saban and the players have noticed results.
In the 2010 Iron Bowl the Tide gagged away a 24-point lead in a 28-27 loss to eventual national champion Auburn. As the game slipped away, Moawad tried to get linebacker Dont'a Hightower to rally the defense, but Hightower didn't feel he was the right man for the job. The following off-season Moawad and Hightower revisited the situation, and Hightower realized he should have done more. In 2011, Hightower and his fellow veterans accepted their leadership roles. The defense allowed only nine touchdowns all season and pitched a shutout against LSU in the BCS title game.
As he has during past preseason camps, Saban has brought in speakers -- at significant expense -- to highlight various lessons. Saban can preach accountability, but the message hits harder when former basketball star Chris Herren explains how his drug habit cost him his professional basketball career. Saban can ask his players to stick to their guiding principles, but that won't mean as much as it does coming from former amateur boxer Dewey Bozella, who served 26 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit and who, when offered his freedom in return for an admission of guilt, declined and waited to be exonerated. "Probably one of the toughest things for these coaches to do is convince their administrations that the investment in these other areas is important," Moawad says. "The athletic director says, 'Well, isn't that your job?'"
Alabama has given Saban everything he has asked for, and the school has reaped a huge return. During Saban's tenure the Crimson Tide has completed a massive expansion project that raised Bryant-Denny Stadium's seating capacity from 92,000 to 101,000. According to data reported to the U.S. Department of Education, in the last full school year before Saban arrived (2005-06), Alabama football made $44.4 million and spent $16.7 million. In the 2010-11 school year Alabama spent $31.6 million, but it made $76.8 million.
Can Saban's system be replicated at a school that generates about one-tenth the revenue that Alabama generates? McElwain, the former Alabama offensive coordinator, will soon find out, because Colorado State totaled $7.7 million in football revenue in 2010-11.
McElwain contends that some facets of the Process require little money. It doesn't cost him anything to fill out an 18-month master calendar similar to the one Saban keeps at Alabama. It costs Colorado State a pittance more to print the individual job descriptions for each employee in the football program. And it costs nothing for McElwain to draw a picture of a bus on the grease board in the staff meeting room, on which he can write an employee's initials inside the bus anytime that person tries to pass blame for his own failure to someone else. Throw a co-worker under the bus and you ride the bus of shame. "In any business organization, whether you have a bunch of money or not much money, the people are the difference," McElwain says.
Saban agrees. He remembers taking over as head coach at Toledo in December 1989 and asking for more money for academic advising for his players. He got $25,000. "We hired one person," Saban says. "One lady. And she did a hell of a job."
Still, the Process requires funding. Like Saban, McElwain hired Moawad to provide mental conditioning. McElwain knew the request would seem odd, but Rams athletic director Jack Graham approved the expense. Meanwhile, those donors Florida State's Fisher hit up when he got the job in 2010 have opened their wallets. The school is building a dorm that will house a large number of football players, and Fisher -- who has moved practices to 5:30 a.m. to dodge Tallahassee's frequent afternoon thunderstorms -- proudly notes an artist's rendering of an indoor practice facility that sits in his office. The school will break ground on the facility in December and plans to open it by preseason camp in '13. "Everybody thinks it's right here," Fisher says, pointing out his window at Doak Campbell Stadium. "Or that it's the X's and O's. That's the last part of it."
Even programs that don't want to completely Sabanize have used some of his principals. After Texas went 5-7 in a disastrous 2010 season, Brown decided to revamp his staff. He had seen his offensive line get abused that season, and he knew the unit needed better coaching. Still smarting from the way Alabama's defensive line whipped the Longhorns up front in the '09 BCS title game, Brown also decided to change his defensive line coach. Brown hired offensive line coach Stacy Searels from Georgia and swiped defensive line coach Bo Davis from Saban's Alabama staff. Searels and Davis knew one another well -- on Saban's '03 LSU staff, Searels coached the offensive line, and Davis was an assistant strength coach. "They have such cohesiveness when it comes to practice and working their guys together with drills and trying to compete," Brown said. "I really felt like it was a win-win for us. They've both done a remarkable job of shoring up our lines of scrimmage in only a year."
Saban's influence has spread beyond the programs that have tried to copy his formula. Competitors have changed their styles to compete in a league dominated by Saban's current program and his former program. When Saban came to LSU in 2000, Steve Spurrier's pass-happy Florida teams still dominated the SEC. In his first two games against Spurrier, Saban lost by a combined score of 85-24. He knew his defense would have to get better to beat Spurrier's teams, and he set about improving that side of the ball through recruiting. After the '01 season Spurrier left for the Washington Redskins, and when he returned to the SEC with South Carolina in '05, he found a league dominated by defense -- thanks to the influences of Saban and Auburn's Tommy Tuberville. Spurrier had limited success in his first few seasons in Columbia, but his teams began making school history after he scrapped his beloved Fun 'n' Gun and switched to a run-heavy zone-read offense that hogged the ball and allowed his stingy, athletic defense to rest between possessions. Though the schemes differ, the underlying philosophies of defensive dominance and offensive ball control are reminiscent of Saban's model at Alabama.
Is there an approach that can beat Saban's system? The cyclical nature of college football suggests so, but Saban's holistic Process is less susceptible to gimmicks and schematic ingenuity. Saban finds the most talented players with the best mental makeup; trains their mind, body and soul; and then unleashes them. Most likely, the coach who topples Saban will have his own process. Maybe that coach will be one of Saban's former assistants, tweaking Saban's system to suit his own personality. Or maybe Saban will keep on winning because he is the only one who can truly master the Process. "You have to pay the price for success up front," Saban says. "Everybody wants to do it. Not everybody is willing to do what they have to do to do it."