Meeting Of The Minds
PHOENIX — The first call from the University of Alabama football staff to the University of Houston came to Cougars director of football operations Fernando Lovo last February. It included a message: Nick Saban wanted to speak with Tom Herman. The second call was between Saban's secretary and Herman's, and it noted a precise time and area code that Saban would make a call from. When this Secret Service-level clearance ended and a third call finally connected the two coaches, they hatched the idea of their staffs meeting and exchanging ideas in spring practice.
This is a common practice for college football staffs during the off-season, and it made sense after Alabama gave up 42 points to Ohio State, where Herman was the offensive coordinator, in the Buckeyes' College Football Playoff win over the Crimson Tide last January. But the gesture also says something about Saban's humility and drive; a coach who had four national titles was eager to reach out to one who had been in his first head job for about four weeks. "He was so egoless," Herman said of Saban in a phone interview this week. "However successful he's been the past few years, he was still looking for a way to get better."
A little more than a year after Alabama's Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State, things will come full circle for the No. 2 Crimson Tide when they play No. 1 Clemson for a national title on Monday night. The Tigers run an up-tempo, no-huddle offense with some similarities to the Buckeyes' attack, but Clemson should present a bigger challenge. Wiry sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson will pose a much greater threat to run the football on the perimeter than Ohio State's Cardale Jones did last season.
This game offers a matchup of Saban confronting his kryptonite, as all of Alabama's losses in the past four seasons—Ole Miss (twice), Ohio State, Auburn, Oklahoma and Texas A&M—have come against opponents that feature spread offenses and use tempo. Saban reaching out to Herman underscored the urgency of the Crimson Tide needing to fix their issues, as the team especially struggled substituting personnel in its defeat to the Buckeyes. "Coach Saban relentlessly assaults human nature," Alabama assistant head coach Mario Cristobal said. "He's always on the attack to improve. He always says to us, you need to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, 'What are you not good at?' Confront it and demand of yourself a way to fix it."
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Herman didn't give away any state secrets while he was with Saban, and he says Ohio State fans gave him grief over the meeting. But the reality is the information exchanges were more philosophical than intricately tactical. Saban's offensive staff flew to Houston for a day in early March, and Herman went to Tuscaloosa to speak at Saban's high school clinic a few weeks later. After Herman spoke, he and Saban sat down for 90 minutes to talk philosophy. Herman sent his entire staff to Tuscaloosa a few weeks after that, but Herman couldn't make the trip because he was needed in Houston to meet with potential athletic director candidates.
Herman recalls what intrigued Saban the most during their time together: "If you go more up-tempo, how do you practice the spread way and the no-huddle way and yet stay physical and sound on defense?"
On Saturday at national championship game media day, Saban reiterated his respect for Herman and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. He raved about the insight he and his staff gleaned from these meet-ups. "There wasn't a better learning opportunity for us to go to the folks who were involved," Saban said. "We learned a lot about ourselves, and how they prepared for the game, versus how we prepared for the game."
It would be convenient to say that Saban and the Crimson Tide overhauled their approach and ripped pages out of Herman's offensive playbook to use on Monday night. But that isn't close to being true, as these types of visits tend to result in the coaching equivalent of petty theft rather than wholesale philosophical larceny. Alabama will still be Alabama on offense, proudly using pro-style elements and relying on Heisman Trophy-winning junior tailback Derrick Henry. The Tide will still be most comfortable playing against pro-style teams on defense, as that's the style Saban has developed his system to stop over the decades.
But there will surely be wrinkles. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin told SI that this season's Crimson Tide have run some jet sweeps with senior tailback Kenyan Drake that Ohio State ran with Jalin Marshall last year. Kiffin appreciates the structure of Herman's offense, something often overlooked since it operates so quickly. "He's got a brilliant mind," Kiffin said of Herman. "[Houston] has rules for everything."
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The biggest issues for the Tide last year came on defense, as Ohio State accumulated 537 total yards and went 10 of 18 on third-down conversions during their playoff matchup. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart says this team is better equipped to succeed, thanks largely to a more athletic secondary, a deeper defensive line and a more dynamic linebacking corps. He has adjusted some small things, like changing up which fronts to play against certain looks while facing spread offenses.
Smart initially reached out to Herman in the build-up to last year's national title game, which ultimately led to Saban arranging for a call and setting up the staff exchanges. In the spirit of self-improvement, Smart seems poised to pay the favor forward. "The Michigan State coaches reached out to us," Smart said, referencing Alabama's 38–0 win over the Spartans in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31. "That's what you do as a coach. If you can't look yourself in the mirror and say, 'I got my butt beat,' then you're never going to get better."
On Monday, we'll see just how much better this year's Alabama team is than last year's group. If the Tide can stop Clemson, the roots of Saban's fifth national title may be found in the failures of last season's playoff performance. Saban, 64, called Houston to address a problem. In doing so, he revealed a lot about himself.
"If he's changed, he's put the foot on the foot on the gas even harder," Cristobal said. "Everything about him is speeding up, putting the foot on the gas, through the floorboard and on to the pavement. To us, we love it. It's fourth-and-one and hair on fire every day."
On the sport's biggest stage, Saban and the Tide will face the ultimate test of how far they've come.