Why Nick Saban and Alabama dominate college football, year after year
PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — First, the bad news for everyone who doesn't wear crimson and white. Nick Saban is not thinking about retirement. And though it fills news cycles to theorize what he might do in a second act as an NFL coach, he probably isn't going to do his coaching anywhere but Tuscaloosa. The morning after Saban won his fifth national title as a head coach and his fourth in the last seven seasons, someone asked the Alabama coach about the inevitable end. According to Saban, it's still over the horizon.
"I've been a part of a team since I was nine years old. It scares me to ever think of the day when I wouldn't be a part of the team," Saban said. "The feeling that you get being associated with a group like this makes you want to do it more. That's kind of how I feel about it. I know you can't do this forever, but I certainly enjoy the moment and certainly look forward to the future challenges that we have and really have no timetable for ever not being a part of a team."
Now, the good news for everyone who would like his team to have a chance at winning the SEC West, the SEC or the national title. Saban is about to embark on one of his toughest coaching jobs since arriving in Alabama. Sure, his debut 2007 team needed work. With the possible exception of the '10 season, though, Saban hasn't faced a reload—it would be foolish to use the term rebuild in regard to Saban's Crimson Tide program—as complicated as the one that lies ahead. About an hour before Saban spoke Tuesday morning, the man who ran Alabama's defense Monday night landed in Athens, Ga., with a "G" on his pullover.
Kirby Smart was a critical cog in the Tide's machine for Saban's entire time in Tuscaloosa, but Smart will now compete for many of the same players and try to win the same conference titles Saban craves.
Meanwhile, Alabama will have to groom its third starting quarterback in three seasons. Since Saban offered a ride to offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin after Kiffin missed the team bus following the Crimson Tide's win, it's safe to assume Kiffin is welcome to return for a third year to groom that quarterback—whether it's Blake Barnett, David Cornwell, Cooper Bateman or Jalen Hurts. (It's also safe to assume Kiffin is welcome back because he has been a fabulous coordinator for Alabama; an NFL coordinator job or a college head coaching opening caused by a departure for the NFL are the only things that could pry him away.)
For the first time since Saban came to Tuscaloosa, he probably won't bring back one of his offense's two leading rushers. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry hasn't declared that he will skip his senior year and enter the 2016 NFL draft, but that seems like a fait accompli. Kenyan Drake is a senior. So, there will be no passing of the torch like there was from Glen Coffee to Mark Ingram, Ingram to Trent Richardson and then Richardson to Eddie Lacy. Bo Scarbrough, the 6' 2", 240-pound freshman who offers the same gasp factor as Henry, appears to be the next man up, but the Tide will likely try to platoon backs as they have for most of Saban's tenure. The load only got so heavy for Henry this season because Drake struggled with injuries.
Beyond Smart, the Crimson Tide will sustain heavy losses. Linebackers Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee are all seniors. So are defensive ends Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway, nose tackle Darren Lake, cornerback Cyrus Jones and safety Geno Matias-Smith. Plenty of other important players could also depart. Defensive ends A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen and linebackers Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams are draft-eligible juniors.
Saban pointed out Tuesday that Ragland came back this season after receiving a second-round grade as a junior and likely played his way into a first-round slot. "I'm sure he'll be a top-15 pick this year," Saban said. "If you want to do the math on that, that's maybe a $12 million or $14 million decision. … There's a business aspect to making this decision that I've always tried to get our players to make a business decision." The best business decision for Robinson or Allen, who could also be first-rounders this spring, might be to leave. The player who might be in position to copy Ragland is Williams, the 6' 4", 230-pound rush linebacker who finished second on the roster with 10.5 sacks despite playing mostly on third downs. Williams had draft analysts drooling down the stretch despite his limited playing time, but the question he'll have to weigh is whether he can make more money by returning to campus and playing more of an every-down role.
No matter what the players on the fence about the draft decide, the Tide will experience plenty of turnover. If there is a year to get Alabama, 2016 may be it. So, why isn't anyone confident they can do it?
Because of Saban.
As Saban spoke Tuesday, an email popped in from Trevor Moawad, a consultant who has helped Saban's teams with their mental conditioning since Saban's time with the Miami Dolphins. Moawad, who is one of three (three!) professionals Saban relies upon to train his players between their ears, understands what happens deep inside the Alabama machine. "He understands every element of human performance," Moawad wrote in the email. "And there is no contingency that he doesn't prepare for."
That's not hyperbole, and anyone who watched Monday's national title game knows it. Sure, the decision to attempt an onside kick tied at 24 in the fourth quarter was a gamble, but it wasn't as big of a risk as it may have seemed. Saban and Crimson Tide special teams coordinator Bobby Williams had noticed on video that any time Clemson's opponent kicked off into one corner, the Tigers would squeeze their formation toward that side of the field. This would allow Clemson to concentrate its blockers in a smaller area and hopefully build a wall that return man Artavis Scott could run behind. To do that, Clemson had to leave the area near the other sideline empty.
Early in the game, Saban watched to see if the Tigers kept lining up the same way. Against the advice of Florida coach Jim McElwain, who said in December that opponents must always break tendency to stand a chance against Saban's Tide, Clemson lined up the same way every time. Because Saban had seen junior kicker Adam Griffith execute the necessary short, blooping kick multiple times in practice, he knew the play stood an excellent chance of succeeding whenever he wanted to use it. (Leave it to Saban to devise an onside kick strategy that takes away the randomness generator that is a bouncing football.) So, with his defense gassed and his team in need of a momentum swing, Saban told Griffith to run what Alabama calls Pop Kick. As Saban expected, there wasn't a Tigers player near Tide redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey when the ball landed in Humphrey's hands.
Saban had been prepared for that contingency, just as he had prepared for the contingency of Smart's eventual departure. When Saban hired Hoover (Ala.) High defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to be Alabama's director of player development in 2007, Saban did not do it with an eye on Pruitt eventually becoming Bama's defensive coordinator. But Saban did hire Pruitt with the mindset that if he filled the Crimson Tide program with enough bright young minds, those people would learn Saban's way of doing things and might someday be available to fill a position if he had an opening. "When you have an opening—even though you may lose them and they might go someplace else—you know you can bring them back," Saban told SI in a 2013 interview. "Then you're not training people in how you're trying do things."
Pruitt rose to become the secondary coach at Alabama before the 2010 season and spent three years in that role before former Saban coordinator Jimbo Fisher hired Pruitt before the '13 campaign to run Florida State's defense. Pruitt won a national title in Tallahassee and then spent the past two seasons serving as Georgia's defensive coordinator. So, when Smart took the Georgia job—and elected not to retain his former coworker Pruitt—Saban brought back a guy who already understands his system, requires no training and can hit the ground running.
In other words, Saban prepared for that contingency just as he has prepared for every other.
That's why it's tough to bet against Alabama winning the SEC in 2016 and returning to the College Football Playoff for a third consecutive season despite all the Tide will lose. Saban usually thinks of everything; why wouldn't he have a plan for this?
To truly understand what everyone else in college football is up against, read this brilliant essay from Spencer Hall of SB Nation. Hall perfectly explains how Saban keeps the Tide rolling. "There's corporate personality profiling. There is film study so infinite and exacting, some NFL coaches might beg off it, even for opponents like Georgia Southern or State," Hall writes. "There are motivational speakers and protein shakes and a nutritionist who texts players photos of the fajita bar so they'll show up for their 10 p.m. feedings. Say that to yourself. This is a football program with a 10 p.m. fajita feeding. There are no accidents in a world where late night fajita bars are part of the plan."
It's true. There are no accidents. There are onside kicks that will almost certainly work. There is an army of assistants and former assistants versed in the Process and ready to serve at a moment's notice. And there is a head coach who has no idea when he'll finally be ready to stop kicking everyone else's butt.