Alabama and Georgia Explain How 2017's Best Teams Define Discipline

There's a psychological component to Alabama and Georgia's on-field success that reveals itself in the approach both Nick Saban and Kirby Smart take to a simple, foundational word. What does discipline mean to the 2017 season's two playoff finalists?
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Every coach aspires to take his team where Nick Saban and Kirby Smart had Alabama and Georgia at the end of last season, and most of them spend the offseason talking about the importance of developing a program-wide culture that will help them reach that championship stage. This year’s two College Football Playoff finalists didn’t get to the top of the SEC and the college football world just by loading up with talented players (although that certainly helped). They also pride themselves on something Saban assistants past and present have said is the key to building his dynasty, a simple concept that contains multitudes: discipline.

The word carries a variety of meanings, but in short, you can either view discipline as a consequence of bad behavior or a driver of good behavior. A coach who recently took over a struggling program thought his players’ definition from the previous regime would be “the stuff that the coaches make us do if we get caught doing something wrong.” Saban has his own definition, and members of the Alabama and Georgia programs have internalized it and integrated it within their routines.

“The ongoing definition around here is to do what you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it, the way it’s supposed to be done—all of the time,” says Alabama’s head strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran, who has been with Saban for all six of his national titles, including his first while at LSU. “That is Coach Saban’s definition, and it is ingrained into my head.”

Crimson Tide offensive line coach Brent Key arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2016. His definition: “Doing the right thing all the time, and doing the right thing when you don’t want to do it.” Key, 39, says his definition of the word has changed from his younger days, “when discipline meant being punished or spanked. But to me now, discipline is internal.”

“Discipline is accountability,” says Alabama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi, Saban’s ace recruiter since 2015 who was promoted when Tennessee hired away Jeremy Pruitt this winter. “You have to consistently operate to our standard on a daily basis, and that’s where players and coaches hold each other accountable and continue to prepare in the game manner, no matter who we’re playing.”

Saban’s definition of discipline is now a part of Alabama’s DNA. “There is no sense of entitlement here,” associate head coach and running backs coach Burton Burns said in the run-up to Alabama’s title-game beatdown of Notre Dame in 2013. At a place littered then and now with former five-star recruits, in a time when some prospects become celebrities before they leave high school, that is no small feat.

“During the recruiting process we are very up-front with them, and those guys are smart enough to know what they are getting themselves into,” Burns said. “In my position specifically [Burns has since moved to an off-field role after 11 years as running backs coach], they know that we’re going to play a lot of guys, so I want them to understand that, and to come to work every day and not let that affect them. We have been really fortunate to have the right personalities to do that. We’ve always had one guy that sets the tempo in terms of what it takes to be a running back at the University of Alabama and not to be selfish. Play your role. Take it very seriously. Be ready for the moment. When I first got there, it was Glen Coffee, and he took care of Mark Ingram, and then Mark took care of Trent Richardson, and then Trent took care of Eddie, and Eddie Lacy took care of T.J. [Yeldon].”

Minkah Fitzpatrick seemed to have a grasp of the big picture at Alabama before he ever enrolled, which helped the standout defensive back become a team leader almost upon arrival. For a player with uncanny focus and attention to detail, the culture in place in Tuscaloosa played a big role in sealing his college decision. Growing up, Fitzpatrick recalls his parents imparting to him that discipline was “doing what you’re supposed to do when you think something else might be easier or it might take you there quicker.” Under Saban, he flourished as an All-America DB, building a strong case to be taken in the first round of April’s NFL draft alongside several of his teammates.

“When I think about discipline I think about all the summer workouts and the summer running,” first round–bound defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne says. “It’s ‘re-load’ because someone jumped offsides, and stuff like that. They focus on discipline a lot up here, and I think that’s what makes us successful.”

Players and coaches alike say being in Saban’s program has impacted how they view the concept, even if they felt like it had already been a big part of their individual paths to Tuscaloosa. 

“It wasn’t as clearly defined, I guarantee that,” says Ed Marynowitz, who helped run the Tide’s personnel department for Saban for the past two seasons but has since left the staff. “Whether you’re in youth sports or high school, discipline is hard work or dedication. It’s in its simplest form. What Coach does a good job of is clearly defining it. He has a way with words, and it transitions into almost every area of what you do.”

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Trevor Moawad is one of the unseen men behind that message. Over eight seasons as Alabama’s mental conditioning consultant, Moawad helped Saban lay his foundation in Tuscaloosa and did the same for Jimbo Fisher at Florida State. “I certainly think I learned more from [Saban] than him from me,” Moawad says.

The 43-year-old Moawad has built a performance consulting business rooted in sports physiology. His father Bob was a motivational speaker, but Moawad’s own perspective was shaped by his time under legendary tennis trainer Nick Bollettieri ​at IMG Academy, where he noticed patterns among the elite athletes in every sport training at the Florida facility. One of the athletes Moawad worked with and learned from at IMG was former Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson.

“Early on, he identified what it took to be No. 1 in the world,” Moawad says. “We talk about the illusion of choice. You don’t really have a wide set of choices if you want to make it to the top. Michael Johnson used to always say distractions are the enemy of an elite athlete, and most of them come in forms you don’t recognize. A lot of people aren’t aware they’re being distracted. 

“When we look at great athletes and people who are successful, we think about what those people do, but I don’t think we pay enough attention to what they’re willing not to do. Success leaves clues. Discipline is the willingness not to do certain things. If I have a bag of Doritos in my left hand and an apple in my right hand, you probably wouldn’t need a nutritionist to tell you which was better for you. So why would you choose the apple? Most of sports comes down to simple choices like that. I think we want to make it seem complicated, but the reality is it’s doing the simple things savagely well.”

Johnson told Moawad he focused on four things during a race: Keep my head down. Pump my arms. Explode. See myself as a bullet. He believed writing those reminders down made him more efficient in the same way that writing out a grocery list made him shop more efficiently. 

“Sports psychology has gotten so complicated with mindfulness and imagery and all these different things,” Moawad says. “It’s not that complicated. Do the simple things well. Negativity is most powerful when you say negative things. So what if you don’t say ’em? The real power is saying them, not thinking them. Once you say it, it has 10 times the power as thinking it.

“If I form a habit, that habit forms me, good or bad, and that’s discipline to say, I don’t know really why I am going to do this, but I am.”

Moawad was wearing Georgia red instead of Alabama crimson during the CFP Media Day festivities in Atlanta. When the Bulldogs plucked Kirby Smart from Saban’s staff to replace Mark Richt, Moawad left for Athens, too. He still works with Fisher’s new charges at Texas A&M, but not the Tide.

Smart took over a program that had consistently been good, but not great. To fix that, he installed Saban’s system of values, which forced players and coaches alike to make an adjustment.

“No detail is left un-talked-about,” Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney says. “We dot every I and cross every T. It sometimes might be a little uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s gonna be talked about. Kirby is diligent as heck about all that.”

Awkward as they may be at times, these conversations become the norm. “It’s had every day,” Georgia quarterbacks coach James Coley says. “I always felt like when you walked in staff meetings, you were there to get your players better. Everybody’s trying to get better, but now you’re saying to yourself, ‘How can I get better in this staff meeting?’ Because you really get better as a coach. Coach Smart has done a great job helping us all get better as coaches.

When asked for his definition of discipline, Coley rattles off examples. “This is what it means to me: Not jumping offsides. Being able to stop when the whistle blows. Running your route exactly where it’s supposed to be run.”

His perspective has changed since Georgia hired Smart. “Leaving Miami [in 2015] and coming back to a system like this, there’s a big emphasis on the little details. Not that there wasn’t at Miami, but there’s just such a huge emphasis on the small print. Ten years ago, discipline meant being on time, not missing your appointments. The difference is we do a better job of working on distractions these days.”

Both Georgia and Alabama proved in 2017 they were pretty adept at coping with those distractions. Each rebounded from late-season adversity in the form of losses at Auburn that appeared to douse their playoff hopes. When the Tide came back from a 13–0 halftime deficit to edge Smart’s Bulldogs for the national title, the college football world was guaranteed eight more months of Alabama adulation, while the program run by the best Saban imitator was left with the solace that it has announced its return to national contention. Now, both teams are hard at work to reset their standard while the rest of the sport tries to catch up.