What It’s Like When Alabama Football Gets a New Head Coach

As Alabama prepares for Kalen DeBoer’s first season, BamaCentral looks back at the Crimson Tide’s last coaching transition with Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007.
Sep 29, 2007; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban takes the field alongside Wallace Gilberry for a game against the Florida State Seminoles at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports Copyright © 2007 Jason Parkhurst
Sep 29, 2007; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban takes the field alongside Wallace Gilberry for a game against the Florida State Seminoles at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports Copyright © 2007 Jason Parkhurst / Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

When Alabama players stepped off the bus at the Swamp in September of 2006, Florida fans mocked them with a chant of “Au-burn re-jects.” Auburn was in the middle of what would become a six-game winning streak over its bitter in-state rivals under Tommy Tubberville. A little more than two years later, Alabama shut out Auburn in the Iron Bowl to send Tubberville packing, and the Crimson Tide and Gators met in the SEC championship game as the top two teams in the nation. 

How did Alabama transform from the butt of jokes to one of college football’s biggest juggernauts? It hired Nick Saban in 2007.

“It was just a different culture, man,” former Alabama wide receiver Mike McCoy (2006-2009) told BamaCentral. “He did a complete 180 turnaround.”

McCoy was headed to a workout when he and his teammates heard on the news that Mike Shula had been fired. Shula, who served as the Crimson Tide’s head coach from 2003-06 was coming off a 6-6 regular-season record, capped by a 22-15 loss to Auburn.

“It was definitely a shocker, and I was hurt because I actually went to Alabama because of him and the receiver coach, Charlie Harbison,” McCoy said. “I went to Alabama based on those two coaches. So when they left, it was like a gut punch because there’s so much uncertainty.”

Still, McCoy was willing to give Saban a shot. 

During his recruitment, the Mississippi native’s top three schools were Alabama, Auburn and LSU. He was familiar with Saban and what he had accomplished at LSU. 

“If you knew anything about SEC football, you knew LSU was the standard, and you heard about Nick Saban,” McCoy said.

Rising sophomore defensive back Javier Arenas couldn’t say the same.

“I didn’t know who he was to be honest with you,” Arenas said. “I just knew there was a lot of hype around him.”

Redshirt senior defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry couldn't care less about hype. Unlike McCoy, the Baldwin County product chose Alabama out of the pride he had for his home state.  He was committed to finish out his career with the Crimson Tide regardless of who the coach was.

Gilberry said the initial meetings with Saban weren’t as warm as people might think. Most who participated in them would agree.

According to all the players interviewed, the first workouts of the infamous Fourth Quarter spring conditioning program weren’t actually about working out the players, but instead weeding out who didn’t belong. 

“It was, if you can complete the Fourth Quarter, you’ll be here,” Gilberry said. “And if not, see ya.”

As a senior leader on the team, Gilberry’s role transformed into keeping the team together and convincing guys not to leave Alabama in addition to his growth as a player on the field. 

“It wasn’t about working out, and I understood that because I was a little different than my colleagues,” Gilberry said. “So I understood what was going on, but I just wasn't gonna stand for it. I wasn't gonna allow those guys to come in there and basically kick everybody out the door.”

When Saban was hired, he gave every player a clean slate and the opportunity to prove themselves. Just because someone was a starter the year before didn’t mean he would be under the new regime. It worked the other way too. Guys with little or no playing time in 2006 had the opportunity to become starters under Saban.

Arenas was the starting kick and punt returner for his freshman seasons in 2006 but had limited snaps on defense. McCoy played in a few games that year, but did not record any stats. Both Arenas and McCoy credited Fourth Quarter as their first opportunities to prove themselves to Saban and the rest of the coaching staff.

“I watched a lot of my teammates walk out, but I accepted the challenge,” Arenas said. “That thing was impossible for everybody to make it through. “Especially initially, I don’t think it was created for people to be able to finish. I got motivated once I saw my teammates kind of falling out and watching their life flash before their eyes. I saw that as an opportunity to set myself apart.”

Inspired by what he learned at Alabama under Saban and then strength coach Scott Cochran, McCoy now works as a strength and conditioning coach and owns Maximum Performance Institute in Bessemer, where he has trained several Crimson Tide players. He admits that what he endured during that first Fourth Quarter program wouldn’t fly with today’s kids and parents, likely flooding his phone with complaints.

Another big change the players noticed right away was the way Saban treated everyone in the program from the coaching staff all the way down to the players. He held everyone to the same level of excellence no matter their role on the team. And it was always his way or the highway.

“I've never seen a head coach cuss out his coaches,” Gilberry said. “I never saw that until I got around Saban. Like I’d never seen a coach fuss at and talk to a coach like he talked to players. I never saw that. 

“So what I saw was, he wanted everybody to be great, not just the players. Because some coaches are coaching, but they’re not really giving it their all. But they’re coaching, so no one’s holding them to any standard. Saban was the first guy I’ve ever seen do that with his coaching staff, ever. And it blew me away. It actually put Kirby [Smart] and Bo Davis and all those guys on our level. I felt like we were all the same. We had to work for Nick. That’s how I felt, like we all were his employees.

“He told Kirby Smart one time that he was going to fire the s--- out of him. And if he can fire Kirby, just imagine what he’s gonna do to me. You’re either getting in real fast, or you’re looking for a bus ticket out of Tuscaloosa.”

McCoy recalls seeing coaches jogging down the hallways so they wouldn’t be late for meetings with Saban. And the players quickly learned that things would be similar for them as well.

Arenas’ first impression of Saban was how organized he was. Practices were much different. There was no standing around or wasted minutes. Everyone was always doing something, and there was a higher intensity. Those practices helped prepare Arenas for a five-year NFL career. 

“Something that said about me when I was coming out of the draft was that I treated every practice like a Super Bowl because that’s how he made us,” Arenas said. “It was intense. So I think the first day of practice was when I was like, ‘OK. Buckle up.’”

McCoy described Saban as the most disciplined guy he’d ever been around. 

“He’s by the book,” McCoy said. “Whatever he does is identical. You know what he’s going to do. You know what he’s going to say. You know what the expectation is, and the standard is the standard. And he made us buy into the standard, and if you didn’t, you got left behind.”

It took some players longer than others to notice and accept the changes in Saban’s approach. However, it didn’t take anyone long to realize they were going to allow Alabama to win at a championship level.

The other thing Saban did differently was recruit. While Shula didn’t leave the cupboard bare for the Crimson Tide, his recruiting prowess didn’t hold a candle to the pull Saban would develop over the next 16 years. And for the returnees who braved the early transition, he offered the promise of top-end improvement. 

These weren’t going to be Auburn rejects on Alabama’s roster. Not under Saban’s watch.

“As much of an a------  as he was, he made us believe in ourselves if that makes sense,” McCoy said. “On the other side of the pain, that’s where we found ourselves. Like everything that we wanted. If we weren’t working out, we were in the film room… Like, it was just different. The air was different. Everything was different.”

This is the first story in a multi-part BamaCentral series looking back at Alabama’s coaching transition in 2007 as the Crimson Tide prepares for a new head coach in 2024 with Kalen DeBoer.


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Katie Windham

KATIE WINDHAM

Katie Windham is the assistant editor for BamaCentral, primarily covering football, basketball gymnastics and softball. She is a two-time graduate of the University of Alabama and has covered a variety of Crimson Tide athletics since 2019 for outlets like The Tuscaloosa News, The Crimson White and the Associated Press before joining BamaCentral full time in 2021. Windham has covered College Football Playoff games, the Women's College World Series, NCAA March Madness, SEC Tournaments and championships in multiple sports.