TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Stepping into Nick Saban’s office is stepping into a time warp. A velvety red curtain dims the sunlight behind his presidential desk; two straw hats rest on a carved wooden pole in the corner. The oriental rugs and leather tufted chairs are accessories to a Victorian home, not a glitzy, multibillion-dollar football facility.
Saban is a traditionalist. In his world, the hurry-up offense is sacrilege, shocking and separating from a blocker and tackling in open space is welcome in the first 20 minutes of practice (physicality, after all, won him four out the last seven national championships). Mention satellite camps to the 64-year-old and you had better be talking about something involving NASA.
Practices are planned months in advance. The only newspaper Saban reads regularly is the Tuscaloosa News. He eats Little Debbie pies for breakfast and the same iceberg lettuce salad every day for lunch, because he has better things to do than waste time deciding what to eat. Saban is mysterious, he is intense, he is always sought-after—you can bet any college or NFL team would hire him in a second.
This season, I’ll be writing a college football column for The MMQB. The idea is, along with addressing the wildly popular college version of the sport, to bridge the gap between NFL and NCAA football. You’ll hear from scouts, NFL personnel and influencers you never knew existed. You’ll meet the everyone from big-time coaches to Heisman front-runners to this year’s Carson Wentz (still in the process of identifying him, stay tuned).
For the debut, I visited Tuscaloosa to meet Saban; for the NFL, he’s the one that got away. Ever since his abrupt divorce from the Dolphins after the 2006 season, Saban’s name has bubbled up regarding NFL openings. With each passing year, however, a return to the NFL seems more unlikely. As Phil Savage, the former NFL GM and Crimson Tide radio color analyst explains it: Alabama has become a lifestyle for Saban. His mother lives in Birmingham. He has a grandchild nearby. His uncle is on the sidelines for game day. Taking another job would disrupt that.
Even if Saban never returns to the NFL, the man who has groomed 55 draft picks (including 18 first-rounders) since 2009 has unparalleled perspective on the college and NFL Venn diagram. In a candid conversation, Saban—with a late August tan and his Sperrys perched on an antique coffee table—discussed career regrets, draft reform and a growing divide between college and pro offenses. The coach in his own words…
On regrets he didn’t make it work in the NFL
I’ve had other opportunities to go to the NFL, and I’ve just chosen not to do it. Look, I love the NFL. I have no problem with the NFL. The one thing about college coaching that always appealed to me is the chance to impact young people at a critical time in their development. Having a good program gives you positive self-gratification. In the NFL, it’s strictly about bringing in the best and evaluating the best players for your team and managing the business part.
When I was in Miami, we tried to do things to help players. We created an education program—[owner] Wayne Huizenga was great about this—an opportunity for guys to finish their degrees. We tried to have as much as the Players Association would allow us, including a program for guys with addiction issues. Having a drug program that tests people is not really a drug program, that’s a testing program. Having a program that helps them deal with the issue is completely different. We went through this with Ricky Williams, and he actually made progress and I hope did better because of it.
I guess there was a time when I said, O.K. if you win a national championship in college, because I was a pro coach for however many years I was, it’s time to go win the Super Bowl. That would make my career complete. But when I did that, I found out that I missed some of these things about college that were really important to me. So you learn about yourself. I just decided when I came back here, I wasn’t going to think about that any more.
I used to think at the end of the day, being a head coach in the NFL was the No. 1 thing. But when I got to that, it was like, Well maybe you already had the No. 1 thing for you and what you like.
On reforming the draft process for underclassmen
I’m not opposed to guys coming out early for the draft. And for the most part, there have only been a few guys who have not made a good decision. Part of that has been, we’re open all the time. When scouts come in, I always tell them to look at all of our potential guys because I want them to be able to get accurate information. Having been in the NFL, there are two parts to the draft: There’s what a guy’s draft grade is, and there’s where he’s going to be drafted. That gets affected by supply and demand and a lot of other things. Well, it’s very difficult for the NFL to just submit a junior draft grade. They don’t have background on the guy, speed on the guy, measurements.
Once you enter the draft, everyone is looking for reasons not to draft you.
So I recommend that instead of waiting until December for guys to submit grades, why don’t we do it in the spring before the season? When your seniors work out and get measurements, they can actually test the younger guys and give them all the tests, the Wonderlic and all the stuff they do at the combine, so that they have the information. Then they can evaluate that guy through the season just as they do the seniors. So when you do submit your name, you get a much more accurate assessment.
If you’re not going to get drafted in the first two rounds, you should’ve stayed in school.
But the inaccurate information is what the external world uses to convince guys they should come out. In other words, you can get a Back to School grade, but there’s a bunch of people telling you six guys got drafted in the first round that got Back to School grades. So you should come out anyway, because they might be wrong. And you can go to the combine and improve your draft status. What they don’t understand is, once you enter the draft, everyone is looking for reasons not to draft you. Character checks, physically, mentally, everything. They’re looking for reasons not to draft you. Well, most people go down, not up.
The basketball model doesn’t work. We can’t say, “You declared for the draft. Go to the combine and do all of this stuff, and if it doesn’t work out come back.” We have 85 guys on scholarship. We would have 15 guys doing that every year. I wouldn’t know in March when spring practice hit, who we would have available. Then how could you manage your recruiting numbers? It just involves too many numbers.
We had a conference call [with the NFL] about it. I think everyone was in agreement. Basically I called, Jimbo [Fisher], Dabo [Swinney], Bob Stoops, Urban [Meyer]—guys that have a few guys every year, and tried to get their input. This is the comprehensive input from all of us. Then we had a conference call with the competition committee, and they had some ideas too. Whether this gets implemented next year or not, I don’t know, but I haven’t seen a lot of resistance from either side.
On the growing divide, stylistically, between the college and NFL game
Yeah, I kind of do think there is. There’s one rule that affects that: linemen downfield. Because what college offenses have done, we call it RPOs [Run Pass Options]. If you're on a running play, and these two guys are on a slant, and the quarterback just pulls the ball and goes on a slant and the offensive linemen don’t even know if it’s a pass. So it’s impossible to coach defensive players.
That rule has changed college football dramatically. I’m not saying it’s good, bad or indifferent. But if you don’t do that as a college team, you’re not taking advantage of a rule that grants you tremendous latitude in how you play offense. However, in doing that, the quarterback doesn’t really have to go through a progression, doesn’t have to read coverage, doesn’t have to change a protection. He doesn’t have to be an NFL quarterback. From that standpoint, the skill players on offense don’t develop in the same system that they will learn to play in the NFL.
Does it affect defensive players? Probably not as much, even though they get put into some impossible run-pass conflicts. They’re still learning how to take on blocks, they’re still learning how to read plays, they’re still learning how to cover people. I’m not sure it affects the defensive players all that much. I do think it affects the quarterback, and his development. These guys can have tremendous success and not be NFL ready. Blake Sims was a great example of that. AJ McCarron is going to be a fine NFL quarterback and he ran what was basically an NFL system. But Blake Sims was not that kind of guy. Blake actually set [Alabama’s] all-time record for total offense, but as an NFL quarterback he didn’t have a lot of opportunity.
On if he’s concerned about the future of football
I think football is a great game. But I do think we all have to be very conscious of player safety. I think we have taken steps to help that, and I’ve been very involved with doctors that are concussion experts trying to help every way that we can. I think the equipment is better. I think the concussion protocol is so much better. That’s critical. When I played, as soon as you knew your name, they’d put you back in. Now I’m not complaining about that, but now we have legitimate testing that tells you when a guy is O.K. If a guy has reccurring issues, he shouldn’t play. He may be someone who is susceptible to these types of things, and playing is not a good thing for him.
So am I concerned about the future of football? I see the obstacle as an opportunity to try to make it better, so I focus on that part of it.
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PICK MY GUY
A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Colts wide receiver Phillip Dorsett hyping his favorite quarterback from the University of Miami, Brad Kaaya.
“When I was a senior everyone was excited about this freshman coming in, Brad. And I’ll say this: He did not disappoint. It’s hard for any quarterback to come in and lead a team, especially a freshman. But Brad was so smart. He came in early and really picked up the playbook. It was a pretty big playbook, too, we ran a pro-style offense. Once you know a pro-style offense, they’re all pretty much the same, so his transition to the NFL won’t be as hard as other quarterbacks. He also has a cannon for an arm. Though I think accuracy is his best attribute. He could get the ball to a place where a corner couldn’t get it. That’s going to be huge in the NFL with so many press coverages because wide receivers are never open all of the time. Can he be a top pick in the draft? Most definitely. He could be the top pick. I watch all of Miami’s games still, never missed one. They changed the offense a little last year, but this year I think they’re going back to more of a pro style. I can’t wait to watch Brad this year because he’s going to be 10 times better than when I played with him as a freshman.”
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THE ANONYMOUS SCOUT
An NFL evaluator introduces you to a player he’s keeping an eye on. This week, Mr. Anonymous is interested in Texas A&M junior defensive end Myles Garrett.
“He’s the guy everyone is buzzing about. I’ve watched some of his tape and the hype is real… He wins battles in multiple ways, but you have to check out his inside spin move… Great motor and very nice first step… Had a real good matchup against [former Mississippi left tackle and 2016 Dolphins first-round pick] Laremy Tunsil last year. Tunsil won most of the battles, but I liked what I saw in Garrett’s technique and burst around the edge.”
And some more draft notes from evaluators around the NFL…
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford: “I’ve watched a lot of his tape and I’m telling you, he’s the best back in the Pac- since Reggie Bush.”
Keionta Davis, DE, Chattanooga: “High on this guy. Very productive player. Caught my eye after great matchup with [Florida State tackle] Roderick Johnson.”
Travin Dural, WR, LSU: “Great catch radius. Speed guy. Didn’t have great numbers last year… part system: It’s an offense that can hide good wideouts… coming back from injury. Has to pick up more routes.”
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FACTOID OF THE WEEK
Nick Saban doesn't text. He will read a text. Then respond with a phone call. But according to those in the Alabama football office, the coach has never sent a text in his life. (And yes, he does have a smart phone).
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WHAT I’M WATCHING THIS WEEK
All times Eastern…
No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M (Saturday, 3:30): Want to see Myles Garrett for yourself? Check out this matchup. Garrett will have to beat UCLA’s highly-regarded left tackle, Conor McDermott, to have any chance at disrupting the play of Josh Rosen, the early leader of the 2018 quarterback draft class.
No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin, at Lambeau Field, Green Bay (Saturday, 3:30): This is where I’ll be on Saturday. Green Bay is going to be swamped with fans from the Bayou. I’ve been told LSU fans made trips to northeast Wisconsin over the past few months to scout and reserve bars. Crazy talk.
No. 20 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama, at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas (Saturday, 8:00): I’m setting the over/under for Lane Kiffin mentions during the broadcast at 14. And I’m taking the over. As for the game: USC has 10 returning starters on offense, including a solid offensive line and two 900-plus yard running backs. (Of course, the one newbie on offense will be QB Max Browne, replacing Cody Kessler, now a Cleveland Brown.) I’m excited for the battle in the trenches against Alabama’s re-stocked front seven.
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Thanks to new Chicago friend Laura Britt of 120 Sports (an Alabama native), I had a memorable lunch at Dreamland BBQ. I thought Google Maps failed me as I meandered through residential neighborhoods a few miles off campus. Once I saw the sign, I felt confident: “Dreamland Bar-B-Que Ribs. Aint nothing like ’em nowhere!” It’s a shack, with grill smoke billowing from the back door. The inside is lit like a dive bar, with beer league t-shirts stapled to the wall and three TVs playing the SEC Network. The waitress didn’t ask me what I wanted to order, only: “How many?” Until about five years ago, this place only served ribs and white bread, nothing else. Now the menu is supplemented by cole slaw and potato salad, but I stuck to a half dozen ribs, and two weeks later I’m still thinking about them. Oh, and for dessert there’s only one option, but I wouldn’t ask for anything more: a single serving of their fluffy banana pudding.
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