Right Place, Right Time

Second-year coach Nick Saban's Dolphins overhaul is ahead of schedule
July 02, 2006

The Saban-izingof the Miami Dolphins took hold late last November, in the aftermath of adesultory 22--0 loss in Cleveland. It was the Dolphins' fourth defeat in fivegames, and it left them with a 3--7 record. Worse yet was the way that theylost. "We couldn't get anything right, and we were dominated," recallsdefensive tackle Vonnie Holliday. Minutes after the game first-year coach NickSaban entered the locker room, turning it silent. The players had known Sabanless than a year. Hired to replace Dave Wannstedt, he had retooled the roster,changed the schemes and established rules and discipline that most veteranshadn't experienced since college. "Not a guy you want to get in a badmood," says Zach Thomas, a sixtime Pro Bowl linebacker, "or he'll be onyou all day."

Among those inthe locker room that day was Dennis Fryzel, a former college assistant andSaban's close friend. "I've known Nick for almost 30 years, and I've beenin a lot of his locker rooms, but that day was the most come-to-Jesus momentI've ever seen," Fryzel says. "I won't repeat what Nick said, but itwas unreal. It was so tense in there, I was afraid that if I even blinked, Nickwould come after me."

On the flighthome the players gave voice to their anger and frustration. "Guys weresaying different things," says defensive end David Bowens, "but what itcame down to was, We're sick of this losing." They arrived for Mondaymeetings at the team's training complex in Davie, Fla., and found a boldfacedmessage posted by Saban in each of their locker room cubicles: IF YOU CONTINUETO DO WHAT YOU'VE ALWAYS DONE, YOU'LL CONTINUE TO GET WHAT YOU'VE ALWAYSGOTTEN. GUARANTEED.

The Dolphinsclosed with six straight wins to finish 9--7 and narrowly miss the playoffs. Itcan be perilous to credit a speech or an inspirational message with righting alisting football team--Knute Rockne died in 1931--yet the timing isinescapable. Saban and the Dolphins got on the same page only after the debaclein Cleveland.

"That gamewas a thunderbolt, a tremendous negative," said Saban, "but it was theturning point in our season."

On the secondweekend in June the Dolphins gathered for a three-day minicamp, their lastbefore training camp opens on July 29. Beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat, the54-year-old Saban bounced from drill to drill. A year ago he was a no-nonsensestranger, straight out of LSU, entrusted with a once proud franchise that hadgone 4--12 in 2004. Now he is a familiar face, and anything less than a trip tothe playoffs in '06 will be a disappointment.

"Think of itthis way," says four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor. "Lastyear, going to work was like moving into a new house, where you had to figureout where all the light sockets were. This year it's like coming home everyday."

After serving asBill Belichick's defensive coordinator in Cleveland from 1991 to '94, Sabanspent a decade as coach at Michigan State and LSU, leading the latter to anational championship in 2003. In November '04 Wannstedt resigned underpressure, and the next month Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga flew to Baton Rougeto meet with Saban, who over the last decade had turned down numerous offers toreturn to the NFL. Huizenga pushed the right buttons. He invoked thefranchise's rich history ("I'm looking for another Don Shula," he toldSaban), gave Saban total control over personnel ("If I hire somebody to runone of my companies, I wouldn't tell him he can't hire his own people,"Huizenga said) and offered a five-year, $22.5 million contract. It didn't hurtthat Jimmy Johnson, who coached the Dolphins from 1996 to '99, called Sabanseveral times to praise Huizenga and the organization.

"I had reallygood jobs in college football," Saban said while sitting with hisgrass-covered sneakers on his desk during a break in minicamp. "If I wasgoing to go to the NFL, it had to be a certain kind of organization. I sawclearly that this was that kind of place. Wayne has high standards, and I'mcomfortable with that. There's a tradition of excellence."

As for totalcontrol, Saban says, "You're not really controlling your own destiny if youdon't control all the factors."

Make no mistake:Saban has taken control. Only 20 players from 2004 remain on the roster. Sabanreviewed every aspect of the team's operations, with an eye to instillingorder, discipline and attention to detail. Players were forbidden from wearinghats in meeting rooms; shoes had to be tied during Saturday pregamewalk-throughs. The practice facility is papered with motivational axioms. Lastyear Saban stunned veterans by running them through 40-yard sprints after thesecond practice of training camp, to test which players had come prepared.

"It's verydifferent from anything I had experienced in the NFL," says defensivetackle Kevin Carter, 32, an 11-year NFL veteran who signed with Saban as a freeagent before the 2005 season. "Everything is done a certain way; everythingis done quickly. I don't like all of it, but we're going to win a lot of games.I knew that the first time I met Coach Saban."

Adds Taylor,"He wants the little things done right. Does every little thing equal winsand losses? No. Some things are just to do them. I love Nick, and I love whathe's doing here. Tying your shoes at walk-through? That's just for the sake ofdoing it. But you do it because that's what the man wants, and right now thisteam is pretty damn good in a lot of areas."

Saban works muchlike the Kent State graduate assistant that he was 33 years ago, except with abigger salary. "I see him out there coaching his butt off with theDBs," says Fryzel. "He tells me, 'Hell, Denny, once I'm out therecoaching, I don't care if it's an 18-year-old college freshman or an All-Prounder the helmet.' That's Nick."

This is alsoNick: defense. He attends every defensive team meeting and spends much ofpractice working with the defensive backs. The core of the Dolphins' overhaullies in the defensive schemes that Saban learned under George Perles as aMichigan State assistant from 1983 to '87 then modified under Belichick andduring his college days. The package is a base 3--4 that sometimes morphs intoa 4--3 and features myriad variations and blitzes. Saban force-fed the entireplaybook to the Dolphins a year ago, and confusion reigned until late in theseason.

"It's a greatscheme, but last year was like a circus," says Thomas, who was moved frommiddle linebacker in a 4--3 to inside linebacker in a 3--4. Likewise, Taylorwent from defensive end in a 4--3 to playing what is often an outsidelinebacker in the new system. "He told me right away that I was going tohave to check my ego at the door," says Taylor.

There will bemore tweaks this season. Saban hired former Carolina Panthers and HoustonTexans coach Dom Capers to run the defense, a move that forced defensive coachWill Muschamp to leave just one year after Saban brought him from LSU."Nick does what's best for the organization at all times," saysMuschamp, who moved to Auburn as defensive coordinator. "No ill will towardNick. Dom Capers was an outstanding hire, but I want to call defenses, so itwas no longer a good fit for me."

The coordinatorchange was one of numerous personnel issues that kept Saban busy off the fieldand further transformed the face of the Dolphins. Most notoriously, runningback Ricky Williams was suspended for violating the NFL's substance abusepolicy for the fourth time and is now playing in the Canadian Football League."I feel like in some ways we failed in giving Ricky the help and support heneeded, because he's not here right now," says Saban, who expects Williamsto be back with Miami next year.

Even moresignificant was Saban's upgrade at quarterback. He traded a second-round draftchoice to the Minnesota Vikings for Daunte Culpepper and a conditionalsixth-round pick to the Detroit Lions for Joey Harrington. Both are rehabbing:Culpepper his right knee after surgery in November and Harrington his psycheafter four tough years as the would-be savior in Detroit. Culpepper will be thestarter. Last month he told reporters that his goal is to start the exhibitionopener on Aug. 12. "That's the perfect world," he said.

In June the29-year-old Culpepper surprised teammates by running full speed on rollouts andeven dived on a loose ball in a no-pads scrimmage. "I've had a lot ofquarterbacks here," says wideout Chris Chambers, who has caught 315 passesfor 39 touchdowns in five seasons with Miami. "But Daunte brings us to anelite level. I've been used to running 40, 50 yards and then slowing down.That's not going to happen anymore because Daunte can throw the ball down thefield."

For Saban, everyslice of good news is part of a bigger picture. After the shutout in Clevelandhe told reporters, "We are building the team for the future, so where weare this season doesn't really matter." He was ripped by the Miami media."I took a tremendous amount of criticism for that," says Saban,"when all I was trying to say was that we had to focus on learning how toplay winning football consistently. I think we're much improved this year, butI don't carry a barometer. You just keep on moving."

On one Juneevening Saban took Fryzel on a boat ride near his South Florida home. They weretwo old coaches, fast friends since being fired from Ohio State together on NewYear's Eve 25 years ago. Fryzel never coached again--he's president of atelecom company in Georgia--but he gleefully admits to living vicariouslythrough Saban, who would talk about his many opportunities to leave collegecoaching for the NFL.

"So whatabout the decision to come here?'' Fryzel asked on this night. "Was it theright one?''

Saban answeredquickly. He has a roster largely of his choosing, made up of players who nowmarch to his music. "Yeah, it was the right decision," he said thatnight.

"This is theright place."

SI.COM

More from Tim Layden, plus all the news leading up tothe start of training camps, at SI.com/nfl.

"Not a guy you want to get in a bad mood,"says Thomas, a six-time Pro Bowl linebacker, "or he'll be on you allday."

"We're much improved this year," says Saban,"but I don't carry a barometer. You just keep on moving."

PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoWATCH PARTY At Dolphins minicamp Saban took up his usual spot--in the middle of the action. PHOTOJASON ARNOLD/REUTERS UNDAUNTED Saban is getting a big arm in Culpepper (right), who looked limber in camp. PHOTORICK STEWART/GETTY IMAGESMIAMI HEAT The Dolphins' midseason turnaround in '05 bore Saban's imprint.

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