ALABAMA TURNED WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A DEFENSIVE SHOWDOWN INTO AN OFFENSIVE BEATDOWN, AND BY THE SECOND HALF THE ONLY COMPETITION REMAINING WAS BETWEEN THE SCHOOL'S OLD COACH AND ITS CURRENT ONE
This is an article from the Jan. 14, 2013 issue
Great things can happen in a place like Tuscaloosa, Ala., where past glory is served with every meal and there is an eternal belief, even during the most uncertain times, that each autumn will bring rebirth. It takes the right coach. It takes the right time.
So it was on Monday night, in a professional football stadium on a lonely tract of land hard by the endless highways of South Florida that Alabama, under coach Nick Saban, returned indelibly not just to the national championship, but also to a place high above the sport itself. The Crimson Tide punished top-ranked Notre Dame 42--14, turning one of college football's most anticipated title games into a punch line, and sending once-euphoric Fighting Irish fans who had sought completion of their own renaissance, walking, humbled, into the tropical darkness.
The championship was Alabama's third in four years, the first such run since Nebraska in 1994, '95 and '97 (the third of which was shared by Michigan). "There's a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover hanging in my room—because I'm on it—from 2010," said Alabama senior center Barrett Jones after the game, as "Sweet Home Alabama" filled the air. "It says, DYNASTY. CAN ANYONE STOP ALABAMA? I'll never forget looking at that thing and wondering if we really could be a dynasty. Three out of four. I'm no dynasty expert, but that seems like a dynasty to me."
Saban's run is even more impressive: Including the title he won with LSU in 2003, he has now coached teams to national championships in four of the last 10 seasons. Only Paul (Bear) Bryant, whose six titles at Alabama measure (and haunt) Saban's work, has won more. "This was the toughest one, absolutely," said Saban, as he walked through the bowels of Sun Life Stadium long after the game was over. "To repeat, it takes a special will, because you're always fighting against yourself. It's human nature to be satisfied with what you did last year. It takes a special group, with a special character, to overcome that. And this team did it."
The Tide overcame a home loss to Texas A&M on Nov. 10 that might have ruined their chances of repeating. They stopped Georgia five yards short of victory in the Southeastern Conference championship game on Dec. 1 in Atlanta. And still in the early days of January, before leaving for Florida, 'Bama struggled. "We had two practices right before we left Tuscaloosa that were just terrible," said senior linebacker Nico Johnson. Saban called a meeting on Jan. 3 in Florida and demanded better work. Players stayed in the hotel ballroom after Saban left and punctuated the coach's message. "After that," said Johnson, "practices got better every day."
The college football world had embraced Alabama--Notre Dame as an iconic matchup, pairing historic programs. Notre Dame had finished at 12--0, the only major bowl-eligible unbeaten team, a stunning return to power after more than two decades of mediocrity and worse. Yet all of this was undone in barely a quarter of football, as Alabama administered a physical and schematic beating not seen in a national championship game since USC's 55--19 trouncing of Oklahoma at the end of the 2004 season. "They're not just better than us," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said afterward. "They're better than everybody."
After taking the opening kickoff, Alabama drove 82 yards to score in five plays, four of them rushes left, behind tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, guard Chance Warmack and Jones. After Notre Dame went three-and-out, Alabama drove 61 yards in 10 plays to take a 14--0 lead not even 10 minutes into the game, again pounding its left side with stretch running plays, primarily for tailback Eddie Lacy, who would finish with 140 yards on 20 carries. "Notre Dame is simple on defense," said Jones. "They're good because they [keep it] simple. But they're simple."
Right guard Anthony Steen said, "We knew from film study that if we shifted a certain way, Notre Dame was probably going to shift a certain way that would give us some blocking angles. And they did. Every time." The angles allowed Alabama to neutralize Louis Nix III, Notre Dame's 324-pound nosetackle, and render Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o, a senior linebacker, ineffective.
In the aftermath Tide players stood on risers at midfield, under a shower of crimson-and-white confetti, celebrating the SEC's seventh straight national title. After the championship trophy was awarded, they ran into the locker room, where Saban stood in the middle, his shirt soaked from the customary Gatorade dousing and said to them, "You dominated."
On a midweek afternoon before Christmas, Saban sat at a small cluttered table tucked against a wall in his cavernous second-floor office. In front of him a Styrofoam container lay open, exposing iceberg lettuce littered with pieces of grilled chicken and splashed in clear dressing. "I do eat here every day," he said, sticking his fork into the lettuce. And in fact most days he eats this very same salad at the very same time. (When I met Saban, in 1997, he was coaching at Michigan State and eating meals out of Styrofoam boxes there as well.)
His office is on the second floor of a building at 233 Paul W. Bryant Drive, accessed by a driveway that is directly across from the Paul W. Bryant Museum. On six or seven Saturdays a year, his teams play football just down the street in Bryant-Denny Stadium, grown to more than 100,000 seats. It is not uncommon in American sports (though a little strange nonetheless) for coaches to labor in spaces named for their predecessors (Schembechler Hall, the Dean Smith Center and so on). But nowhere—and it's not close—is the presence of the past more palpable than in Tuscaloosa, where Bryant lives on three decades after his death. "It's almost a spiritual thing," says Bill Curry, who coached the Crimson Tide from 1987 to '89. "[The history] courses through your veins."
Bryant won his six national titles, wearing his houndstooth hat and speaking in a charbroiled rasp, while coaching the Tide from 1958 to '82. "[He] became a populist hero who hovered over the consciousness of not just every kid in the state but every adult as well," wrote Alabama native Warren St. John in his 2005 book, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer. For the men who have followed Bryant, dealing with his legacy has become a large part of the job. Some succeeded: Gene Stallings (1990 to '96) won a national title in '92 and 71% of his games. Some failed spectacularly: Mike Shula (2003 to '06) finished 10--23, after victory-erasing NCAA sanctions. None have become icons.
With Monday night's victory Saban now treads upon Bryant's hallowed ground. There will never be another Bear, a fearsome disciplinarian who integrated his program only when it became apparent that he could win no other way. There will never be another Lombardi, either, for some of the same reasons. Games have changed, society has changed more. "Bryant coached football his way," says Curry. "Coaches nowadays have to deal with the whole range of human experience. That's just part of the culture."
Yet in Alabama, Saban has built an unlikely bridge between a simpler past and a much more complex present. As Bryant was a coach for his time, watching practice from a tower high above the fields, Saban is a coach for his, hands-on with defensive backs every day, throwing the pass routes in coverage drills. "Nick is a DB coach," Bill Belichick told me in 2010 after Saban won his first national title at Alabama. Misinterpreting the phrase, I agreed that those were Saban's roots, and Belichick upbraided me: "He's still a DB coach," Belichick says, explaining that Saban's attention to detail is what distinguishes him from others. "That's what makes him good at his job."
Belichick is not the only coach who respects Saban's methods. "The thing with Nick is that he's going to be on the cutting edge of technique in terms of all aspects of football, right down to the fine, fundamental details of playing particular positions, and all the way up to running a program," says Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who worked for Saban in East Lansing from 1995 to '99. "Little things make the difference. Nick takes care of those little things better than anybody else."
Yet Saban also understands what made Bryant both successful and sainted. "I read his book, I've heard a lot of stories," says Saban. "From what I understand, he was a very good fundamental coach. But what he really did well was create intangibles like toughness and discipline and giving great effort and executing your job. He was really good at those things. What you have to admire most about Coach Bryant is that he could do it for such a long time at such a high level. Because people think there is a continuum of success. There is no continuum of success. It starts over with every team."
And here is the underlying truth when it comes to Saban and the legacy that engulfs the state of Alabama to this day. "History," he says, "can't help us win the next game."
The word that's repeated endlessly in Saban's world is process. For the coach, every drill and every practice, every midweek meeting, is part of the Process. Alabama players are told to worry only about the parts of the process, not the end result.
Saban applies the process to himself as assiduously as to his team—not just in eating the same salad every day, but in adapting the crushing demands of his job to his life. Asked if he exercises regularly, Saban, who turned 61 on Halloween, said, "Not during the season. I run around on the field quite a bit. At this point in my life I'd rather work and then rest, rather than extending the workday by an hour to get in a workout. I used to be able to work and not sleep. When [Belichick] and I were with the Browns [in the early '90s], we'd stay up past midnight, get up at six and then do it again, day after day. I don't do that anymore. Get your work done by 10, get to sleep by 11 and then you can get up at six. But you have to get your work done by 10. That's why we put the whole process in place."
None of Saban's teams were more aided by the coach's discipline than the current one. 'Bama opened without 11 starters from the 2011 national champs. Losses from that team included running back Trent Richardson (the No. 3 pick in the draft) and seven defenders. "Suddenly [in summer camp] we've got a team with no real superstars," says Jones.
Thursday is Speech Day in Tuscaloosa. Before practice, following hard sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday, players stand and talk to their teammates. In past seasons Tide veterans would rise and shout at their peers, demanding greatness. This year? "Businesslike is the word I would use," says Jones. "Not a lot of screaming." (The one exception is junior offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, the only fire-and-brimstone spirit on the roster.)
The emotion that was bottled up for much of the fall spilled over in the Tide's 21--17 victory at LSU on Nov. 3. The winning score came on a splendidly executed 28-yard screen pass from junior quarterback AJ McCarron to running back T.J. Yeldon. In the waning moments of the victory, television viewers saw McCarron crying on the Alabama bench, overwhelmed by the weight of the win. McCarron, who had quarterbacked the Tide to the 2011 title as well (and will return to try for a threepeat next year), was raised in Mobile but embraced the Miami teams of Willis McGahee and Andre Johnson and, in his words, "hated Alabama."
But not so his family, many of whom were in Tiger Stadium that night. "I wanted it for them," McCarron said. "And I wanted it for our group of seniors."
It was an epic victory for the Tide, one that seemed to position it for another national title. But there was a crushing hangover, and not just for McCarron. "Right away, Coach told us we had to get ready for another battle," says junior cornerback Dee Milliner. "But that LSU game was brutally physical. We were banged up."
Texas A&M and Johnny Football lay ahead, seven days away in Tuscaloosa. "We didn't overlook them, we really didn't," says Nico Johnson. "We were emotionally drained." Practice was poor all week—"We were just slow, for some reason," says McCarron—a red flag in the Saban process, where preparation predicts outcomes more than in most places.
"The times around here when we've lost games, it's always been after a lousy week of practice," says Jones. "Sometimes we've had a bad week and escaped with a win. That week, even the Thursday speeches were bad."
The Tide fell behind 20--0 and lost 29--24. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel wrapped up the Heisman before a stunned Alabama crowd. With Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oregon all unbeaten, the national championship seemed lost. Saban gathered his team after the game and preached process. "I told them, 'The legacy of this team will be determined in the future,' " Saban says. " 'We need to move ahead.' " History can't help us win the next game.
A week later Alabama trounced Western Carolina 49--0 in what amounted to a public scrimmage, and then Tide players gathered in small groups to watch as Baylor pounded Kansas State and Stanford beat Oregon. Revisionist Tide history has painted 2012 as a triumph of the process, when in fact it is more a victory of the system—that system being the college football BCS paradigm (soon to die a public death) in which a loss on Nov. 17 is much more damaging than one a week earlier. This logic was not questioned in Tuscaloosa. "We took care of what we could control," says senior offensive guard Warmack.
Then came Georgia and the SEC championship. It was on the Thursday before that game—Speech Day—that Johnson stood in the middle of his teammates, some of whom had never played in an elimination game. True to the character of this team, he did not rant and he did not scream. "Don't get overwhelmed by the opportunity," Johnson said. "It's a big game, but it's just another game. Have fun. Dominate your opponent. Play 60 minutes."
It came down again to a single play, like the screen pass in Baton Rouge. This time speedy freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper became so excited when a Georgia defensive back bit on a run fake that Cooper ran a straight go route instead of a post. A surprised McCarron reared back, then threw a bomb that Cooper caught in stride for a touchdown and a 32--28 victory. Sometimes improvisation trumps process.
In the days leading to the national championship game, Alabama practiced on pristine soccer fields at Barry University in Miami Shores, eight miles south of Sun Life Stadium. Jones, the anchor of the Tide's offensive line, had arrived in a walking cast, but by Friday he was a full participant in practice, resolving Alabama's most significant injury issue. The Tide's punishing ground game would operate with all its components.
Saban, meanwhile, sought two defensive solutions: one for Notre Dame's gifted tight end, Tyler Eifert, and the other for the Irish's redshirt freshman quarterback, Everett Golson. "The tight end is a major matchup problem," said Saban. "You can't cover him with a linebacker or a defensive back. The quarterback can make plays with his feet, and that's always a concern." There was little doubt that the Tide would attempt to confuse Golson with endless presnap alignments, trying to tax his limited experience.
For all his success, Saban has been dogged throughout his career with questions about his future, sometimes answering them with disastrous results. The nadir was his unseemly 2007 departure from the Dolphins for the Tide, just days after saying, "I guess I have to say it: I'm not going to be the Alabama coach."
When asked about it, Saban still wrestles with the thorny issues of loyalty and candor. "I got killed for it back then, and I wish I had handled it better," he said. "But in that situation, if I say I'm considering it—which at the time I wasn't—then I'm disloyal to my current team. If I say I'm not considering it and then I leave, I'm a liar."
He will always be in that position. Alabama is Saban's 13th job. "I've never called anybody for a job," says Saban, the first Alabama coach who could be considered a potential Bear apparent. But for that to happen, he needs to stay for a while.
There is little doubt that Saban loves the college game and that he was frustrated by the parity shackling the NFL. And clearly his style did not mesh with some professional players. "I think he's probably the greatest college football coach in history, but it's hard to get 53 guys on an NFL team to buy into a dictatorship-type personality," says NFL Network analyst Heath Evans, who played for Saban in Miami in 2005. "But that was a while ago, and watching him now, I think his strengths far outweigh his weaknesses. The second time around for Nick, if there is a second time around, I think he'll be much, much better."
Still, he walks a tightrope. So, on the one hand, this: "I think it's human nature to take the challenge of building something and, once you do that, looking for the next challenge." But also this, when asked about trying the NFL again: "Not really. I guess anything can change. But I'm totally happy right here. I had an opportunity to go someplace last year. It wasn't public. And I didn't do it." (During a press conference in Florida, Saban went further: "I don't have any unfinished business in the NFL. It's not even something I want to do.")
It is either the voice of commitment or the voice that's speaking to future recruits or the only words he can say. Or perhaps a little of all three. In this way, most of all, he is a coach for his times.
It was past 1 a.m. when Saban finished the last of a series of television interviews on the trampled turf of the stadium and walked back toward his dressing room. He gripped a stat sheet in his right hand, glancing at it occasionally as he went, alternately wearing and holding a pair of reading glasses.
"We did dominate," he said, repeating the words he expressed to his team in the postgame celebration. Yet it is never about the moment just passed for Saban; it is always about the moment that lies in the future. "We've got guys who need to make decisions about next year [and the NFL]. I want to be ready for them by Thursday," said Saban. "You've got to be thinking ahead, man." His pace quickened, steady footfalls on a concrete floor, leaving the celebration far behind.
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