The Perfectionist in motion

(Ed. Note: This story was originally published on on Nov. 9, 2013.)

Exhibit 1: The car story.

Summary: When Nick Saban was 11 years old, he would wash cars at his father’s service station in Fairmont, W. Va. They called his father “Big Nick.” When Nick was finished washing the car, Big Nick would come to inspect. And if he found a spot, a streak, a smudge, a splotch, he would say: “Wash it again.”

Notice: Big Nick never said, “Get that spot,” or “Get that area.” No. Wash it again. Every time. Wash it again. At some point, young Nick Saban learned to hate the black and dark blue cars. He found that it was all but impossible to hide the streaks on those cars.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The mission here is simple … or it seems that way. We ask one question: Why is Nick Saban so good at this? There have been countless efforts to get inside the man, to humanize him, to demonize him, to explain what is going on behind that grim look, the one that, like a bumper sticker, seems to say: “I’d Rather Be Breaking Down Film.”

Who is Nick Saban? He’d prefer keeping that one to himself. Just this week, there has been story after story trying to guess at Saban’s personal motivations. The Associated Press uncovered documents where Saban’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, told some people at Texas that the Longhorns’ job was the only one Saban would consider taking. Saban has since told ESPN that he’s committed to Alabama. And, as always, a bunch of people brought up his infamous — and much regretted — line about how “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.”

Who is Nick Saban? No, we’re not diving into that rabbit hole. One question: Why is he so good at this? His Alabama teams have won three of the last four national championships. The Crimson Tide goes into this weekend’s game against LSU as the No. 1 team in America again. Yes, Saban won a national championship at LSU too. The last college team he coached to a losing record was … never. Alabama pays the man roughly $5.5 million a year, and the school’s chancellor, Dr. Robert Witt, just told 60 Minutes: “Nick Saban’s the best financial investment this university has ever made.”

Why is he so good at this?

The stock answers don’t ring true either. They say that Nick Saban is obsessive, he works non-stop, he has no real life beyond football. Yep, that describes just about every major college football coach in America and most of the non-major college coaches too. They say that Nick Saban demands an impossible standard of near-perfection from his players. Again: Everyone.

They say Saban is relentless in recruiting, exacting as a teacher, harsh in his judgments. Pick up a college football coach’s profile — ANY college football coach’s profile — and you will see those exact same words.

So, what is it? Few in the game seem to think Saban is a tactical genius who outsmarts everyone. Warren St. John, author of the fantastic “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer” — which looks deep into the passion Alabama fans feel for football — and a devoted Saban observer says: “You know that line they said about Bear Bryant (Bum Phillips’ line: “He can take his’n and beat your’n, and take your’n and beat his’n”)? Well I’m not sure Saban necessarily does that.”

Few in the game seem to think Saban is a motivational guru who grabs his players hearts and pulls them out of their chests the way, say, Knute Rockne did. No, he’s not a rouse-em-up speech-maker.

Saban can be intimidating, no question, but is he really more intimidating than other coaches? Is it fair to place him in the same league as Vince Lombardi or Woody Hayes or the young Bryant, who took those Texas A&M boys down to Junction and worked them to near death? Those men could scare their players into greatness. Saban doesn’t seem to have that level of intimidation.

Perhaps it’s best to just look at the evidence. Nick Saban has told the car story many times. It is something he obviously thinks about. Big Nick died only a few days after his son told him that he wanted to be a football coach. Big Nick never got to see his son coach a game. The younger Saban quietly carries that burden. And he remembers washing cars all over again because of a single spot.

“Do it again,” Nick Saban tells an offensive lineman who doesn’t drive off the ball or a linebacker who doesn’t get to the spot or a running back who almost fumbles the ball or a cornerback who drops the interception. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again.

[insert-quote text=”Big Nick died only a few days after his son told him that he wanted to be a football coach. Big Nick never got to see his son coach a game.” align=center]

And when watching film, any football film, Saban rolls it again. Rolls it again. Maybe it’s a high school prospect. Saban says that he watches every single high school play of every single Alabama recruit. EVERY PLAY. What could he possibly gain out of watching every play? What could he possibly learn watching an offensive guard in high school block 500 times? Well, it’s obvious what there is to learn. There might be a streak. A smudge. A splotch.

Roll it again. Roll it again. Roll it again.

* * *

Exhibit  2: The Rockwell story.

Summary: This story is not directly connected to Nick Saban. Then again, maybe it is. When Bill Curry took over as coach at Alabama in 1987, it was a controversial thing. Curry grew up in Georgia and he had a losing record at Georgia Tech and people wondered just how much this man cared about winning. There would be death threats. There would be a brick thrown through his window after a loss. Curry, one of the best people in all of sports, took it in stride. But going into his first game against Southern Miss. — which had a sophomore quarterback named Brett Favre — he was worried. His team was so beat up that he did not know how they would stop anybody. Early in the game, there was a pass to a running back in the flat who ran toward the sideline and Curry anticipated the inevitable 50-yard gain.

Only then, a blur of light raced by and tackled the running back for a loss. “Who the heck was that?” Curry said into his headset. “That was Rockwell,” he was told.

“Randy Rockwell?” Curry said. “No, it can’t be him. He’s got a $600 brace on his knee that looks like an erector set. Rockwell? He couldn’t even walk on Thursday.”

“It’s Rockwell,” the voice on the headset said. “It’s Saturday, coach. And we’re at Alabama.”

Nobody in college football recruits like Nick Saban. There are countless ways of measuring this.  Here’s one: Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007. Since 2009, Alabama has had 14 players drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. No other team in America had half that many. Fourteen first-rounders are more than Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State COMBINED. You can throw in Notre Dame and still not get to 14.

Of course, you can also measure it by All-Americans — 16 of them since Saban took over. You can measure it by recruiting rankings. Yahoo! Sports’ Rivals ranked Alabama’s as the No. 1 recruiting class in 2013. And in 2012. And in 2011. In 2010, it was USC though — Alabama was just fifth that year.

“Nick Saban is bringing a level of recruiting to Tuscaloosa that is almost unmatched,” St. John says, “The only person I can really think of who was similar was Pete Carroll at USC. Saban essentially has a jayvee NFL team out there every Saturday.”

Saban’s recruiting — his ability to identify the best players and then convince those players to follow him back to Alabama — is remarkable. His charm, which is not always evident in public, was even celebrated in the movie “The Blind Side,” where Sandra Bullock (as Lee Anne Tuohy) looks at him and says: “I find him extremely handsome.”

But, again, recruiting is not enough. There have been many great recruiters. Some of them couldn’t keep their job. None of them have had the run of success that Saban’s Alabama teams have had … especially when you consider the ferociousness of the Southeastern Conference. Even Pete Carroll — and Carroll is proving again with the Seattle Seahawks right now that he’s a fantastic coach — won only one BCS championship in his nine seasons despite overwhelming talent and what most would call a less competitive league.

“Nick has — and I don’t know a better word for it — he has magic,” Bill Curry says. “There are certain coaches who can impose their will on a team, get them to play beyond themselves for an extended period of time and, even more important, get them to play beyond themselves in the big moment, when there’s a crisis in the game. Nick has that magic.

“But it goes beyond that. If you’re at Alabama, you have a huge competitive advantage . It isn’t just talent. The talent’s there at Oklahoma, at Notre Dame, at Texas, at USC. The powerhouses will always have great talent. That’s not enough, as we know. At  Alabama, well, I saw it for myself. There’s something more.”

That’s when Curry tells the Randy Rockwell story. As mentioned, it wasn’t easy for Curry at Alabama. The intensity is overwhelming. Once, his wife, Carolyn, was talking to their Atlanta church minister and Carolyn said with some awe in her voice, “Football’s like religion down here.” The minister, Bill Floyd, sighed and said: “No Carolyn. It’s a lot more important than that.”

“There’s some bad things about that,” Curry says. “But if you’re the head coach at Alabama, there are some wonderful things about that. You don’t ever have to worry if Randy Rockwell will show up on Saturday with a bad knee. Nothing can keep him from playing. On Saturdays in Alabama, ordinary mortals put on the uniform and play their guts out. It means more to them than anything in life. They’ve been taught that from the cradle.”

Curry admits that the overwhelming passion that powers Alabama football is not enough by itself. Before Saban there were 15 or so years of floundering at Alabama, a stretch that included NCAA sanctions and losing records and so on. But he says that when you match up great talent with that Alabama spirit with Nick Saban’s magic … you have perhaps the most unbeatable combination in college football history.

“We all try to have that magic,” Curry says. “But few coaches have it. … I was lucky enough to play for three who did. Bobby Dodd. Vince Lombardi. Don Shula. Dodd was just a wonderful man. Lombardi forced us to do the right thing. Shula related to us. … I think Nick’s magic comes from the way he can make players care as much as he cares.”

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Exhibit  3: The psychiatrist story

Summary: In 1998, Michigan State — in the midst of another break-even season — was about to play undefeated Ohio State in Columbus. They had no chance, of course. Saban at some point had gone to see a psychiatrist and he asked a question: What would you tell the players when you are facing a better team with more talent?

The answer he got back changed his coaching life: “Tell them the score doesn’t matter.”

Nick Saban’s philosophy about college football — a philosophy he has come to call “the process” — is not very different from the seemingly trite clichés that litter every coach’s press conference. You know: One play at a time. One game at a time. Never look ahead. Never look back. Focus and finish. Every coach recites some version of this.

But Saban has taken this philosophy to another place. What he found as his team prepared for that Ohio State game was not just that concentrating on each play like it is its own living and breathing thing was a smarter way to play. It was easier. So much easier. Suddenly everything was manageable. He wasn’t asking players to go out and win the game; no, that’s too big, too overwhelming, too vague a task.

No, he was just saying: Win this play. Make the best block you’ve ever made on this play. Run to the ball like you’ve never run on this play. Catch the ball on this play. Make the perfect snap on this play. That’s all. Don’t worry about the last play or the next play. Don’t concern yourself about the score or what just happened. Just make this play the best one you’ve ever had in your life. And the next play? What next play? There’s only this play.

“I was watching the Florida-Georgia game last week,” St. John says. “And it was just a torrent of 15-yard penalties, pushing, shoving, they were highly undisciplined. And watching that game as an Alabama fan, I kept thinking: ‘We have not done anything like that in years.’ We used to. We had guys jump offside or make some sort of undisciplined mistake all the time. That almost never happens now.

“One thing I love about the way Saban goes about his job — there’s so little rah-rah involved. He doesn’t used huge motivational tricks. He doesn’t need to. He’s not asking players to play on emotion. He’s not asking them to do more than they are capable of doing. He’s just wants them to play on their training and their ability, that’s something you can repeat one week to the next. Emotion — some weeks you have it some you won’t. There’s a matter-of-fact quality to the way Nick Saban coaches.”

Saban remembers the way his Michigan State players reacted that week of the Ohio State game when he told them to forget the score and think only about doing their job for one play. They got it. They liked it. Maybe the message wasn’t very different from what he was trying to say before, but telling them the scoreboard was irrelevant somehow that caught their attention. The process captured their imagination. Michigan State shocked Ohio State — a victory that changed the fortunes of the Michigan State program and launched Nick Saban into an extraordinary 15-year run where his college teams (Michigan State, LSU and Alabama) would go 133-31 and win four national championships.

“Funny things happen in football,” Saban told reporters after that Ohio State game, “when a team plays possessed.”

* * *

Exhibit  4: The Twitter quote.

Nick Saban was asked if he had a Twitter account. He said this: “I’ve never considered joining Twitter, nor do I know why anybody would.”

The best part of that Twitter quote, of course, is that last part, the part where he says he doesn’t know why ANYONE would want to be on Twitter. That could have been said for effect, of course. But, it seems very likely that Nick Saban really has NO IDEA why anyone would want to be on Twitter. It seems very likely that the concept baffles him entirely.

[insert-quote text=”Funny things happen in football when a team plays possessed.” align=center]

Phil Savage has known Saban for more than 20 years. When then-Cleveland Browns coach Bill Belichick named Saban defensive coordinator in 1991, Savage was a defensive assistant. They followed different paths through the years, but always stayed close. Savage, in addition to numerous other things, is now the color commentator for Alabama football on the Crimson Tide Sports Network.

And when asked why Saban is so good at this, he at first talks about the basic things. Saban is driven. Saban is competitive. Saban has learned from great coaches like Don James (his coach at Kent State) and Earle Bruce and George Perles and Jerry Glanville and, most of all, Bill Belichick. Savage talks about how Saban has never stopped learning and that he’s a better coach now than he was five years ago, a better coach five years ago then he was 10 and so on. “Alabama is very lucky,” he says, “to have a fully developed Nick Saban who has constantly improved and now has an answer for every situation.”

But then he says something about Saban that he says is different from perhaps any other college coach he’s ever known. He says that college coaches gradually and unconsciously move away from the field. They can’t really help it. The job is so huge and pulls in so many directions. There are so many responsibilities. It’s a CEO’s job with ultimate responsibility in marketing and public relations and media relations and community outreach and education and recruiting and game planning and fundraising and budgeting and countless other details. Coaches find themselves getting pulled away from the day-to-day coaching because there are so many other things to do.

Nick Saban, he says, has never stopped coaching.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “He coaches on the field, every single day, just like he did when I first met him in 1991. All the other things get done, and get done right. And he’s still out there throwing footballs to defensive backs and correcting footwork. I mean, you’re talking about the best defensive backs coach in the country, and he’s also the head coach at Alabama.

“You see other coaches, after they’ve had success, they’re in a golf cart, they’re on a tower, they’re glad-handing donors on the sidelines. Nick Saban gets in there for practice every day. I think that’s where he gets the joy out of the job. He wouldn’t give it up. He can’t give it up.”

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Exhibit  5: The leaf story.

Summary: One of Big Nick Saban’s favorite things was the Pop Warner football team he created. The team was called the “Black Diamonds.” They still play football on a field named for Big Nick Saban.

Big Nick had not planned on coaching the team, but in the end he did. And he was driven. He would drive around the area in an orange bus and pick up the players. And he coached them with the same sense of purpose that inspired him to make his son wash cars again.

At the end of practice, Big Nick would have his players run up this tall three-tiered hill. It was usually dark by the end of practice and Big Nick could not tell if the kids ran all the way to the top or if they stopped a bit short. So, Big Nick would make them each bring down a leaf from the tree at the top of the hill.

The writer Calvin Trillin wrote in “Messages From My Father” that families often have a credo, an overriding lesson or principle that is sort of at the heart of a person’s childhood. In Trillin’s case, it was his father’s deceptively tame, “You might as well be a Mensch,” loosely translated to mean, “You might as well do the right thing.”

“It has always interested me,” Trillin wrote, “that he did not say, ‘You must always be a mensch,’ or ‘The honor of this family demands that you be a mensch,’ but ‘You might as well be a mensch,” as if he had given some consideration to the alternatives.”

Big Nick Saban was not so subtle. The beauty of the leaf story, if you really think about it, is that Big Nick wanted to be sure that his players made it to the top of the hill. He did not want them to cheat themselves or cheat each other. The lesson was the same as Trillin’s father — you should do the right thing even when it’s too dark to see.

One difference: Big Nick made them bring a leaf back as proof.

And, in the end, that seems at the heart of his son’s great coaching success. He has the skill to find the best players, the will to make sure, the talent to recruit them, a university with great history and football passion, the experience and enthusiasm to develop those players, the unwavering high standards to hold them up against and the magic to infuse them with an extra one percent of his own energy. He has a rare blend of gifts, will and circumstances.

And then, after all of that, he will do something else. He will make sure. In a profession of workaholics, one person has to work the hardest. In a sport of obsessives, one person has to go a little bit deeper than everyone else.

It’s like the Twitter thing. Saban says he never considered joining. He doesn’t understand why anyone would. It all sounded authentic enough. But then Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley was asked about it. He said something that made everyone who knows Nick Saban nod just a little bit. Mosley said: “He claims he don’t have one. But he probably does.”

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