How Nick Saban revived Alabama

Yahoo Sports
At some point during each of the last 11 seasons, Nick Saban’s Alabama squad has been ranked No. 1. Prior to his arrival, the Crimson Tide hadn’t been ranked No. 1 since 1992. (Getty)
At some point during each of the last 11 seasons, Nick Saban’s Alabama squad has been ranked No. 1. Prior to his arrival, the Crimson Tide hadn’t been ranked No. 1 since 1992. (Getty)

The last time Alabama football wasn’t good – back when Tim Tebow ruled the SEC and “War Eagle” was the Heart of Dixie’s dominant greeting – Nick Saban was standing inside the university’s Hank Crisp indoor practice facility, his shirt tucked into belted shorts, a straw hat perched atop his head. And he was shouting.

Typical Saban, you might think, the late-2000s image mirroring so many snapshots of college football’s de facto emperor a decade later. But this particular winter day was different. The subject of his ire wasn’t a mere missed block. It wasn’t shoddy technique or a gloomy attitude. It was a 6-foot, 205-pound Floridian with 4.4 speed struggling to cope with injuries, then with a program-altering transition, and now trudging toward an exit. Literally.

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Roy Upchurch, hobbled by ankle surgery, had had enough. Saban’s unforgiving demands had pushed him to the brink. With five minutes remaining in a conditioning drill, his sweat-drenched body and weary mind gave in.

Saban, as uncompromising as ever, rode the running back to the door, and later chided him with a piercing dig.

If you can’t commit to this, Saban boomed – the exact words lost to time but the message still vivid – from now on, you’re going to be known as ‘Irrelevant Roy.’

Nowadays, of course, anybody would commit to 11 consecutive double-digit-win seasons; to 144-20; to five national titles. But before they knew what murderous workouts and unremitting discipline would yield, many questioned whether they could endure them. They lay prone in the weight room, eyes closed, psyches emptied. All-Americans puked on practice fields and staggered down Bryant-Denny Stadium steps, collapsing into teammates’ arms. They carried and dragged one another across finish lines. They keeled over under the scorching summer sun, or awoke before it had risen, and wondered: Is football – is Nick Saban’s idea of football – really for me?

Some decided it wasn’t. One walk-on extended a sprint straight out through the indoor facility’s doors, and was never heard from again. Even future BCS title winners came close to crumbling.

Saban’s “Process” has become equal parts cliché and legendary. It’s the standard against which college football programs are measured. It’s been copied and pasted with varying degrees of success. It keeps on churning out unrivaled talent, the latest collection of which enters Saturday’s SEC championship game as a double-digit favorite over No. 4 Georgia.

But first, it had to reignite a dormant power that hadn’t won it all since 1992. To do so, in Tuscaloosa in 2007, it had to be revolutionary. It unbuttoned norms and quashed complacency. For members of Saban’s inaugural ‘Bama team, it was shocking. Yahoo Sports spoke with more than a dozen of them for first-hand accounts from Saban’s ground floor. They told of sweeping change. Of methods that were “night and day” compared to the previous regime. Of comprehensive mental programming, stringent rules and relentless attention to detail that left many gifted athletes in the dust.

But those same methods laid the foundation for the sport’s preeminent modern dynasty. They turned Irrelevant Roy into Iron Bowl-winning Roy, Upchurch’s perseverance and investment leading Saban to remark during a summer 2009 scrimmage: You’re not looking irrelevant anymore. They turned dozens of wayward teens into champions, and the Great Depression of Alabama Football into its greatest era ever.

Pre-Saban doldrums

To understand Nick Saban’s Alabama, one must travel back in time. Past the nine years when a natty was more common than a season without one. Back to when ‘Bama wasn’t yet Nick Saban’s.

From 2003 to 2006, it was Mike Shula’s, and it was recovering from what former linebacker Cory Reamer calls a “death spiral.” From recruiting violations that nearly brought the death penalty. From the resultant two-year bowl ban and scholarship restrictions. From an ill-fated coaching hire that left the job vacant in May and Alabama searching for its fourth head coach in as many years.

Shula took it when few would, and every single former player interviewed for this story has praise for him. But in 2006, locker-room “cancers” festered. Player accountability slipped. Shula had spent the first 15 years of his coaching career in the NFL. He brought a pro-style approach to his alma mater that was stabilizing but ultimately incompatible. He treated adolescents like adults. He expected professionalism and responsibility, but didn’t always instill either.

By college football coach standards, he rarely cursed. Says former defensive lineman Lorenzo Washington: “Shula yelled at us maybe once or twice.” And not five minutes after one unusual rant, he stood back up in front of the team and apologized.

Some say his reputation as a “softy” was exaggerated or even unfounded. But as a disciplinarian, some say, he was inconsistent. The scholarship restrictions and shallow rosters didn’t help. “Cancers” doubled as dynamic athletes. Steep drop-offs from first to second string discouraged suspensions. Certain key contributors, Reamer says, were “given a lot of rope.”

A star-studded 2005 senior class led the Crimson Tide to 10 wins in Shula’s third season. They ceded the program, however, to a toxic culture bred by players and enabled by Shula’s selective tolerance. The result, in 2006, was zero road wins, six SEC defeats, and a fifth consecutive loss to Auburn the Saturday before Thanksgiving. After returning home for the holiday, players reconvened for a Sunday night team meeting with Shula at the front of the room. The following morning, they awoke to texts from parents, or arrived at the practice facility pre-sunrise to find TV cameras waiting. Shula, shortly after the meeting, had been fired. Their world had been upended. And they knew nothing about the man who 38 days later would be tasked with righting it.

It took 38 days, but Alabama finally lured Nick Saban away from the Miami Dolphins in 2007. (AP)
It took 38 days, but Alabama finally lured Nick Saban away from the Miami Dolphins in 2007. (AP)

Saban’s arrival

On Thursday, Dec. 7, 2006, then-Alabama athletic director Mal Moore was sitting in his Tuscaloosa home, entertaining a guest. A day earlier, he had ruled out poaching Saban, and instead contacted Rich Rodriguez. The two had reportedly agreed to a deal that would make Rodriguez the school’s 27th head football coach. Now paperwork was being readied. Moore’s guest was Rodriguez’s agent, and the two, according to reports, were hashing out logistics when Rodriguez pulled his stunning 180. He was staying at West Virginia.

Later, Alabama players gathered in their locker room. For bits and pieces of 24 hours, some had been mashing Rodriguez’s name into search bars, reading up on their new spread-offense wizard. Now interim coach Joe Kines was striding into the room, asking for their attention.

“Men,” Kines said, per two retellings of the story, “Rich Rodriguez gave up a gold mine for a coal mine.”

Per one retelling, he pointed at a locker room TV, coverage of Rich Rod’s U-turn inescapable, and said: “That guy just made one of the worst mistakes of his life.”

A month later, it was Nick Saban walking into the team meeting room. Weeks earlier, with a Miami Dolphins logo looming behind him, he had said loud and clear: “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.” Moore, backed by $32 million over eight years, had wooed him. Now the 55-year-old was ready to unveil his itemized plan for Alabama’s rebirth. But before he could begin, a simple request.

“We’re just kinda leaning back, chilling,” recalls then-junior center Antoine Caldwell, “and I remember him getting on the podium and saying, ‘Hey, one of the first things I need you guys to do is sit up in your chairs.’ ”

A mad scramble ensued, players straightening, the frantic rustle reminiscent of a middle-school classroom surprised by the return of their authoritarian teacher.

They had expected a crackdown. They had been primed by the video, queued by local news stations on repeat, of Saban making a Dolphins player cry. And by a house-cleaning, every single coordinator and position coach replaced.

What they got was something more. An overhaul. At those early meetings, a “Process” itinerary, the road to a rebirth mapped out in excruciating detail.

Over the coming weeks, months and years, they got the “Fourth Quarter Program,” known to outsiders as winter conditioning, known to those who’ve experienced it as Hell. They got power-clean squats followed by pure cardio. In Year 1, it went on for around eight weeks, never mind that spring break interrupted it.

They got a weight training program borderline militarized by the now-famous Scott Cochran. They got a dress code: Team-issued socks, team-issued shoes, team-issued shorts, team-issued shirt. If it wasn’t tucked in, or if any uniform piece was missing, everyone was barred, sent back to the locker room, told to come again. For weeks during the winter of ’07, they invariably were.

Over the summer, they got “110s,” or full-field sprints – at least 16, up to 36, every Monday, each one of them timed. If one of 100-plus players was too slow, they’d restart. If one of 100-plus players bent over, they’d restart. Hulking linemen leaned on skill-position stars or specialists for support. “We ran forever,” says Preston Dial, a redshirt freshman tight end in ’07. At a certain point, “it was no longer about making time. They were just gonna run us until everybody gave 110 percent for 16 in a row.”

When they could actually get their hands on footballs, they got a head coach who bounded around from practice field to practice field, his hands on every phase of the game. He’d manage wide receiver egos and critique exhausted offensive linemen’s footwork. He’d agonize over a cornerback playing one yard too far off the line of scrimmage. He’d sit at the front of special teams meetings, chiming in during punt return reviews: You’re not kicking back far enough!

They got a perfectionist and master psychologist who demanded attention to detail, and who understood the various motivational techniques with which to demand it. He picked apart every practice rep in high definition. He once blasted punter P.J. Fitzgerald for body language in-game, then again postgame, then again in front of the entire team, not because his initial point wasn’t received, but because he knew Fitzgerald could handle a tongue-lashing, and because he knew the example would teach others who couldn’t handle one.

Change permeated every niche of the program. In meeting rooms, they got mafia members as motivational speakers, visualization coaches, and psychiatrists. In playbooks, they got a defensive scheme that made some feel like kindergarteners in calculus. At Friday meals, they got limited portions of steak and green beans instead of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and mac ‘n cheese. (Only a mini player revolt convinced Saban to restore a treasured dessert.)

Away from football, they got a point system for team rule violations, and a leadership council, or “peer group,” to help enforce it. A missed class was one point. A failed drug test was more. Each point correlated with punishment. Three or four meant morning workouts and nightly study hall. Multiple positive drug tests led to rehab. Accumulate enough violations, and your case went to the peer group for adjudication, your fate in the hands of teammates. Often it was reduced ticket allotments for family and friends. Occasionally, it was a suspension. There was no more “rope.”

Since 2008, Nick Saban has led Alabama to five national titles and not once has the Crimson Tide finished a season ranked lower than 10th. (AP)
Since 2008, Nick Saban has led Alabama to five national titles and not once has the Crimson Tide finished a season ranked lower than 10th. (AP)

Looking like a fool with your pants on the ground

Fast forward another month, and Nick Saban was unbuttoning his shorts.

Seconds later, they were descending toward his ankles.

Saban’s repertoire is full of unique teaching tactics. But this, after a February mat drill, was an original. The exact placement of his sunken shorts – Ankles? Thighs? Knees? – is a subject of great debate. But they were definitely down. His butt was definitely out. And his drawers were proving a point.

Saban, every Thursday, would receive reports from professors, via athletic department intermediaries, about his players’ performance in class. This particular report, former players recall, contained worrying feedback. Some had been letting their pants sag. Saban deemed it disrespectful. So he put the question to his team: You think it’s cool to have your butts all out of your shorts? … Well, do I look cool? And down his own pants went.

The room burst into laughter. Saban, the story shows, isn’t always the Belichickian grinch some make him out to be. But it also shows the scope of his control. Very few aspects of his players’ lives were ignored. He’d station lower-level assistants outside economics and astronomy classes – every course in which a player was enrolled – to take attendance. And merely appearing wasn’t sufficient. Players had to arrive on time, with requisite reading materials, and stay for the duration.

Former offensive lineman Drew Davis remembers one run-in, when a teammate was pressed by director of player development Willie Carl Martin about his presence in class. The player had signed in and presumed safety. “Did you leave early?” Martin asked. The player assured he hadn’t. But Martin had a security camera image, time-stamped, as evidence to the contrary.

Dial remembers a separate occasion, sprinting down a hallway, hoping to get to a lecture within five minutes of liftoff. When he high-fived the football-program representative at the door, then chatted cordially for a minute, he thought he had. Later that day, he found an extra disciplinary point on his ledger.

There are other tales. Of position coaches finding out about bombed tests before student-athletes themselves. Of Saban publicly calling out injured players for poor grades only a few weeks into a semester. The moral is the breadth of his systematic supervision. He isn’t alone among college football coaches in policing academic behavior. The lengths to which he went to do so, however, were startling. And they typify a leader Caldwell calls “the most detail-oriented human on the planet.”

Nick Saban immediately set a new tone at Alabama during spring practice in 2007. (AP)
Nick Saban immediately set a new tone at Alabama during spring practice in 2007. (AP)

We’re never f-ing coming here again

Walk into Nick Saban’s hallowed office – see his finger reach for a remote control, hear the door ghost shut behind you – and any number of artifacts or accessories might catch your eye. Perhaps the trophies, or the commemorative footballs, or the special-edition coins. Perhaps the White House photos, or the racecar helmet, or the boxing glove signed by Don King. Or the many papers stacked neatly across his wooden desk.

Caldwell, a two-year captain, was drawn to one particular binder during a one-on-one gameplanning session in 2008. The label – “2013” – lifted his brow. The contents, he says, were practice agendas, apparently drawn up five years in advance.

The “Process,” from a player perspective, is nourished by a resolute focus on today; on the present. But Saban, in many ways, coached 2007 for tomorrow. He won games, most notably over Arkansas and Tennessee. He nearly won more, the six losses coming by a combined 36 points. But more importantly, he was building. His first-year assistants were known primarily as recruiters. He got to work on a 2008 class that, 10 years later, has earned 271 million NFL dollars.

He also got to work on the young minds he inherited. Saban programmed them, facilitating leadership, prioritizing process over outcome, plainly differentiating right from wrong. Subscribe to the right, and he would nurture you. Spurn it, and he would discipline you or move on. “When I can replace you, I will replace you,” he would say to those who chose the latter route. And he meant it.

His most notable suspensions in 2007 were four-gamers, of five players caught up in an athletics-wide textbook scandal that many feel was overblown. But the most instructive was of D.J. Hall. Hall remains the second-leading receiver in Alabama history. He was Saban’s first dynamic offensive weapon. But by a mid-November game against Louisiana-Monroe, he had crossed one too many lines, and Saban suspended him.

Eleven years later, the events of that infamous Saturday remain murky. Some recall an initial suspension length of one half. Saban, the following week, said he and the peer group had opted for “compassion” on Senior Day to give Hall one last afternoon in the Bryant-Denny sun. Others, however, remember a full-game suspension that Saban retracted at halftime. Either way, with the “buy game” alarmingly tied after two quarters, Hall’s ban was lifted. Says then-redshirt freshman offensive lineman David Ross: “That was the first time, and the last time, I’d seen Coach go against his better judgement to try to win a game.” And it didn’t work. The Tide slumped to an embarrassing upset.

The entire day served as a lesson. As an example of the consequences when team-wide buy-in erodes. “By that time,” says then-senior defensive lineman Keith Saunders, “the cancers had grown pretty big. Some guys didn’t care anymore, and it showed.” Saban, former players say, called out select upperclassmen responsible for the erosion. Says Davis, paraphrasing his coach: “‘I tried to tell you that this was going to happen, and you didn’t believe me. Maybe now you’ll start listening.'”

After the season, Hall, the highly-touted wideout, threw an NFL draft party with Gucci Mane as a featured guest. But he went undrafted, just like the rest of his graduating class, the only group of Alabama seniors to collectively whiff on all seven-plus rounds since 1970.

“There were reports,” explains then-sophomore offensive lineman Mike Johnson, “that Nick Saban had talked bad about certain players to NFL scouts and GMs. He did address that with the team. And basically said, ‘My word is my bond. I can’t go out there and lie to NFL scouts or GMs about what is going on, because it makes the rest of the players coming out of the program look bad.’ ”

As a reminder of what happens when commitment goes awry, the score of that UL-Monroe loss (21-14) and the “17-12” from a loss to Mississippi State the week before were affixed to every locker for the entire offseason.

It was yet another piece of the ground floor being constructed throughout those first 11 months. A mentality had been engrained. A four-game losing streak sent the 6-6 Tide rolling back to a second straight Independence Bowl. But the hundreds of hours of foundation-building fueled Saban’s message to the team on one of their first nights in Shreveport, Louisiana. It was, as Caldwell recalls, a prescient conclusion to an eventful first year:

“We’re never f’ing coming here again.”

– – – – – – –

Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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