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The Subtleties of Saban in Alabama Football

By Larry Burton

If you weren’t thinking of it while watching the Michigan – Alabama contest, or any of the games of the Saban era, then you missed something about the subtleties that Nick Saban uses to make his team one of the best year in and year out.

Alabama, like many teams across the country, has a lot of very talented freshmen. Talent is a great thing to behold, but without experience and intelligence, it is often squandered.

In his book, “How Good Do You Want To Be” , Nick Saban explains his three I’s, which not only include intelligence, but immediacy and intensity. Here’s the quote from the book…

The “3 I’s,” as I like to say.  Intelligence: the ability to make sound decisions on your feet and to play smart.  Immediacy: the sense of urgency in accomplishing a task; the belief that now is the time to act.  Intensity: the emotion and passion that an individual brings to his or her task.  Do you have the burning desire to be the best that you can be all at times?  Not every player or employee has all three to the maximum, but those who do stand out from the pact.  The teams that have individuals with the 3 I’s are more likely see success.

Here’s how that Michigan game in Dallas helped the team fill in some of those I’s for for the young men on this year’s team.

Scheduling big games at a neutral site is an important thing to Saban. It’s as close to a bowl game as you can possibly re-create. Just like a bowl games has several weeks of prep time, so does his season opening big games. Just like a bowl game requires out of town travel, tons of media hoopla and a national audience, so does Alabama’s big opening games.

Sometimes when freshmen go into a big bowl game they are overwhelmed by the spectacle of it all. When Saban’s freshmen go into bowl season, there will already be a “been there, done that” attitude after having played this opening game in grandiose “Jerry’s World” stadium in Dallas, playing in what was arguably the biggest game of the week.

Unlike other teams that use starters or their best athletes on punt and kickoff coverages, Saban lets the freshmen get not only some game time in front of the family and fans, but get into the intensity of the game by trading licks and getting their uniforms dirty. It makes them a part of what is going on.

Sure, some Alabama fans may have wanted to pull their hair out over some blown kick coverage by these youngsters over the years, but overall, the experience, intensity, intelligence overcomes it by giving them the immediacy of getting out there and laying some licks on defenders.

It’s that team philosophy in practice. Everybody has a job, everybody does their job, everybody shares in the success.

Then watch closely as substitutes come in. Usually they come in and mix with the starters, giving them a chance to play with the first team. Only in blowout games will there be no starters out there and only a group of backups.

Saban knows that by mixing in the young and the inexperienced in slowly with the starters, it gives them a chance to see what life is like in the trenches with the best. It builds trust and team unity.

Former linebacker Cory Reamer spent many years as a backup until being thrust into the first team because of an injury. In an interview with me once he said, “There was no substitute for having gotten to play with the first team in different situations. I knew once I was put there permanently how they were going to move and attack. I already knew the rhythm that group had and I how I could best compliment it.”

Later Reamer said, “There is never an “us and them” mentality on this team. (referring to first string and the other players) We are one unit… The parts are supposed to be interchangeable.”

A good cook knows the end result is better if all the ingredients are blended in slowly and mixed in well before final presentation. It’s not about letting the taste of one ingredient overpower the others, but blending them subtly until perfection is achieved and only one taste remains.

Such are the subtleties of Saban.

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