Things That Make Nick Saban Different Make Him Successful
By: Larry Burton
There are so many coaches that seek to imitate Nick Saban now that it’s hard to say anything he does is different. But Saban pioneered some differences between him and other coaches that made him successful. Here are a few.
Tell The Truth – No coach may have been more ridiculed than Saban for saying while head coach of the Miami Dolphins that he wasn’t leaving to be the head coach at Alabama. In Saban’s defense, it was his sense of honor to finish what he started that made him say that and in his own defense again, he was telling the truth, sort of. He really had no intention of leaving the Dolphins during the season, so when he said it, he was telling the truth. At season’s end and with the owner of the Dolphin’s blessing, then he left. So with that aside, let me get to the real truth telling.
Saban was unique for shooting straight with recruits, he never promised anyone a starting job, that he would make a star out of them or such hoo hah. He told them they could come and fight for a position on a team that would compete for championships and be a part of something great that history would remember, if they just came, followed the process and worked their tail off.
In Saban’s early years at Alabama when I did almost all the player interviews. players said it was refreshing to have a coach talk to them like adults, not try and BS them for their own advantage and more. They felt like if they had a coach that would shoot straight with them from the beginning of their relationship, they’d have one that would have their back through the whole ordeal. That’s what started the landslide of talent coming into Alabama and it has never stopped.
Playing Freshmen on Special Teams – Coaches have always wanted their best on the field as much as they could, especially in close or important games. They didn’t want green, untested guys to cost their teams when they make silly freshman mistakes.
I asked Saban about this once and his reply was, “It gives them a chance to have some opportunities. It’s a reward for their hard work in practice and it gives them a chance to get their uniforms dirty, feel like they’re truly a part of this team and it keeps them involved. Plus, if I need them, they’ve been hit and are more ready to go into the game.
Since Saban doesn’t let us talk to freshmen I had to wait until the next year to talk to players about their freshmen experiences. More than one told me that though they didn’t play a lot, being on the special team was important to them and making a big tackle or so forth made them feel wonderful, feel part of the team. Making the most of each “opportunity” was big.
In reality, Saban uses fast third or so string linebackers and even receivers and it’s more than just an opportunity for them to play, but a chance for him to evaluate their adherence to their training and discipline. Did they stay in lanes as they were coached? Did they avoid stupid penalties? Did they wrap up their tackle? In playing special teams, not only does Saban get to rest his starters, but he gets to see who he has trust in to follow all the rules, to take the small jobs seriously. Those that don’t do these things won’t move on up in Saban’s system.
While playing freshman doesn’t make Saban different, Saban clearly plays the best player period, be he freshman or senior, Saban isn’t afraid of playing them. Another old adage is, “For every freshman you start, you’ll lose one game that season”. Saban doesn’t buy that.
Nick Saban will tolerate, although very begrudgingly, freshman mistakes because he has heard the old adage, “Show me a man who has never made a mistake and I’ll show you fool”. That is because some of the best lessons you learn and then ones that stay with you the longest are the ones you’ve learn from the mistakes you made.
So while playing freshmen in no way makes Saban unique, stuffing your special teams with them does.
Rotating Star Players – When I think of this, I think of Marcus Lattimore. He was a running back at South Carolina under Steve Spurrier. When I saw him as a freshman in 2010, I thought he was the next Hershel Walker or Bo Jackson. He was just that good. In his freshman year, in a game I taped and re-watched twice, he broke 42 tackles against Georgia no less and rushed for 182 yards in only his second game.
Now I admire the career of Steve Spurrier and think he’s a great coach, but from then on, he ran Marcus Lattimore like a rented mule. Maybe it was because he thought he just got better the more he carried it, maybe it was because he didn’t think he had a good backup, I don’t know. But Lattimore was injured in his sophomore and junior years because of the constant and consistent grind. He declared for the NFL draft after his junior year to avoid further unpaid damage to his body, but the damage was already done.
The league knew he was all used up, but the San Francisco 49ers in the forth round took a gamble. He got a $300,000 signing bonus a few paychecks, but he never really played in the NFL and after spending his one and only year in the NFL on the injured / reserve list, his dream of the NFL was over.
I asked Mark Ingram during his Heisman run if it was frustrating for him to have to share so many carries with other running backs. In his reply, you could see Saban’s teachings had taken hold of this great young man. “It’s not about how much you play here on this team, it’s about what you do with each opportunity you have. If you do the very best you can with each opportunity you have, only good things will come from it. We’re a family here at Alabama and these other running backs are like my brothers. I’m glad to see each one of them have their opportunities and get a chance to show what they can do. We all stay fresh, we all stay ready.”
Saban teaches unselfishness, he keeps the team ready for the next man up and the wily coach limits the play of many of his stars in the most dangerous positions to be hurt. He knows that a tired player is usually the one who is hurt. Most other coaches in football would have run a guy like Mark Ingram into the ground and then tell him they were doing it for Mark’s own good, to get all those yards, to get all that TV time, to get that Heisman trophy instead of having him think they were just insuring the coach would win and keep his job.
Because of that, running backs and receivers from Alabama have gone into the NFL healthier, with fresher legs and fewer injuries. They go into the NFL for a long time and not just for one injury / reserve year like Lattimore.
Yes, now you see this happening a lot, but remember in was Saban who started this. Yes some before him rotated players, but only when they had two absolute studs, then they’d revert back to the old ways when they only had one star instead of developing a second and third player.
You see, in Saban’s world, one great tendency feeds another. By rotating players and giving freshmen a chance to play, we sign players who aren’t afraid of the talent ahead of them. They’ve seen first hand that others who went before them and were in their same shoes got some playing time, so this rotating players also helps recruiting, which helps when it’s time for next man up to have a quality player, which means he’s had some reps with the first team already and won’t be confused which means more wins on the tally sheet.
Can you see how each thing named so far feeds the other? Players adhere to Saban’s process, but Saban adheres to his system. It is one of the bigger reasons he is different.
Saban is Smart Enough to See His Own Weaknesses and Change – Believe it or not, there was a time when many though Bear Bryant was washed up. His teams were stagnant and time was passing him by. So he did something radical and changed to the wishbone offense and finished on top as we all know. It was a huge change at the time in everything that Alabama football was.
Great ones can see things passing them by. Few adapt. For all the good Bobby Bowden did at FSU, his reluctance to adapt and change what he was doing cost him his job. For all the good he did at LSU, Les Miles was sent packing because he wouldn’t change what wasn’t working on offense on his team. I couldn’t literally name a hundred other coaches who failed to change with the times and circumstances around them.
In the past, Saban struggled with hurry up offenses, quarterbacks who gave more threat to him than just their arm and teams whose defenses matched up too well with his pro style offense. He lost some low scoring games where he just didn’t have enough offense.
But now, for the last few years, you’ve seen him adapt and change. If you can’t beat it, join it and do it better than the ones who were beating you. Alabama went from a team that just wore you down on offense, kept your defense on the field too long and scored just enough to win with their own defense to a team that comes out from the opening whistle and piles up so many points so quickly that other teams just give up. Now instead of just grinding them down to “Make their ass quit” as Nick Saban so poetically phased, it’s now almost, “Just bury their ass” behind so many points that they quit.
For a while, Saban reminded me of Coach Bryant when asked why he didn’t pass more. “Well, when you pass three things can happen and only one of them is good.” Saban used to be like, when you score too quickly, you give the opponents the ball back too quickly and them having the ball too much isn’t good. Last season Alabama broke an SEC record way over a hundred years old by scoring more than 50 points a game for their first six games. They also became the only Alabama team to have scored 45-plus points in their first six games.
So much for Saban being the ultimate defensive minded coach in Alabama history, which he is, now he’s in the record books as the most prolific offensive coach in Alabama history also.
Clearly Saban is different and can not only accept change, but perfect it to a degree that no other coach ever has.
Lastly, Recruiting – They ought to call the recruiting championship the Nick Saban Award, no one before or present as done what Nick Saban seems to do every year when it comes to recruiting and no one is even close.
As we’ve said before each great quality feeds the other. Because he tells the truth, he attracts intelligent people who are among the best at what they do. Think of it as greatness attracting greatness. Because they know they’ll earn opportunities with hard work, they aren’t gun shy to sign on to team with a staggering depth of talent they could avoid at other places.
Since coming to Alabama, no freshman that stayed his four years at Alabama ever left without a championship ring. So when Saban looks a young man in the eyes and says, if you really feel you have the chance to play like a champion, you have to play on a championship team and if you come to Alabama, you’ll play for championships. No one that signed with me coming out of high school and put in his time ever left without one. Boy, is that powerful.
When you look at wins in the recruiting wars and then compare that to final season results a few years after those recruiting wins, you certainly see a pattern. Not even Nick Saban can win without talent, but that will never be a problem as long as Nick Saban is knocking on front doors of the nation’s best high school talent.
Some folks get confused by the here and now and the present, yes some other coaches occasionally nip as Saban heels in recruiting. But here, Saban is totally different, he is on or at the top of the heap every single year and no one has done that.
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Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter