Tide’s Saban brings tough attitude, high expectations back to storied ‘Bama program

By Ron Higgins
The Commercial Appeal

When Alabama hired Nick Saban as its football coach in January 2007 at the eye-popping price tag of $32 million over eight years, there was a roar of criticism.

Anybody in the camp claiming college athletics had spun out of control – basically almost everyone from the academic side of universities as well as some media – harumphed long and loud. Is any college coach worth $4 million per year?

Three seasons later, the only roar you hear these days is after every Alabama victory, and there have been plenty of them the last couple of years. After a 7-6 first season, Saban’s Crimson Tide has won its last 17 of 19 games, including a 5-0 start this season as No. 3 ‘Bama heads to Ole Miss on Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff.

No one is talking about Saban’s salary now. Instead, it’s all about how Alabama athletic director Mal Moore correctly hired the guy with the required stealth focus needed to succeed at arguably the toughest coaching job in college football’s most cutthroat conference.

“My philosophy has always been you’ve really got to stay focused on the process,” said Saban, 57, who won two SEC championships and a BCS national title in 2003 at LSU before coaching the NFL’s Miami Dolphins for two seasons. “You have to remember what got you there. You are only as good as your last play and your last game.

“That’s challenging for the people in your organization, including your players, to be able to stay focused that way, especially with all the attention you get. But it’s critical for consistency.”

Translation: Saban tries to do everything possible to remove any distraction. He doesn’t want any outside forces meddling with anything that hinders the athletic and academic development of his program.

Which, for most of the eight Alabama head coaches who have labored in the shadow of the legendary Bear Bryant since Bryant retired at the end of the 1982 season after six national championships and 13 SEC titles, has been just about impossible to accomplish.

Bryant, who also coached Kentucky to the 1950 SEC title, is the only coach in SEC history to win league champions at two different schools, something Saban is chasing. No coach has ever won national championships at two different schools in the FBS (Division 1-A).

Since Bryant left, Alabama has won one national championship (1992), three SEC titles and been on NCAA probation twice. Yet, because the Crimson Tide had been the league’s standard of excellence for so many years, the feeling from the Alabama faithful has never waned that the program should be a national championship contender.

Which is why Moore, when he boarded the Alabama school plane New Year’s Day 2007 to head to Miami to persuade then-Dolphins coach Saban to become ‘Bama’s coach, told the pilot, “If I don’t come back to this plane with Nick Saban, they should just go on and take me to Cuba.”

Moore, a former Bryant assistant, still laughs about that, but he knew Saban was the fit.

“He believes strongly in his way of doing things and he doesn’t compromise on that,” Moore said. “He has a certain demand of how he wants things done, and he doesn’t deviate from that belief. All great coaches I’ve known have had that approach.”

Saban’s knack for immediately turning around programs is linked to his insatiable, relentless recruiting. He pushes the limit so much that the NCAA passed a rule, unofficially known as “The Saban Rule” that prohibits head coaches from visiting high schools in the spring.

It didn’t matter. The last two years, Alabama has had recruiting classes ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 by various recruiting services.

“Not only does he recruit good players, he recruits great men, people that are willing to buy into the system,” Alabama senior tackle Mike Johnson said of Saban.

Saban, whose philosophy in many areas has been influenced by his former boss, Bill Belichick, when Saban was an assistant under Belichick with the Cleveland Browns in the early ’90s, has a simple mantra for his team.

“When I worked with Bill Belichick, we had only one sign in the building, and it said, ‘Do your job,’ ” Saban said.

Though Moore still thinks Saban is a couple of recruiting classes away from a national championship, he said Saban’s presence has impacted the entire university.

“I’ve been on this campus a long time, and I don’t recall the oneness that we have now with the administration, the athletics and the alumni,” Moore said. “All of us on the same page, pushing in the same direction.”