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The complete package

In Saban, Dolphins would get a coach totally focused on winning

Posted: Wednesday December 22, 2004 4:03PM; Updated: Wednesday December 22, 2004 4:03PM
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Nick Saban has gained a reputation as a difficult man to work for, although few doubt his ability as a football coach.
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The proclamation, bold as it is, jumps out at you right there on the home page of NickSaban.net. The 53-year-old LSU head football coach is billed as the "The Complete Package,'' which seems a timely description in this holiday week, given that everyone knows all the Miami Dolphins want for Christmas is to unwrap Saban as the team's sixth head coach.

Several key steps in Miami's hiring process remain, including the extension of a formal offer and any subsequent negotiations. But let's assume for a moment that the two sides strike a deal and begin their working relationship in the coming week or so.

What would the Dolphins be getting in Saban, one of the most highly sought after college coaches in recent memory? Is he the next Jimmy Johnson or the next Butch Davis? Can he reproduce the work of Bobby Ross, who went from a national championship to the Super Bowl in a three-year span, or will his NFL head coaching tenure hew more to the failed Steve Spurrier experiment in Washington?

We put those types of questions to several NFL club officials who have known Saban well for many years, dating to his days as an assistant coach in the league with Houston (1988-89) and Cleveland (1991-94), where he served as Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator. Some chose to speak on the condition of anonymity, and others did not. But they all helped draw a clearer picture of the pluses and minuses of the man who appears likely to become Miami's next head coach.

"The Dolphins would be getting themselves an outstanding football coach,'' said one longtime NFL personnel man. "He's had proven success everywhere he's been. They would also be getting a guy who's demanding, and a guy who's not without flaws. Nick has had great difficulty keeping his staffs together for long, because he can be difficult to work for sometimes, and seen as abusive to people on his staff.

"He's got a certain amount of tunnel vision. It's all about winning games for him. Everything he does is geared toward that. And it's going to be interesting, because he's been out of the league for 10 years. Can he quickly get the lay of the land in the NFL, the way things work today? We'll see. But gosh, he's so smart. I think he'll adapt very quickly.''

Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian remembers first meeting Saban in 1991, Saban's first year as the Browns defensive coordinator. Under Saban, Cleveland went from allowing a league-high 462 points in 1990, the year before he arrived, to a league-low 204 points and 21 touchdowns in 1994, his final season with the team. At the time it was the sixth-fewest points allowed in NFL history.

"You could just tell he was a real good coach, and a guy to keep an eye on,'' said Polian, who was then Buffalo's general manager. "You pretty much knew he was going to have success.

"His style isn't flashy. It's not fancy. It doesn't come with a lot of sound and fury about how great his teams are going to be. Nick's teams play sound defense, have a sound kicking game and they don't beat themselves. They go out and win, and that's what it's all about.''

While stressing that he is not presuming to hire Miami's next head coach for the Dolphins, Polian believes Saban's strong personnel skills will translate well to the NFL. He points to Saban's recruiting at Michigan State (1995-99), where he had few advantages in the Michigan-Ohio State dominated Big Ten, and his ability to uncover players others had overlooked.

"I remember he recruited Muhsin Muhammad to Michigan State, and the guy wasn't even on anybody's radar screen,'' Polian said. "But he was a second-round pick in the NFL, and last I checked, he's in the ninth year of a pretty good career. Nick knows how to develop players, and that's first and foremost. He didn't just recruit the top 100 according to all the gurus.

"He knows personnel and how to integrate it into different systems of football. He's flexible, knows the game and the trends of the game as well as any one, and like all successful football coaches, he's able to translate his beliefs and his tactics into his team's execution.''

Saban's demanding side does not get short shrift from those league insiders who have known him the longest, but they say it is that part of his personality that helps keep him on top no matter his assignment.

"He's demanding on his assistant coaches, no doubt about that,'' said another veteran NFL personnel man who has known Saban since the early '90s. "But demanding in a way that tells you he's all about winning. And he can relate to players. He's very organized, very detailed. Like any great teacher, he's got the ability to get the players to do what he's teaching them. He can take ideas in the classroom and make them work on the field.

"I can't say enough good things about him, though. You don't have enough room in your story. He's a hell of a coach.''

In Miami, where the Dolphins' work ethic at times came into question under the more laid-back Dave Wannstedt, league observers predict Saban's no-nonsense methods will make for a stark contrast.

"Basically, if anybody doesn't want to work hard or be committed to the way he's committed, then they're going to have a problem with him,'' New England head coach Bill Belichick has said of Saban. "Now, if they like to work, they won't have any problems at all.''

Belichick's close relationship with Saban, and the two men's similar temperaments and defensive backgrounds, have led many to lump them together and consider Saban a virtual carbon copy of the two-time Super Bowl winner.

But there are key differences, league insiders say.

"Certain elements of Nick's personality are similar to Bill's,'' one of the longtime personnel men said. "But other things are very different. You've never really heard of Bill being abusive to his staff members, or not being able to keep good people working for him.

"But it is all football with both of them. They're very smart, and the intellect comes through. Nick is extremely intelligent. Just like Bill. I think Nick likes the limelight more than Bill. He likes attention. He says he doesn't. He tries to act like he doesn't. But he does. Look at how public his courtships have been with NFL teams every year. You can keep that stuff quiet if you want to.''

Saban's name surfaces annually when NFL head coaching positions start to open. Last year, he could have had the Chicago Bears job, and he was also part of Atlanta's search. That has led some longtime NFL friends to question if he really wants to coach in the league.

"I don't know if he jumps this time,'' one personnel man said. "I thought in the past he would jump, but he didn't. Nick loves being romanced. He loves the courtship. But he hasn't pulled the trigger before. I know this, if he does take the Dolphins job, he'll still need to find himself a good personnel man to work with. Because as good as he is at X's and O's, and he's damn good at it, he's never run an entire NFL team by himself.''

Other Saban observers believe the Dolphins job is the one he has been patiently waiting for.

"Nick does like money, but I don't think it's that he likes to be romanced,'' another club personnel man said. "He's always been an NFL kind of coach. He's always wanted to work in the league as a head coach. And he's been smart enough to know his act wouldn't have worked just anywhere. He didn't want to go to Chicago and have (Bears general manager) Jerry Angelo pick the players. In Atlanta, I don't think he was ever a serious candidate there, because he knew things would be run by committee.

"This is the job he wants. He can run the show. He can go in there and put in the infrastructure. Dave Wannstedt really wasn't sharp enough to run the whole store. And [general manager] Rick Spielman wasn't strong enough to tell Dave no. Nick does need a good personnel man right by his side. And it'll be somebody who's not offended by tough criticism and tough talk. Dr. Phil ain't there.''

The idea of giving the head coach complete authority over all personnel decisions is a trend that NFL teams have been burned by and started moving away from in recent years. But the Dolphins, humbled by their worst season since their 1966 expansion debut, seem ready to take the plunge with Saban and hand him the entire set of keys.

"I think this one is it for Nick,'' the veteran personnel man said. "If he doesn't do this one, then he's not doing one [in the NFL]. Because it's soup to nuts in Miami. It's great money, great tradition, great place to live. What's not to like? He runs the store, and he's not worried about turning it around. He's taken over worse teams. He'll win. He knows it. He'll get it done there.''

If he does, you can chalk up another Saban success story. Maybe "The Complete Package'' it is.

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.