Second-year coach Nick Saban's Dolphins overhaul is ahead of schedule
The Dolphins' midseason turnaround in '05 bore Saban's imprint.
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By Tim Layden
The Saban-izing of the Miami Dolphins took hold late last November, in the aftermath of a desultory 22-0 loss in Cleveland. It was the Dolphins' fourth defeat in five games, and it left them with a 3-7 record. Worse yet was the way that they lost. "We couldn't get anything right, and we were dominated," recalls defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday. Minutes after the game first-year coach Nick Saban entered the locker room, turning it silent. The players had known Saban less than a year. Hired to replace Dave Wannstedt, he had retooled the roster, changed the schemes and established rules and discipline that most veterans hadn't experienced since college. "Not a guy you want to get in a bad mood," says Zach Thomas, a sixtime Pro Bowl linebacker, "or he'll be on you all day."
Among those in the locker room that day was Dennis Fryzel, a former college assistant and Saban's close friend. "I've known Nick for almost 30 years, and I've been in a lot of his locker rooms, but that day was the most come-to-Jesus moment I've ever seen," Fryzel says. "I won't repeat what Nick said, but it was unreal. It was so tense in there, I was afraid that if I even blinked, Nick would come after me."
On the flight home the players gave voice to their anger and frustration. "Guys were saying different things," says defensive end David Bowens, "but what it came down to was, We're sick of this losing." They arrived for Monday meetings at the team's training complex in Davie, Fla., and found a boldfaced message posted by Saban in each of their locker room cubicles: if you continue to do what you've always done, you'll continue to get what you've always gotten. guaranteed.
The Dolphins closed with six straight wins to finish 9-7 and narrowly miss the playoffs. It can be perilous to credit a speech or an inspirational message with righting a listing football team -- Knute Rockne died in 1931 -- yet the timing is inescapable. Saban and the Dolphins got on the same page only after the debacle in Cleveland.
"That game was a thunderbolt, a tremendous negative," said Saban, "but it was the turning point in our season."
On the second weekend in June the Dolphins gathered for a three-day minicamp, their last before training camp opens on July 29. Beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat, the 54-year-old Saban bounced from drill to drill. A year ago he was a no-nonsense stranger, straight out of LSU, entrusted with a once proud franchise that had gone 4-12 in 2004. Now he is a familiar face, and anything less than a trip to the playoffs in '06 will be a disappointment.
"Think of it this way," says four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor. "Last year, going to work was like moving into a new house, where you had to figure out where all the light sockets were. This year it's like coming home every day."
After serving as Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator in Cleveland from 1991 to '94, Saban spent a decade as coach at Michigan State and LSU, leading the latter to a national championship in 2003. In November '04 Wannstedt resigned under pressure, and the next month Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga flew to Baton Rouge to meet with Saban, who over the last decade had turned down numerous offers to return to the NFL. Huizenga pushed the right buttons. He invoked the franchise's rich history ("I'm looking for another Don Shula," he told Saban), gave Saban total control over personnel ("If I hire somebody to run one of my companies, I wouldn't tell him he can't hire his own people," Huizenga said) and offered a five-year, $22.5 million contract. It didn't hurt that Jimmy Johnson, who coached the Dolphins from 1996 to '99, called Saban several times to praise Huizenga and the organization.
"I had really good jobs in college football," Saban said while sitting with his grass-covered sneakers on his desk during a break in minicamp. "If I was going to go to the NFL, it had to be a certain kind of organization. I saw clearly that this was that kind of place. Wayne has high standards, and I'm comfortable with that. There's a tradition of excellence."
As for total control, Saban says, "You're not really controlling your own destiny if you don't control all the factors."
Make no mistake: Saban has taken control. Only 20 players from 2004 remain on the roster. Saban reviewed every aspect of the team's operations, with an eye to instilling order, discipline and attention to detail. Players were forbidden from wearing hats in meeting rooms; shoes had to be tied during Saturday pregame walk-throughs. The practice facility is papered with motivational axioms. Last year Saban stunned veterans by running them through 40-yard sprints after the second practice of training camp, to test which players had come prepared.
"It's very different from anything I had experienced in the NFL," says defensive tackle Kevin Carter, 32, an 11-year NFL veteran who signed with Saban as a free agent before the 2005 season. "Everything is done a certain way; everything is done quickly. I don't like all of it, but we're going to win a lot of games. I knew that the first time I met Coach Saban."
Adds Taylor, "He wants the little things done right. Does every little thing equal wins and losses? No. Some things are just to do them. I love Nick, and I love what he's doing here. Tying your shoes at walk-through? That's just for the sake of doing it. But you do it because that's what the man wants, and right now this team is pretty damn good in a lot of areas."
Saban works much like the Kent State graduate assistant that he was 33 years ago, except with a bigger salary. "I see him out there coaching his butt off with the DBs," says Fryzel. "He tells me, 'Hell, Denny, once I'm out there coaching, I don't care if it's an 18-year-old college freshman or an All-Pro under the helmet.' That's Nick."
This is also Nick: defense. He attends every defensive team meeting and spends much of practice working with the defensive backs. The core of the Dolphins' overhaul lies in the defensive schemes that Saban learned under George Perles as a Michigan State assistant from 1983 to '87 then modified under Belichick and during his college days. The package is a base 3-4 that sometimes morphs into a 4-3 and features myriad variations and blitzes. Saban force-fed the entire playbook to the Dolphins a year ago, and confusion reigned until late in the season.
"It's a great scheme, but last year was like a circus," says Thomas, who was moved from middle linebacker in a 4-3 to inside linebacker in a 3-4. Likewise, Taylor went from defensive end in a 4-3 to playing what is often an outside linebacker in the new system. "He told me right away that I was going to have to check my ego at the door," says Taylor.
There will be more tweaks this season. Saban hired former Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans coach Dom Capers to run the defense, a move that forced defensive coach Will Muschamp to leave just one year after Saban brought him from LSU. "Nick does what's best for the organization at all times," says Muschamp, who moved to Auburn as defensive coordinator. "No ill will toward Nick. Dom Capers was an outstanding hire, but I want to call defenses, so it was no longer a good fit for me."
The coordinator change was one of numerous personnel issues that kept Saban busy off the field and further transformed the face of the Dolphins. Most notoriously, running back Ricky Williams was suspended for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy for the fourth time and is now playing in the Canadian Football League. "I feel like in some ways we failed in giving Ricky the help and support he needed, because he's not here right now," says Saban, who expects Williams to be back with Miami next year.
Even more significant was Saban's upgrade at quarterback. He traded a second-round draft choice to the Minnesota Vikings for Daunte Culpepper and a conditional sixth-round pick to the Detroit Lions for Joey Harrington. Both are rehabbing: Culpepper his right knee after surgery in November and Harrington his psyche after four tough years as the would-be savior in Detroit. Culpepper will be the starter. Last month he told reporters that his goal is to start the exhibition opener on Aug. 12. "That's the perfect world," he said.
In June the 29-year-old Culpepper surprised teammates by running full speed on rollouts and even dived on a loose ball in a no-pads scrimmage. "I've had a lot of quarterbacks here," says wideout Chris Chambers, who has caught 315 passes for 39 touchdowns in five seasons with Miami. "But Daunte brings us to an elite level. I've been used to running 40, 50 yards and then slowing down. That's not going to happen anymore because Daunte can throw the ball down the field."
For Saban, every slice of good news is part of a bigger picture. After the shutout in Cleveland he told reporters, "We are building the team for the future, so where we are this season doesn't really matter." He was ripped by the Miami media. "I took a tremendous amount of criticism for that," says Saban, "when all I was trying to say was that we had to focus on learning how to play winning football consistently. I think we're much improved this year, but I don't carry a barometer. You just keep on moving."
On one June evening Saban took Fryzel on a boat ride near his South Florida home. They were two old coaches, fast friends since being fired from Ohio State together on New Year's Eve 25 years ago. Fryzel never coached again -- he's president of a telecom company in Georgia -- but he gleefully admits to living vicariously through Saban, who would talk about his many opportunities to leave college coaching for the NFL.
"So what about the decision to come here?'' Fryzel asked on this night. "Was it the right one?''
Saban answered quickly. He has a roster largely of his choosing, made up of players who now march to his music. "Yeah, it was the right decision," he said that night.