The Sabanization of college football
Nick Saban has a total-control, detail-oriented, evaluation-to-graduation system
After Alabama won two titles in three years, the imitators have started to arrive
Saban's coaching tree is influencing Florida State, Texas, Tennessee and more
This story appears in the Aug. 20, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
They pulled on their garnet-and-gold polos and gathered in the ballroom at the Hilton in Ocala, Fla., for a cocktail hour followed by a glimpse into the future. It was May 2010, and Jimbo Fisher had been Florida State's head coach for four months. As he looked out across the ballroom, Fisher saw eager faces beseeching him to share his plans for restoring the Seminoles to the national championship peak of the Bobby Bowden era. The Seminole Boosters wanted a pep rally. Fisher gave them a sales pitch.
Fisher explained that since taking over, he had hired a nutritionist to monitor what players ate. He had contracted a mental-conditioning coach to change how players thought. He had inherited two strength-and-conditioning- assistants, then hired six more and was on the verge of bringing on a seventh to ensure that players received more individual attention in the weight room. Fisher then asked the boosters to dig deep because he needed more. He wanted better dorms for the players and an indoor practice facility. Basically, he wanted everything his old boss, Nick Saban, had at Alabama.
Fisher wanted to duplicate the Process.
Instead of talking about wins and championships, Saban speaks about the Process. In its most basic form, the Process is Saban's term for concentrating on the steps to success rather than worrying about the end result. Instead of thinking about the scoreboard, think about dominating the man on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. Instead of thinking about a conference title, think about finishing a ninth rep in the weight room. Instead of thinking about graduating, think about writing a great paper for Intro to Psych. Since Saban has won three of the past nine BCS titles (LSU in 2003, Alabama in '09 and '11), the phrase has morphed into the mission statement for Saban's program-building philosophy. After watching the Tide coach raise all those crystal footballs, athletic directors and coaches across the country are trying to replicate his philosophy and results. Call it the Sabanization of college football.
"People want the blueprint," says Florida coach Will Muschamp, who was Saban's defensive coordinator from 2002 to '04.
When the Tigers won the 2003 BCS title, Fisher ran LSU's offense. Derek Dooley, now Tennessee's coach, ran the special teams. Today each heads a program that has won at least one national title since 1998. The three former LSU assistants face a steep climb back to college football's highest echelon, and each works under the assumption that anything less than a national championship will, in time, get him fired. All three know they were hired to use Saban's blueprint to do what he has done at Alabama and LSU.
The three former LSU coaches aren't the only ones Sabanizing their programs. Mark Dantonio, who worked for Saban at Michigan State from 1995 to '99, had the Spartans one win from the Rose Bowl in 2010 and '11. Jim McElwain, who was Alabama's offensive coordinator from '08 to '11, became the head coach at Colorado State in December. Even Texas coach Mack Brown, whose own admired blueprint produced a 101-16 record from '01 to '09, had Saban in mind when he brought two new assistants to Austin after the '10 season to help the Longhorns evolve to win in a new decade.
To duplicate what Saban has done at Alabama will not be easy. Plenty of schools have money and eye-catching facilities to dazzle recruits. But few other schools have won as consistently as Alabama since 2008. After a frustrating first season in Tuscaloosa -- which included several off-the-field issues and a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe -- Saban has gone 48-6. In the past three seasons Saban has won two titles and lost only four times.
Every few years the game becomes enamored with a system or scheme, and it rushes to declare the birth of the sport's Next Big Thing. In 1991, Houston quarterback David Klingler clutched a lit bundle of dynamite on the cover of SI, suggesting the run-and-shoot would explode the old assumptions. It never did. In 2000, Virginia Tech quarter-back Michael Vick graced SI's cover and was featured in a story about how the dual-threat quarterback would drive the towering drop-back passer into extinction. That never happened either. In '08 the spread offense was all the rage, and two spread teams -- Florida and Oklahoma -- indeed faced off for the national title. Then, in the '09 SEC championship game, a coach beat the spread. A month later he won his second national title and showed that a scheme is no match for the Process.
The difference between Nick Saban's system and the spread or the run-and-shoot is that Saban's on-field schemes involve no gimmickry. He runs a 3-4 defense that utilizes zone blitzes and disguises coverages exceptionally well. While he works mostly with the defense at practice, Saban encourages his offensive staff to build around a large -- but not huge -- athletic line. The quarterback need only be a competent game manager, buttressed by a fast, hard-running ball of muscle at tailback. The line blows open holes, and the back breaks tackles on the second level. If teams pack the box to stop the run, the game manager throws to receivers athletic enough to exploit man-to-man coverage. None of this is revolutionary.
While Saban has always surrounded himself with coaches whose X's and O's acumen allows them to make the right calls on game day -- just look at his budding coaching tree -- the true success of his system hinges on the selection of players and the way they are trained once they arrive on campus. That is why Saban's system can endure when schemes can't, and it is also why several programs have made big bets that it can be duplicated.
Every player currently recruited by Alabama, Florida and Florida State gets graded using a similar list of criteria. Coaches calculate the grades by scoring each recruit based on three sets of criteria: character/attitude/intelligence, position-specific critical factors and a height/weight/speed chart. On Saban's grading scale the critical factors for a cornerback are:
Can he judge the ball?
Can he play man-to-man?
Can he tackle?
The ideal height for a cornerback is between 6 feet and 6'2". The ideal weight is heavier than 180 pounds. The ideal speed is less than 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Saban is quick to point out that these are not firm requirements. For example, Javier Arenas, who was recruited by Mike Shula and inherited by Saban when he first came to Alabama, was only 5'9", 198 pounds, but he helped the Crimson Tide win the 2009 national title with two picks in the championship game. Saban says he would have recruited Arenas because he scored high on his critical factors and in the character/attitude/intelligence department.