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
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
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
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."