"Criticism doesn't hurt us," he tells his guys. "It makes us tougher, more resilient. It's the praise you've got to be careful with. As soon as you start swallowing it, it'll kill ya."
More hazardous to one's health, possibly, is standing next to Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp on the sideline during a game. The excitable 39-year-old has been known to head-butt his players, and he once opened a bloody wound over his left ear by removing his headset too violently.
Just as Saban learned the principles of defense from his onetime mentor Bill Belichick, so he imparted them to an eager Muschamp, whom he hired from Division II Valdosta State in 2001. At the time, Saban was coach at LSU. With Muschamp as his defensive coordinator, the Tigers won a national title in '03.
Five years and two jobs later Muschamp joined forces at Texas with Mack Brown. Muschamp's effect was immediate and dramatic. "Oh, he came in barkin'," says senior cornerback Curtis Brown. "He just attacked, put our intensity through the roof."
Muschamp has taken a talented, underachieving defense and whipped it into shape, increasing the number and complexity of the Longhorns' blitzes, while insisting that they do a much better job disguising their coverages. But his most remarkable feat has been to convince his players—who work and play in some of the nation's most opulent facilities—that they are, in fact, a scrappy band of blue-collar underdogs.
Three of four secondary starters are back for a defense that led the nation in interceptions and third-down efficiency. Strong, silent safety Blake Gideon is a coach's son who has started all 27 games of his career. Chykie Brown and Curtis Brown (no relation) are NFL-bound corners, according to secondary coach Duane Akina, who should know; in 22 seasons coaching defensive backs, 25 have gone on to the league. Word around Austin is that junior Aaron Williams, the team's third corner, may be more talented than either of the Browns.
"They're playing man coverage with NFL corners," says Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. "Obviously they have good schemes, but when you can line up and play man—which allows you to put another guy in the box to stop the run—you got a great advantage."
Upon his arrival at Texas in 2000, Akina noticed that his four best defensive backs—Rod Babers, Ahmad Brooks, Quentin Jammer and Nathan Vasher—were all cornerbacks. All were NFL talents, but Brooks and Vasher were on the bench. Akina's solution: move them to safety, to get them on the field.
Michael Huff, Michael Griffin and Earl Thomas were all recruited as corners, moved to safety and were taken in the first round of the NFL draft. NFL scouts and coaches value Akina's players not just for their athletic ability, but for their versatility.
That same versatility—corners capable of coming up in run support; safeties covering like corners—makes it tougher for offensive coordinators to find mismatches against the Longhorns. It has given Texas a built-in edge against spread offenses.