Kicking it with Alabama's Nick Saban, Part I

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- He's returned Alabama football to national prominence quicker than anybody could have imagined.

Two seasons, to be exact.

A year ago, Nick Saban guided the Crimson Tide to the doorstep of the BCS National Championship Game thanks to a 12-0 start.

The finish to the season was a downer, but the message had nonetheless been sent.

They start this season ranked No. 5 in the coaches' poll, and you'd swear there's an extra pep these days in the Denny Chimes' bells as they reverberate across the Quad on the Alabama campus.

Not since Bear Bryant was dominating college football in the 1960s and 1970s and on his way to becoming an icon in this state has there been a more indomitable presence on Alabama's campus than Saban.

He won't say it, won't even hint at it. He's too process-oriented to do so. But it's pretty obvious that the Crimson Tide are back.

All the way back?

We'll find out more this season, but I had a chance to sit down with Saban on Wednesday in his office, and here's Part I of a wide-ranging Q&A with him:

How close are you to having the entire infrastructure in place here the way you want it?

Nick Saban: Everybody runs a program like they see fit. We have an idea of how we've done it in the past, and I'm not talking about the football part of it. I'm talking about the overall program. We do a lot of personal development stuff. We have three or four outside entities that really contribute to that in a positive way. Those have all been added in the last couple of years. They've made a tremendous impact on helping the players be successful and developing who they are, which is a big part of what we try to do. From an academic standpoint, we've done a really good job of graduating our players. We're tops in the league and probably moving upward from that. We had the most freshman Honor Roll guys (12), which was more than anybody in the league. From a recruiting standpoint, we have good people in place who do a good job, not only the coaching staff, but the support staff here who help internally and with the organization of recruiting. The coaching staff is really good and complements each other really well. The strength and conditioning part of the program is outstanding. The medical part of the program is outstanding. The one final piece, because we had a problem with it last year in the bowl game, is doing a better job in agent education. We hired Joe Mendez to come in here and help us with that. He's another outside entity. When you talk about infrastructure from a program standpoint, I feel like we've made tremendous progress.

How much work needed to be done to put all that in place when you took this job?

NS: I thought the right people were here in terms of leadership. Dr. Witt has been fantastic. The support we get in the academic community in terms of helping us on recruiting weekends has really been good. Our athletic administration was ready to do what they needed to do to build the kind of program that we wanted to build. I think that part of it was in place. I don't think the infrastructure was here. I think we've improved those things over time, and the people have made the difference.

Is this next step, sustaining what you've built and remaining a national power, the most difficult step?

NS: It's always more difficult to deal with success. Last year's team had great chemistry. I'm not saying they were an overachieving team, but they were one of the teams that played pretty close to what you like as a coach in terms of the intangibles and competitive spirit and the leadership we had. Every team you have is inspired in a different way, and last year's team had something to prove. Now, you're sitting there saying, 'OK, we've got to be good now because we want to be good. We want to be dominant,' and that's a different kind of motivation. It should be a positive motivation, but sometimes people respond better when things don't go well. They're more willing to change and do what they have to do to fix it. It becomes a bigger challenge to get people to think that way.

How have you seen this team respond to that challenge?

NS: We did a kickoff coverage drill on the first or second day of camp and have just about everybody on the team on it except the quarterbacks and offensive linemen. I pointed out in the meeting to the players that Rolando McClain, Julio Jones and Javier Arenas, the three guys who got their picture in the paper for being preseason All-America, were the three guys that were the best guys running down on the kickoff cover team and they don't even do it. That's what your team has to understand. Look at these guys. They're running down because of the pride they have and they want to be the best at everything they do. That's why they're good, and that's why they sustain being good all the time.

Have you tightened the reins even more and cracked down even more as you've gotten more talent into the program and brought in more of your guys?

NS: Not really. I think if you went around and asked our players if coach is pretty consistent and if they knew what to expect every day, they would tell you that there's never any question about what the expectation is of how we're going to do things. That never really changes.

You've built such a recruiting machine here. Do your thoughts ever drift too far away from recruiting?

NS: No, because I think it's the most important thing. It's not just recruiting the players to get them. It's evaluating them and getting the kind of players that you want and getting the kind of players that fit, how you define what you need at certain positions. The evaluation and the recruiting process and how you market what you have are all important. To be a good recruiter, it's always been my feeling that you have to do it every day. You can't recruit in recruiting season. You can't start recruiting when spring recruiting starts. It's every day.

With Florida a heavy favorite to win a second straight SEC title and its third national title in the last four years, is the gap between the Gators and everybody else in this league as wide as some are making it out to be.

NS: I think they have a really good team. They have a lot of great players and great leadership. They do a really good job of coaching and recruiting. But their quarterback making the critical plays in the game last year in the fourth quarter was the difference in the game. That's no disrespect to the rest of their players. They had a lot of good players, and a good team. We had a lot of good players and a pretty good team, too. There were other teams in our league that were hard for us to beat, LSU, Ole Miss and Kentucky, and Ole Miss beat Florida. I think even though they have done a fantastic job from a program standpoin
t, recruiting standpoint and coaching standpoint, they have some of the same challenges that we have in trying to get the standard of excellence in terms of consistency and performance that you need. They have a dominant team and are the team to beat in our league, but I can't calibrate how much better they are than everybody else.