Miles and Saban own Big Ten roots

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
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Les Miles and Nick SabanMarvin Gentry/US PresswireAt the head of two SEC powerhouses are two coaches with a background in the Big Ten.
Quietly, some respect will be paid to the Big Ten gods when Alabama and LSU meet in the Allstate BCS National Champion Game.

Even with two SEC schools playing, the conference hovering above it on a map should get some sort of credit for molding the game's coaches.

It was there where future hall of fame coaches Nick Saban and Les Miles really got their starts. Miles was a two-year letter winner at Michigan before coaching there for 10 years, while Saban spent 10 years on Michigan State’s staff (five as an assistant and five as the head coach).

“I was fortunate to be at one of the premier schools in that conference as a player with one of the great coaches in college football and I was fortunate to coach with a very talented staff and be a part of great teams,” Miles said.

Miles doesn’t let peripheral things affect him, but remind him of his Michigan days as a player, and the comedy ensues. He roasts himself and his playing ability better than any standup comedian could.

Get him going about his days as a Michigan coach, and things are a little different. More respect rolls off of his tongue when he talks about coaching with the legendary Bo Schembechler, after playing under him.

With Schembechler as his coach, he was a part of two top-10 teams as a letter-winner from 1974-75. While working with him from 1980-81, Michigan won 19 games, a Big Ten championship and played in the Rose Bowl. After returning in 1987, Miles enjoyed eight years that featured 71 wins and four trips to the Rose Bowl.

Saban spent 1983-87 as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator/secondary coach, but really made his mark as the Spartans’ head coach, leading them to four bowl births in his five years. Before his arrival, Michigan State had missed four straight bowl games.

Now, the two are terrorizing the nation from inside the conference to which the Big Ten is most often compared. Naturally, changes had to be made by both in order to adjust to life in the nation’s toughest conference.

Temple coach Steve Addazio, who spent three years at Indiana before his six-year stint as an offensive coach at Florida, said adjusting to the SEC wasn’t easy. He was used to seeing premier players in the Big Ten, but was not used to the SEC speed, especially on defense.

“The SEC’s a faster game and the defenses in the SEC are traditionally incredible,” Addazio said. “It’s the toughest defensive conference, in my opinion, in college football.

“So many first-round draft picks that you’re playing against each week.”

When he arrived in Gainesville, Fla., with Urban Meyer in 2005, Florida’s offensive coaches found it extremely difficult to keep their old schemes against faster, more menacing SEC defenses.

The read option, a staple in a spread offense, was ineffective. Chris Leak, who wasn’t a dual-threat quarterback, was forced to keep the ball, instead of giving it to the running back, because defenders were closing too fast. With Leak taking the ball, defenders chased him down with ease.

By the Georgia game in October, Florida was worn out and an offensive meeting was called at Meyer’s house. Soon after, Florida evolved, becoming more of a two-back, gap scheme, power-counter offense. It helped fight the defensive speed and opened up the read option.

Addazio said Florida’s offense didn’t really look right until 2007, despite winning the 2006 national championship with an attack that used spread and pro-style tendencies.

For Miles and Saban, they went straight for defense. The thing that had frustrated Florida was a strength for the two, and both took just three years to win the national championship, both coming at LSU.

Both also had to develop a much more aggressive recruiting identity. Addazio, who has coached around the country, said recruiting was much more competitive in the SEC and keeping up meant getting more aggressive and staying ahead aesthetically when it came to facilities.

Naturally, recruiting was more competitive, but Addazio stresses that the most important factor in making the transition to the SEC is learning to constantly adapt. Players are always getting bigger, faster and smarter on the field. In some conferences, Addazio said, coaches can get “lulled to sleep” because change isn’t as rapid.

Things that work tend to for a while, but not in the SEC. Your foundation might come elsewhere, but your true coaching skills are developed when you face constant adversity … and survive.

“Whatever blemishes, problems or issues are going to surface in [the SEC],” Addazio said. “In that conference, you can’t hide things. It’s going to show through because the talent level is so high.

“You watch some other conferences and those offenses are just lighting points up and then they play a real SEC team in a real meaningful game and that doesn’t happen.”

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