Coaching in Nick Saban's DNA

Originally Published: October 25, 2012
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama is rolling toward what the Crimson Tide hope is a third national championship in four seasons, and Nick Saban is rolling toward coaching immortality.

He's already the only coach since the advent of the Associated Press poll in 1936 to have won two national championships at two different schools.

If the Crimson Tide can repeat this season, Saban would become the first coach since Tom Osborne at Nebraska in 1994 and 1995 to win outright national titles in successive years.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireAlabama coach Nick Saban hasn't let outside pressure get to him or his team.

And not since Frank Leahy at Notre Dame in the late 1940s has a coach won three outright titles in a four-year span.

What's it all mean to Saban, whose No. 1 Crimson Tide face their biggest test of the season on Saturday when No. 11 Mississippi State comes to town?

He wouldn't know. He's too busy living in the moment.

In Saban's world, his idea of the bigger picture is the next practice, the next play, the next recruiting class. "I hardly know what's going on outside of here externally," Saban said. "I'm predisposed from all of that stuff. My whole focus is on what does the team need to do to be successful and what we need to be doing every day to make it that way.

"That's where my whole thought process is. It's never on, 'Well, you did this,' or 'you can let up on that.' It's never any of that because there's always another challenge. You never have a chance to look back. You're always looking forward."

And for some Alabama fans, therein lies their greatest fear.

Will Saban have so much success at Alabama that he'll get the itch to seek another challenge elsewhere? He insists not, even though his name is going to invariably come up any time there are marquee openings in the college game or the NFL.

"I think most people know I'm here for the long haul," Saban said. "I'm not looking for another challenge. I've done that too much.

"When I was at LSU, I was ready to settle in except for one thing: Would I ever go to the NFL? Well, I did that and learned about myself and feel fortunate that I got back to a good place where you had a chance to win, and that was here. So regardless of what anybody else says, I'm not looking for another challenge.

"I'm not satisfied with my performance, but I am satisfied with myself being here."

Saban's toughest challenge may be in front of him, and that's feeding this massive beast that he's created.

Let's face it. The expectations at Alabama have always been sky-high, but Saban has elevated them to a point where it's almost national championship or bust -- every single season.

That kind of pressure would grate on anybody, even somebody as driven as Saban.

"Sure, I think it wears on you," Saban said. "It's my job to try not to let it wear on anybody and not focus on the outcome, but the process of what we need to do to be as good as we can be. And however many games we win, we ought to be able to live with it.

"That's how I try to approach it. I know it affects the players around here and affects the coaches around here, but I can't let it affect me."

He knows how to keep us even keeled. Whenever we're up is when he brings us back down to earth, and when we're down, he encourages us. He always knows what we need.

-- center Barrett Jones on Nick Saban

Building a championship program in the SEC is daunting enough, but maintaining one season after season is something few coaches have been able to accomplish in this league without cyclical drop-offs.

"It's a lot more fun when you're sort of building than when you're just trying to keep it that way," Saban said. "It's a lot more fun when you're just starting out. They don't have that expectation, so you're kind of exceeding expectations with every win. It's a lot more fun, but you can't focus on that.

"You focus on what you need to do to play well and get your players to play the best they can and get them to understand that they control the way they play. They don't control the rest of it. So let's focus on what we control."

Saban has won at least 10 games each season he's been at Alabama after going 7-6 in his first year in 2007. During that stretch, the only time he didn't win a title of some kind (Western Division, SEC or national) was in 2010 when the Tide finished 10-3.

From some of the grumbling during that season, you would have thought Alabama barely finished above .500.

Then again, nobody on Alabama's team was happy, either. "We play to a standard here," Alabama junior linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "My whole thought process when I came here was that I wanted to win a championship. That's how we practice, and that's how we basically live every day. That's Alabama football."

Hard as it is for some people to believe, Saban isn't consumed with the scoreboard. Some of his most heated exchanges with players and coaches have come with the Crimson Tide comfortably ahead in the fourth quarter and their reserves already in the game.

"We were up 52-0 against Arkansas and I saw him go over and have what I'll say was a spirited conversation with a backup defensive back about his assignment," senior center Barrett Jones recounted. "I was sitting there and thinking, 'What other coach in America is really going to be on a backup defensive back up 52-0?' But that's why he is who he is."

It's telling that other than for 15 seconds against Ole Miss earlier this season Alabama hasn't trailed after the first quarter in regulation since Auburn in 2010.

Defensively, the Crimson Tide have now gone 12 straight SEC games without allowing more than 14 points. They rarely make mental errors. They miss very few tackles, and they don't give up big plays.

In seven games this season, Alabama has given up just 42 plays that gained 10 yards or more. That's 14 fewer than any other FBS team.

"That's the trademark of how we've done things around here, doing your job, playing with discipline, playing with effort and playing with toughness," Saban said.

[+] EnlargeRobert Lester
Kevin Jairaj/US PRESSWIRESaftey Robert Lester says playing for a coach like Saban requires quite a bit of maturity.

Jones says Saban is an excellent psychologist.

"He knows how to keep us even keeled," Jones said. "Whenever we're up is when he brings us back down to earth, and when we're down, he encourages us. He always knows what we need."

Saban's ability to evaluate talent is next to none in the college game, but he's also been equally successful at evaluating character and determining during the recruiting process whether a player fits at Alabama.

The reality is that Saban's not for everybody.

"Coach Saban is going to throw a lot of things at you, and he's going to expect it to stick," senior safety Robert Lester said. "If it doesn't, he's going to let you know. You've got to be mature, be able to take the coaching and know that it's for the best for you."

Mosley was even more to the point.

"You've got to mature really fast here, or you're not going to make it," he said.

Of course, a lot more make it than don't because Saban can afford to be so picky, and his track record speaks for itself when it comes to developing players.

Players who are supposed to be great players when they sign with Alabama usually leave as great players. The Crimson Tide have produced 11 first-round NFL draft choices over the past three years.

Saban, who turns 61 next Wednesday, insists that he doesn't have any trouble staying motivated and that the thought of stepping away from coaching never crosses his mind.

He acknowledges that he would be lost if he weren't coaching.

"I've been doing it for so long that I don't know what I'd do," he said. "I really don't."

Coaching is in his DNA. "I really do love it," said Saban, who started in 1973 at his alma mater, Kent State, and has had 13 different coaching jobs.

"When the day comes that I can't do it, there's going to be a lot of things that I miss about it. But the biggest thing is going to be the relationships with the players. That's the special thing on a team that is hard to get someplace else. We've been fortunate here to have great chemistry, and you don't ever take that for granted."

Chris Low | email

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