Linked by success
Despite different personalities, Nick Saban and John Calipari have indelible bond
He's insistent. Basketball is a sport of five, Kentucky coach John Calipari says, not of 22. He'll say this a handful of times during a roughly 20-minute phone conversation, reiterating the numbers that separate him from Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
Calipari needs just a handful of recruits to buy into his program, while his counterpart needs dozens to be convinced. Winning titles this past season has helped both men in this respect. They don't trudge up and down the recruiting trail -- they dance along it, picking out blue-chip prospects like produce at an overstocked supermarket.
The 61-year-old coach of the Crimson Tide is known for his smile only because of how infrequently he employs it. "Whether I look it or not, I'm happy as hell," Saban told reporters after hoisting the national championship trophy Jan. 7. It's understandable they needed convincing. After trouncing Notre Dame in the BCS title game in South Florida, Saban was already complaining about how he was behind in recruiting.
Like Calipari, Saban is constantly focused on two things: the next game and the next prospect. The latter is the lifeblood of any good program. Both programs have finished among the top three recruiting classes nationally in each of the past three seasons. Alabama stands second in the ESPN class rankings with 15 four- or five-star commitments, including running back Derrick Henry, the top athlete in the country. Kentucky has the No. 1 overall class in basketball, with the top point guard (Andrew Harrison) and top shooting guard (twin brother Aaron) already signed.
With so much talent on both campuses, there's no youth excuse, there's no waiting for the next season to get better. Even after Kentucky won the national title and lost six players to the NBA draft, the Wildcats were ranked in the top three of both preseason polls. Shortly after beating Kansas, Saban called Calipari to congratulate him on the win. A few months later, Calipari was hitting Saban up for advice on how to stay on top.
"When I met with Coach Saban at the SEC meetings I wanted to know, 'When you won it in 2009, you guys kind of faltered a little bit. Now that you won it in 2011, tell me exactly what you thought you learned,' " he said. "He gave me some great insight in what he saw and how things had changed and what he would guard against. One of the things was he started right away on the next season. He didn't wait."
The biggest takeaway from their conversation?
"He gave me some good things, like we're not trying to defend a national title," Calipari said. "That one is in the bank, that one is on the shelf. We're trying to become the best team this team can be."
Despite losing 12 starters to the NFL, Alabama made it back to the national championship game and prevailed again. There was no excuse of inexperience. Freshmen and sophomores jumped right into the fire and succeeded, most notably wide receiver Amari Cooper and running back T.J. Yeldon, both of whom set freshman records at Alabama. Cooper broke Julio Jones' freshman marks for receptions, yards and touchdowns. Yeldon paired with starting tailback Eddie Lacy to become the first tandem of running backs to rush for more than 1,000 yards in school history. Both rookies played like veterans from Day 1.
"I would imagine ... he raises the bar and then really pushes them through their comfort level, which is what we do here," Calipari said. "And they understand coming in that if you're coming to Alabama, you're the biggest game on everybody's schedule. If you're not ready for that, don't come here. And the other thing is when you come here, you're not the only guy that can play football. There's going to be 40 or 50 just like you with aspirations to be in the NFL. If you're going to screw around, don't come here, (you) can't do it here."
Freshman cornerback Geno Smith corroborated Calipari's story. The former four-star prospect spurned his home state Georgia Bulldogs to come to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and play for Saban. He knew what he was getting into when he gave his signature to the Crimson Tide. After struggling early in the season, admittedly buckling under a complex playbook, Smith came on late and started at nickelback.
"Every day it's competition," he said. "When we go against scout, we have good scout players, believe it or not. When we go good-on-good, you have to bring it every day because everyone is watching. There's a lot of competition going on out there day in and day out.
"I have friends at Georgia. How we practice here is completely different. We're physical. We tackle each other."
Calipari said it all comes back to recruiting. Whether it's Alabama or Kentucky, there are no promises made. There's no deal for starting time or shots taken, only the promise of competition. The NFL and NBA are "white elephants in the room," according to Calipari. The struggle for him and Saban is finding players who are willing to work for it.
"If you recruit a kid and you're promising him the world, how in the world are you going to coach him in that short a period of time to do that?" Calipari said. "You can't. You have to say, 'This is Alabama.' Without me being in the home, with those kind of kids you have to say, 'Look you have a chance, I'm not promising you but look who we have. Do you understand how hard it's going to be? Do you understand what it means? Are you up for that challenge?'
"It's the same thing here. It's all similar."
It's about setting up the right frame of mind early, Calipari said. When you're expecting a player to come in and compete right away, there's no time for getting on board; he has to jump into his seat before the train starts moving.
"Let me tell you why you have to get those points across -- because you're recruiting against guys that are telling them whatever they want to hear," he said. "In my humble opinion, again, to perform at Alabama you must earn the spot and not have it given to you. You have to fight like crazy to keep the spot and that it's not guaranteed, it's week to week, and you'll play in a way that they have a chance to win a championship. If it's not that way, you're not winning a championship, it's just not going to happen. You have to have everybody in a dogfight."
Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, a former Alabama player who spends plenty of time around the Crimson Tide football program, set it up differently. He said, "Good players make good coaches," and while it's the coach's responsibility to keep the team on track, it's also the job of veterans to get the newcomers to buy in.
"It comes down to recruiting, but then I think what it is, is players start taking ownership of the team," he said. "It was interesting when they won the first national championship interviewing some of those kids at the combine and how they took ownership and leadership, [accountability] and all of those things. When the team takes that approach, then when the freshmen walk in there, they figure out what it takes to be successful. It's a little bit like what happens when we draft defensive players here and they see [Terrell] Suggs and [Haloti] Ngata and Ray Lewis and [Ed] Reed and how they prepare and how they work and they go, 'This is how it's done.' "
To put it simply, it all comes back to having the right mindset. As Alabama retools for another run at the national title and Kentucky works to get back on top, both Calipari and Saban will be forced to manage young players' egos.
It's the double-edged sword of success: When you do well, players leave. Alabama likely will lose three-fifths of its offensive line, its leading rusher and its top cornerback to the draft. Kentucky already has faced similar struggles, and Calipari is perfectly content with it. In fact, it's a good problem to have.
"I don't beat myself up, I think it's the greatest thing ever," he said.
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