DAVIE, Fla. For the final period of the Saturday morning practice, Miami Dolphins first-year coach Nick Saban introduced his team to the initial situation-specific segment of the weekend minicamp.
The aim of the two-minute drill, a segment designed to be instructional at several levels, as are all things with Saban, was certainly simple enough. Start with the ball on your side of the 50-yard line. Cobble together a few first downs. Deftly move into scoring territory and come away with some kind of points.
There was, however, one considerable problem: Stringing together first downs, at least at this early stage of his team's development, is as daunting to the Dolphins offense as attempting to explain, say, string theory. In a performance about as gloomy as the tropical storm-induced clouds that scudded overhead, the unit rang up zero first downs during a frustrating drill. There were errant passes, shaky blocking and dropped balls.
Which elicited from the allegedly volatile Saban an emotional reaction, even stormier than the weather, right?
No first downs, but no fussing and fuming, either. Instead, Saban simply observed the proceedings, inventoried some mental notes, spoke quietly with his assistants and players, and adjourned practice. Despite his reputation as a martinet (perpetuated primarily by those who have never met him), Saban is more often the marionette master in a more benign sense, simply trying to make the right moves.
It is a demeanor suggesting that, if Saban's methods have been slow to sink in with his players, if his entreaties haven't yet registered with the guys on the field, at least the Big Guy Upstairs seems to be paying attention to the message.
How so? Because it became obvious, given what Saban said later, that God has pretty good ears and an even better memory.
"Every Sunday," noted Saban an hour after the practice, "my first prayer is to ask God to help me not to get angry. Now [wife] Terry, she's always telling me that my perception of myself and how other people see me are miles apart. But I don't think I'm that bad."
Alas, the football team Saban inherited, one that won a paltry four games in '04, might be pretty bad. At least right now. And in an NFL where impatience is perhaps more virtuous than quiet calm, given the inherent pressure for instant success, the reserve Saban demonstrated through two Saturday practices will eventually be tested. Chances are, at some juncture in his debut season as an NFL head coach, Saban will want to consider installing a direct hot line to heaven.
If first impressions count for anything, these two things were relatively obvious in the Saturday slice of minicamp: Saban, hardly an NFL novice despite moving into his first No. 1 job less than six months ago, can coach. Like all terrific coaches, he understands that the job, foremost, is about teaching. Second, with the dubious talent on hand, especially on the offensive side, he'd better be able to.
This is not a quick turnaround scenario into which he has stepped. Even in a league where the popular theory is that teams can go from worst to first in a short period of time, there is no "Extreme Makeover-NFL Edition," no equivalent to Ty Pennington and an army of construction workers showing up at a fixer-upper franchise and transforming it into a Super Bowl champion in seven days.
He won't address the pace at which he expects improvement heck, he hasn't even seen his team in pads yet, let alone in game situations but you don't have to go too deep into a conversation with Saban to know he is a pragmatist. He wears a straw hat in practice to block the sun but Saban isn't in Miami, in a job he accepted after rebuffing overtures from no fewer than seven teams during his head coaching tenures at Michigan State and LSU (he was also head coach at Toledo earlier in his career), to erect a straw house.
The problem is, when it comes to a foundation, the current Miami roster might have (to steal an NBA term) too many bricklayers. Which begs this question: Knowing that the phone would ring every offseason with NFL suitors trying to lure him out of Baton Rouge, growing increasingly desperate to do so every time he declined their offers, why now and why this franchise?
As the highest paid coach in the college game, Saban certainly didn't need the money, or the security. Given the way he was treated by the LSU administration and fans, he didn't need any more adulation. Unlike other college coaches, one never felt like Saban would ultimately be defined by whether he scratched the NFL itch.
Of course, you can't say that about every coach who moves from the college to the pro ranks. It was always clear with Steve Spurrier, for instance, that his trademark ego would compel him at some point to test himself as the highest level of the game. Spurrier sorely wanted to prove that his college system, his Fun-and-Gun offense, could be as prolific at the next level.
Conversely, Saban, who had been a defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns in the '90s under Bill Belichick, had already taken a bite of the NFL apple. In fact, he was more an NFL-style coach who incorporated the pro game into his college jobs. So after rejecting offers from the New York Giants, Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears, among others, in the last few years, it was curious that he so thoroughly embraced the Miami job when owner Wayne Huizenga targeted him as the guy he wanted.
Like all coaches, though, Saban was curious about what was around the next corner, and the Dolphins' offer came at a time when he felt he needed a new challenge.
"I came up through the ranks," said Saban, "feeling that the traditional career path for a coach was pretty much set. And that the final step was being an NFL head coach. But it got to a point with me where I kind of put that aside. I lost sight of that for a while. It just wasn't what drove me anymore. But you know what? Sometimes when you accomplish something really special, like when we won the national championship [at LSU], you're more relieved than anything else. And with that relief, I kind of realized that things just weren't going to be the same there anymore.
"Now, don't get me wrong, the people there were great to me. From the guy who owned some little crawfish shack up to the man who maybe owned the biggest business in the state, they were all great to me. They did everything they could. But there came a point where I looked back at the national championship [atmosphere] and thought to myself, 'We can't ever go back to that point again.' That last year at LSU, and this was all about me, not all the people there, I knew it couldn't be the same. There was no more fear of failure and that's not a good thing."
Rest assured, if the specter of failure is a motivational tool, then Saban has a whole Home Depot's worth of reasons to want to succeed with the Dolphins.
It is a proud and historically significant franchise one that commanded the attention of Saban, from a distance, years before he was ever offered the job but also a team that has fallen into disarray. And which has plummeted, in a dizzyingly brief period of turmoil, toward the bottom of the league's pecking order.
The abrupt retirement of tailback Ricky Williams last summer is a convenient excuse to explain the Dolphins' spiral from grace, of course, but there were other factors as well. Over the last few years, Miami has not drafted well, and often botched free agent deals. Virtually every move made to replace legendary quarterback Dan Marino has imploded. Miami rarely finished a season strong, whether it was under Jimmy Johnson or later, Dave Wannstedt, and the Dolphins haven't advanced beyond the first round of the NFL playoffs since 2000.
Make no mistake, there is much work to be done, and Saban understands that. He did not arrive offering key lime pie-in-the-sky promises. He noted Friday that he wants to have a team in 2005 that overachieves its modest expectations and lays the groundwork for bigger and better things.
That means hard work and Saban, a native of Fairmont, W.Va., who began changing tires in his father's gas station at age 11, knows all about that. There is a lot of elbow grease and WD-40 in his background. There is also a coaching pedigree, with his father's having founded the Pop Warner team for which Saban played, and then his having worked for some notable bosses. The man to whom Saban is most closely linked, Belichick, has called him the best and most complete coach he knows.
Oddly, in a session in which the interviewer refrained from first mentioning Belichick, because to suggest Saban learned everything he knows from the Patriots coach really does diminish his own accomplishments, Saban raised his name several times. There is a kind of redundancy to Saban, whose manner is surprisingly relaxed in private, and that permits some insights that Belichick rarely offers. Plus, in a business in which success is typically based on players' doing the same things over and over until the routine is second nature, redundancy is hardly a negative.
Saban speaks casually, and with his guard down, about his upbringing. About the time he spent at Forbes Field, watching the Pittsburgh Pirates, or of riding The Jackrabbit at old Kennywood Park. For the uninitiated, Kennywood is Pittsburgh's popular amusement park and, every summer, the Saban family would make the trip north for Croatian Day at the place. Given the roller-coaster ride this season figures to be, those endless hours Saban rode on The Jackrabbit or The Thunderbolt might prove time well invested.
No fewer than five times during the group interview he conducted following the Saturday morning practice, and then at least four times in a later private session, Saban employed the term "disposition" in virtually every connotation possible. He speaks, for instance, of the difficulties in assessing the Dolphins players without pads, because the team has not yet been in "a competitive disposition."
It is, though, his own disposition that has come under the most scrutiny in his brief tenure with the team. There are unsubstantiated tales of his short temper, of a curt and almost dismissive manner in dealing with people, of his uber-disciplinarian bent. There is, for sure, a laundry list of rules for players and staffers. Amazingly enough, though, it's the people outside the organization who seem most flustered by the Saban way.
"We get along fine," said defensive end Jason Taylor, one of the Dolphins' few stars. "And I think the reason is that Nick can be, well, kind of a jerk at times. Then again, I'm kind of a jerk sometimes, too. To tell the truth, I think [players] have been surprised at how much they like him. I mean, his reputation preceded him a little bit here, right? We all heard the stories. But you give him a chance, get to know him some, and he's really genuine. He's not going to have you, like, roaring with laughter, but he can be a funny guy. And he'll take some shots at himself. Most important, though, he can coach. And that's not hard to see even at this [early] point. He's on top of everything."
Indeed, every well-orchestrated and meticulously designed segment of the two Saturday practices began promptly at its allotted time. Nothing was cut short and nothing ran overtime. Saban spent much of his time with the secondary, an area with which he is eminently familiar, and which, with the Dolphins, might need all the top-flight tutelage it can get.
Back to the poorly executed two-minute drill. It was one of many tests that Saban will use to evaluate his players and himself. The patience he demonstrated might not be as obvious the next time around but, then again, the chances are good that neither will the sloppiness.
There is apt to come a time, probably even before the start of the season, when it appears that God has turned off his hearing aid. Or that he has simply decided to ignore Saban's supplication to keep him free of anger. For now, though, there is a reserve and a calm that suggests Saban is still in the teaching mode, a scholar more than a scolder. And for now, that's what the Dolphins seem to need.
"He has a way of getting things out of you that you're not even sure yourself that you are capable of doing," said rookie cornerback Travis Daniels, who played for Saban at LSU and who, at this early stage, is running with the first-unit defense. "But he also knows it [doesn't] happen overnight. He'll get this [team] straightened out, and he'll do it his way. But I think his way is going to surprise people who only know him by reputation."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.