While Saban has always surrounded himself with coaches whose X's and O's acumen allows them to make the right calls on game day—just look at his budding coaching tree—the true success of his system hinges on the selection of players and the way they are trained once they arrive on campus. That is why Saban's system can endure when schemes can't, and it is also why several programs have made big bets that it can be duplicated.
Every player currently recruited by Alabama, Florida and Florida State gets graded using a similar list of criteria. Coaches calculate the grades by scoring each recruit based on three sets of criteria: character/attitude/intelligence, position-specific critical factors and a height/weight/speed chart. On Saban's grading scale the critical factors for a cornerback are:
• Can he judge the ball?
• Can he play man-to-man?
• Can he tackle?
The ideal height for a cornerback is between 6 feet and 6'2". The ideal weight is heavier than 180 pounds. The ideal speed is less than 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Saban is quick to point out that these are not firm requirements. For example, Javier Arenas, who was recruited by Mike Shula and inherited by Saban when he first came to Alabama, was only 5'9", 198 pounds, but he helped the Crimson Tide win the 2009 national title with two picks in the championship game. Saban says he would have recruited Arenas because he scored high on his critical factors and in the character/attitude/intelligence department.
Those evaluation forms didn't originate with Saban. They came from Don James, who coached Saban at Kent State and made Saban a graduate assistant while he killed a year waiting for his wife, Terry, to graduate. (Saban intended to go into the automotive business afterward, but once bitten by the coaching bug, he changed course.) James, who later went on to win six Pac-10 titles at Washington, borrowed the idea from former Colorado coach Eddie Crowder, who forbade his assistants from watching film of recruits and required them to grade based on in-person observation and discussions with high school coaches. At Kent State, James tweaked the criteria to suit his own preferences. "We were looking for guys who could start right away," James says. "We weren't sure we were going to be around for two or three years."
Saban borrowed another key piece of philosophy from James. When James became the head coach at Kent State midway through Saban's career as a defensive back, James beefed up the academic support system for his players. "He really was into the personal, motivational, moral development," Saban says of James. "There was a belief there that who you are mattered in terms of how successful you were going to be or how you played." Having tutors and an academic adviser made staying eligible easier for the players, and it made for fewer academic headaches for James. By the time Saban took over at LSU, many major athletic programs had an academic-assistance unit—a group of advisers, counselors and tutors that support athletes—but he considered LSU's inadequate. He soon hired more personnel and spearheaded the drive for a $15 million, 54,000-square-foot academic center, which opened in 2002. When he arrived at Alabama in '07, Saban also beefed up the academic unit. His most recent project is a $9.1 million weight-room renovation scheduled to open in January.
While a defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns from 1991 to '94, Saban worked for another critical mentor, Bill Belichick, who not only gave Saban a master course in defensive philosophy, but also taught Saban how to get the most out of his staff and players. Saban took note of the sign Belichick hung in the Browns' complex. It said DO YOUR JOB. Saban loved it because Belichick clearly defined the expectations for every employee in the organization. "Everybody says, 'Be accountable,' but sometimes nobody ever tells you exactly what the expectation is," Saban says. "Bill was good at defining what he expected from everybody, and everybody buying in. Then the team had a chance to flourish because of it." Every year Saban provides everyone who touches the program with a list of responsibilities and expectations, from defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to media-relations director Jeff Purinton. Smart can accept the occasional tongue-lashing because he knows what Saban expects of him. "Is he demanding? Yeah," Smart says. "He requires you to do your job. And I appreciate that."
Though it may come as a shock to many, Saban is more comfortable than most of his colleagues in admitting what he doesn't know. In his quest to train the whole player, he realizes he can't address the mental aspect of the game as well as a sports psychiatrist. When he was head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Saban hired Trevor Moawad, the director of performance at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to work with his players. He now uses Moawad as a consultant at 'Bama. While Moawad's efforts don't provide empirical data—a change in attitude can't be quantified like an increase in bench press—Saban and the players have noticed results.