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August 20, 2012
Alabama's Nick Saban has established a total-control, detail-oriented, evaluation-to-graduation system, and now that the Tide has won its second national title in three years, the imitators have arrived
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August 20, 2012

The Sabanization Of College Football

Alabama's Nick Saban has established a total-control, detail-oriented, evaluation-to-graduation system, and now that the Tide has won its second national title in three years, the imitators have arrived

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In the 2010 Iron Bowl the Tide gagged away a 24-point lead in a 28--27 loss to eventual national champion Auburn. As the game slipped away, Moawad tried to get linebacker Dont'a Hightower to rally the defense, but Hightower didn't feel he was the right man for the job. The following off-season Moawad and Hightower revisited the situation, and Hightower realized he should have done more. In 2011, Hightower and his fellow veterans accepted their leadership roles. The defense allowed only nine touchdowns all season and pitched a shutout against LSU in the BCS title game.

As he has during past preseason camps, Saban has brought in speakers—at significant expense—to highlight various lessons. Saban can preach accountability, but the message hits harder when former basketball star Chris Herren explains how his drug habit cost him his professional basketball career. Saban can ask his players to stick to their guiding principles, but that won't mean as much as it does coming from former amateur boxer Dewey Bozella, who served 26 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit and who, when offered his freedom in return for an admission of guilt, declined and waited to be exonerated. "Probably one of the toughest things for these coaches to do is convince their administrations that the investment in these other areas is important," Moawad says. "The athletic director says, 'Well, isn't that your job?'"

Alabama has given Saban everything he has asked for, and the school has reaped a huge return. During Saban's tenure the Crimson Tide has completed a massive expansion project that raised Bryant-Denny Stadium's seating capacity from 92,000 to 101,000. According to data reported to the U.S. Department of Education, in the last full school year before Saban arrived (2005--06), Alabama football made $44.4 million and spent $16.7 million. In the 2010--11 school year Alabama spent $31.6 million, but it made $76.8 million.

Can Saban's system be replicated at a school that generates about one tenth the revenue that Alabama generates? McElwain, the former Alabama offensive coordinator, will soon find out, because Colorado State totaled $7.7 million in football revenue in 2010--11.

McElwain contends that some facets of the Process require little money. It doesn't cost him anything to fill out an 18-month master calendar similar to the one Saban keeps at Alabama. It costs Colorado State a pittance more to print the individual job descriptions for each employee in the football program. And it costs nothing for McElwain to draw a picture of a bus on the grease board in the staff meeting room, on which he can write an employee's initials inside the bus anytime that person tries to pass blame for his own failure to someone else. Throw a co-worker under the bus and you ride the bus of shame. "In any business organization, whether you have a bunch of money or not much money, the people are the difference," McElwain says.

Saban agrees. He remembers taking over as head coach at Toledo in December 1989 and asking for more money for academic advising for his players. He got $25,000. "We hired one person," Saban says. "One lady. And she did a hell of a job."

Still, the Process requires funding. Like Saban, McElwain hired Moawad to provide mental conditioning. McElwain knew the request would seem odd, but Rams athletic director Jack Graham approved the expense. Meanwhile, those donors Florida State's Fisher hit up when he got the job in 2010 have opened their wallets. The school is building a dorm that will house a large number of football players, and Fisher—who has moved practices to 5:30 a.m. to dodge Tallahassee's frequent afternoon thunderstorms—proudly notes an artist's rendering of an indoor practice facility that sits in his office. The school will break ground on the facility in December and plans to open it by preseason camp in '13. "Everybody thinks it's right here," Fisher says, pointing out his window at Doak Campbell Stadium. "Or that it's the X's and O's. That's the last part of it."

Even programs that don't want to completely Sabanize have used some of his principals. After Texas went 5--7 in a disastrous 2010 season, Brown decided to revamp his staff. He had seen his offensive line get abused that season, and he knew the unit needed better coaching. Still smarting from the way Alabama's defensive line whipped the Longhorns up front in the '09 BCS title game, Brown also decided to change his defensive line coach. Brown hired offensive line coach Stacy Searels from Georgia and swiped defensive line coach Bo Davis from Saban's Alabama staff. Searels and Davis knew one another well—on Saban's '03 LSU staff, Searels coached the offensive line, and Davis was an assistant strength coach. "They have such cohesiveness when it comes to practice and working their guys together with drills and trying to compete," Brown said. "I really felt like it was a win-win for us. They've both done a remarkable job of shoring up our lines of scrimmage in only a year."

Saban's influence has spread beyond the programs that have tried to copy his formula. Competitors have changed their styles to compete in a league dominated by Saban's current program and his former program. When Saban came to LSU in 2000, Steve Spurrier's pass-happy Florida teams still dominated the SEC. In his first two games against Spurrier, Saban lost by a combined score of 85--24. He knew his defense would have to get better to beat Spurrier's teams, and he set about improving that side of the ball through recruiting. After the '01 season Spurrier left for the Washington Redskins, and when he returned to the SEC with South Carolina in '05, he found a league dominated by defense—thanks to the influences of Saban and Auburn's Tommy Tuberville. Spurrier had limited success in his first few seasons in Columbia, but his teams began making school history after he scrapped his beloved Fun 'n' Gun and switched to a run-heavy zone-read offense that hogged the ball and allowed his stingy, athletic defense to rest between possessions. Though the schemes differ, the underlying philosophies of defensive dominance and offensive ball control are reminiscent of Saban's model at Alabama.

Is there an approach that can beat Saban's system? The cyclical nature of college football suggests so, but Saban's holistic Process is less susceptible to gimmicks and schematic ingenuity. Saban finds the most talented players with the best mental makeup; trains their mind, body and soul; and then unleashes them. Most likely, the coach who topples Saban will have his own process. Maybe that coach will be one of Saban's former assistants, tweaking Saban's system to suit his own personality. Or maybe Saban will keep on winning because he is the only one who can truly master the Process. "You have to pay the price for success up front," Saban says. "Everybody wants to do it. Not everybody is willing to do what they have to do to do it."

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