TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban, who will turn 65 this season, is coming off another national title -- the Tide's third in the past five years and fourth in the past seven. Given all of the external factors that tug at college athletics in this day and age -- and that we're not in the era where top programs can just stockpile talent without any scholarship limits -- what Saban has done is arguably the most impressive run that any coach in the sport has ever had.
I spent the day in Tuscaloosa on Tuesday, and over the course of about an hour, Saban discussed a variety of topics. One of the big themes was about how he has managed to keep Alabama at an incredibly high level and sustain it from year to year.
FOX Sports: I know that every team is different from year to year. How different, if at all, is this group, coming off the national title, compared to other teams you've had that had just won championships?
Saban: The one thing I haven't seen with this group so far is, complacency is usually an issue when you have success. It's human nature when you do well, they think they're entitled. It works in a lot of different ways. I think when you win the national championship, it works throughout your team. Where human nature is to say, I did well. I got my quota this month. Now do I get some time off? Do I get a bonus? Do I get to go on a cruise? But it's not to keep trying to be the best. That's not necessarily human nature. It's not, "I'm gonna win again. I'm gonna be the best again." That's special.
Steph Curry is special in terms of the kind of competitor he is. We're always trying to build that kind of attitude in our players internally so that we don't have those issues. I really haven't seen that part of it with this team, where guys are like, "Why are we doing this? What are we going through offseason where it's so hard? Why are we practicing this long?" We've had that around here before after winning, after being successful. I haven't seen that with this group. But there's still a lot of challenges. There's challenges with leadership.
You know, leadership's a funny thing. Most people just say, "OK, if we've got leaders on our team, everything will be fine." Well, there's two parts of leadership. You've got to be a good leader -- you've got to be somebody that people want to emulate and care about the other people. But, the other guys that you have, have to accept their leadership. They have to respond to it. That's the chemistry that you never know how that is going to happen.
These things are ongoing.
FS: How much does it help you that this group just saw a team win a championship that came through after having an unsettled quarterback situation going into the season, and even into the season?
Saban: I think because we never promote that these things are necessary to be successful, like some people say, "I have to name a starter by, say, August 15." Well, I don't believe in that. I don't believe you name a starter until the starter wins the team. And I think our players think that.
I think our players feel like if we do what we're supposed to do, and what we're told to do, and everybody buys into it, we'll have a chance to be successful. And, because it's not a perfect world, everything does not work out perfectly for us, individually or for us as a team.
FS: How are you a different coach from when you were at Michigan State or even when you won your first national title at LSU?
Saban: I don't know. I can say this. From the beginning, I really talked an awful lot about winning. Over time, we talk a lot less about winning and a lot more about what it takes to be successful. And being the best you can be, rather than, "We won the game." Well, at LSU, we won the game on the Bluegrass Miracle and played horrible. And now nobody wanted to address the issues that we had in playing horrible, because we won, and we got the (stuff) kicked out of us the next week by a better team. The technical aspect of how you did always needs to be evaluated if you're going to be able to improve.
FS: What are the best ways you've found to keep people focused and locked-in?
Saban: Just keep talking to them and showing them how the good guys do it, and giving the examples about how other guys failed doing it. We had a guy talk to them the other day about how he had 15 employers -- some of the biggest employers in the country about what do you look for (in an employee)? And his whole thing was, "Is character a luxury?" That was the question.
Well, I remember the first thing was character and attitude. The second thing was ability to communicate. The 11th thing was where you went to school and the 13th thing was what your grades were. Then he showed (NFL) general managers interviewing guys at the Combine. Not one question was about football. It was all character-related. How are you gonna overcome adversity? What kind of leader are you? How do you affect other people? Then he shows a video of Steph Curry who was a one-star (recruit) and now he's the best player in the NBA.
It's always trying to develop the physiological disposition that you need to have to be successful and not assume and take for granted that everybody's got it.
FS: I know you're very hands-on as a head coach with technique in practice, but has this part of coaching, the mental aspect, become the most fascinating part of it for you?
Saban: The goal of the program here is to help a player have a better chance to be more successful in life because he was involved in the program and that really starts out with who you are. To me, that's a big part of it.
Look, I like coaching players when it comes to football and strategy and all that stuff too, but if they don't have the right mindset in how we have to go about this, then we've got a problem. I don't think I should have to dog-cuss every guy we've got on our team to get them to do what they're supposed to do. In fact my disposition is to stand up in front of the room and say, if you need to be dog-cussed, raise your hand so nobody has to do that. We're trying to get you to do it for your benefit, so that you see the value in being the best you can be and developing the habits, making the sacrifices and having the ability to overcome the adversities, understanding who I have to work with and then, will you try to be your best and commit to that?
I hear it at my house (as a parent): 'I don't feel like studying. I don't feel like getting up. I don't feel like going to work today.' So what? I'm interested in you making the choices to accomplish your goals. I don't really care about what you feel like doing. That's not gonna get it. I don't feel like practicing today. So what are we supposed to do.
Some of our conversation veered into how "success" is defined. Stemming from that, I asked how Saban keeps from getting complacent, since it appears to be rooted in human nature.
Saban: It's much more difficult to get guys to change. That's why companies that had a great year last year and won awards have a mediocre year this year. They know they have problems and things to fix but because they were so "successful" they don't fix them, and it ends up biting you in the butt.
The technical part of the game (in football) -- what's different, win or lose? And when I say the technical part of the game, I mean, did you do what you were supposed to do the correct way? What's different about that, win or lose? The results that you got justifies the means that you got there, even if it wasn't the correct way (because someone else on the other team screwed up). Or you got away with it because the guy you were playing against wasn't as good and couldn't take advantage of it. Eventually, when there is a good guy there, you're going to have a problem.
I tell the players this a lot. The scoreboard shouldn't affect how you play. The guy you're playing against shouldn't affect how you play. If you play to dominate the guy you're playing against, and assume that he's the best player you've faced, you're always challenging yourself. So why don't we just have that mindset as a player?
I brought up to Saban a quote I once heard from the legendary Wake Forest golf coach Jesse Haddock that "score is the result of execution."
Saban: Golf is a great example to me. Golf is a metaphor of life. I mean, every shot. You have this beautiful hole, this beautiful opportunity to get a good score. You hit a beautiful drive. Well, I don't know how many times I've been 114 yards from the hole and made double bogey.
Well, I hit a great drive, but it doesn't matter. It's only the next shot that matters. You could hit that in the water, which means now you have to overcome adversity. You put yourself in a hole and it's, "Can I get up and down and still make bogey?" But that's how life is. Sometimes you don't control it. You don't control the negative things that happen. But you still have to overcome them. You still have to manage it. You still have to react the right way. It's not the problem. It's how you respond to the problem that is the key to the drill. You've got to keep harping on this stuff all the time.
Saban tells me that in spite of having been a good baseball player and having good hands, which on the surface should translate into having the dexterity to be good around the greens, he isn't.
Saban: One of the easiest shots in golf is chipping. It should be the easiest. It's like throwing a ball or pitching pennies. It's easy. And I struggle with that, and the struggle is all mental. It's like every time I hit a shot and I have to chip, my thought is, '[Expletive], I have to chip."
It's a mindset that you are telling yourself that you're gonna fail, rather than just focusing on what you have to do to succeed and even though you may not do it well, eventually you will. If I'm I ever gonna get better at golf, I have to get past that. You could be a basketball player. I can't shoot foul shots. Why not? Some guys are great 3-point shooters, but they can't hit a foul shot. That's amazing to me. They can shoot it from 30 feet but can't from 15? How can that be? Its impossible.
It all goes back to one thing: mindset.