DALLAS – Nick Saban, teacher, guru and Zen master to athletes and coaches alike, likes to control one thing. That would be everything. It’s not that he won’t seek feedback and it’s not that he won’t delegate but there’s not one thing related to his football program that he doesn’t touch, guide and to a large degree control.
“People see the product. They don’t see the process,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who coached defensive backs for Saban for five seasons in East Lansing.
“He always says, ‘If you’re not coaching something, you’re letting it happen.’ You better coach them how to come out of a locker room. You better coach them how to come to a press conference. Maybe you even coach them how to put on their helmet. You better dive into everything.”
Mentor and student will meet this week when Alabama and Michigan State play in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Then again, it’s rare for Saban to coach a game and not find himself opposed a former assistant.
There are now three other head coaches in the SEC who worked for Saban at some point in their career: new Georgia coach Kirby Smart, Florida’s Jim McElwain and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp (also recently of Florida). Others include Dantonio, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, the Dallas Cowboys’ Jason Garrett, former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley and former Denver coach Josh McDaniels.
Smart, who has worked for Saban for 11 years over three stops (LSU, Miami, Alabama), said he has seen him change “from a ball coach to more of a Zen master.”
I know. You hear, “Nick Saban,” and the last thing you think is “meditation” and “spiritual balance.”
Smart said Saban’s methods suggest, “I’m going to affect players more mentally than I am with X’s-and-O’s.”
The most important thing Saban taught him?
“How to compartmentalize,” Smart said. “You have all these boxes with all of these jobs you need to do them all really good within two hours of each other. You go from one meeting about a game plan to another meeting about recruiting to another meeting about academics. And in the middle of it all, maybe somebody gets arrested. But deal with each issue as it comes up. Don’t get overwhelmed by all the stuff you’re dealing with. He’s a master of that. He’s a master of psychology with the players. He’s changed a lot from the first time I met him at LSU.”
Saban has won six SEC titles and four national championships, with a chance for a fifth. One more and he will tie the all-time leader, Bear Bryant.
There is nothing particularly revolutionary about his schemes. His brilliance is in his management abilities, player development and mandating perfection (or as close as possible).
He can be strung pretty tight. Hurricane Saban has been known to blow through Tuscaloosa on occasion.
But, “He’s an excellent teacher, if you can muffle out all of the yelling and screaming,” said Michigan State defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett, who played for the Spartans when Saban was the secondary coach. “Great attention to detail.”
Smart says Saban’s anger has been misunderstood.
“When he’s critical of coordinators, coaches, players, it’s never personal,” he said. “He starts the conversation with (the problem). It’s never about you.”
He added that Saban uses each day, “as a learning tool for everybody. Whether he learns something from dealing with you guys (media), or from dealing with a player, he shares it.”
So why can’t everybody do it? Are Saban’s methods that complicated, or is he just smarter than everybody else?
“It’s really hard work, and it’s a grind,” Smart said. “It’s having the full support of the athletic department and the president and an unlimited budget to get what you need. He gets every competitive advantage that he can think of.”
Saban loves talking about the steps in his “process”: The vision, the procedure, the daily discipline to make it work, regardless of circumstances encountered along the way.
Most coaches have a similar philosophy. What they don’t have is Saban’s resume – or resources, power or job security. That’s why it’s so difficult to replicate.
I asked Saban what’s the best advice he could give Smart going into the Georgia job. His answer wasn’t: “Be me.”
“Be your own man,” he said. “Do things the way you feel they need to be done. It’s important to establish your principles and values so everybody understands the expectations you have. It’s coming from your heart. It’s who you are. That’s what I tell all the guys — Jim McElwain, Will Muschamp, Jimbo Fisher. Kirby will do a fantastic job.”
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