Nick Saban, 7 Titles in, on Offenses, Defenses and Changes in College Sports
30th August 2021

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Around the time Bear Bryant was building the University of Alabama into a dominant force in college football, Nick Saban was a boy washing cars in West Virginia.

Back then, in the early 1960s, Saban did not want to be a football coach. But he traces the quest for perfectionism that has defined his coaching career to the service station, where his father would make him rinse and scrub automobiles until no streaks could be seen.

Now 69 years old, Saban is Bryant’s most celebrated successor, with a 170-23 record at Alabama. After the Crimson Tide’s national championship in January over Ohio State, he has more titles — one at Louisiana State and six at Alabama, where Bryant also won a half dozen — than any coach in major college football history. Under a contract extension that Alabama’s board recently approved, Saban is now signed through the 2028 season and is poised to become the first college football coach to earn more than $10 million a year before performance incentives.

Saban and the top-ranked Crimson Tide will open their 2021 season on Saturday against No. 14 Miami with a neutral-site showdown in Atlanta. But in his dimly lit office in Tuscaloosa one morning this month, with his championship rings set out on a coffee table, a relaxed Saban reflected on the longest stop of his career, the sport he so often seems to rule and the team he will lead in his 15th season at Alabama.

From time to time, the man known for scowling — sometimes even in victory — even smiled.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

When you got here in 2007, you hadn’t been anywhere else longer than five seasons. Did you think you would be here for at least 15 seasons?

I think everybody has career goals and aspirations and how they sort of see things working out professionally for them. It was always kind of my goal to be a coordinator, be a head coach in college but eventually be a head coach in the N.F.L. I guess I was working toward that goal and was just looking for the right opportunity out of college because I had several that I didn’t take.

When I took the job at Miami, it was a great job, a great organization, loved the people, loved Wayne Huizenga [who owned the Dolphins]. But I found that I really enjoy college coaching. I enjoyed coaching in the N.F.L. It was great, but you learn about yourself when you go through these kinds of experiences, and I kind of had it in mind after a little while there that if I ever got the opportunity to go back to a college, where you thought you had a chance to be successful, that might be a better path.

Miss Terry [Saban’s wife] likes college better. She’s more involved in the community and with our foundation and all those things. So anyway, once we went to the N.F.L. and you thought this was the goal but then you found out that maybe you’re best suited for something else — like, college. So when we had the opportunity to come back here, there was never another job, there was never another place that we were looking to go to. We look at every year here like it’s a challenge, it’s a new job.

You’ve got eight new starters on offense and a new coordinator. What do you think is going to be different?

We’re not really changing the system on offense, but I think the system always tries to adapt to the players that you have. If we have players that can do the things that we were able to do a year ago, then we’ll probably do a lot of those same things. But if we have some players that are capable of doing things a little differently, then we have enough flexibility in the offensive system to be able to adapt and change to help them.

Steve Spurrier told me that he thought you had realized that “a good passing attack can beat good defenses” and that maybe Alabama was now “Wide Receiver U.” Are you surprised Alabama’s public identity shifted so much?

I don’t know the year for sure, maybe 2015, but this new age of offense — with the spread and the R.P.O.s [run-pass options] and lots of screens, throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage, blocking downfield, taking advantage of the rules — made it much more difficult defensively. Even though we’ve never changed our philosophy of playing good defense, we also came to the realization that that wasn’t going to be the future. When you played a really good team who had a good passing attack and had good balance on offense and had a good quarterback, they were going to score points. And if you didn’t have an offensive system that was going to take advantage of the rules of college football, as well as the explosive, and have a chance to score points, you were probably going to struggle.

So we sort of shifted gears and changed philosophies. It was when Lane Kiffin came here, actually. Lane was a lot like me: old, pro style, run the ball, play-action passes, good drop-back game but never really was into the spread. And we said, “Hey, we’ve got to figure this out together.” Ever since that time, we just kept building it on with whatever coordinator that we had. It’s a combination of that and pro-style offense, pro-style quarterback, drop-back game, and it’s been pretty effective for us the last couple of years. But we’ve had really good players, too.

Are there are any philosophies of defense that you came up in your career with and, over the last five or 10 years, had to say, it doesn’t work anymore or is outdated? Have you discarded anything?

I don’t know that we’ve discarded things, but I think the way you implement defense has changed because of no-huddle and pace of play. I used to always call the whole defense — almost like the West Coast system on offense when they’re calling every play, every formation, every motion, and they’re very wordy.

Well, our defense was very wordy, too, because we were telling the players, “OK, here’s the front, here’s what you play on two-by-two, here’s what you play on the slot.” It was lots of work, and we struggled with no-huddle because we could never get the communication right.

So I said we’ve just got to make these one-word calls, and so just about our whole defensive system now is one-word calls. So the players have to relate to, “What is Apples? What is Badger?” And we kind of do it by conferences: certain things relate to the Big 12, certain things relate to the Big Ten, certain things relate to apples and oranges, we have that. We tried to categorize things for the defensive players, and you know there’s certain coverages that are really hard to play now.

It’s really hard to play Cover 2 when they’re throwing R.P.O.s; it creates too many run-pass conflicts for everyone. We still have Cover 2 and we play it some, like on third down when we don’t expect R.P.O.s, so we haven’t really eliminated anything. We’ve just had to tweak the way we implement a lot of the things that we did.

Mike Locksley, Maryland’s coach and a former offensive coordinator at Alabama, has said you spend off-seasons in research and development mode. What did you notice this off-season?

First of all, we analyze what we did well and what we did poorly last year. We want to have a point of emphasis for what we need to improve on with our own team, which may require tweaking systematically some of the things you do in certain situations, whether it’s third down, red zone, goal line, short yardage, whatever.

When you’re kind of a defensive coach like I am, you’re constantly looking at offense because you’re thinking, “What do they do that causes problems?” When you see those things, you go in and talk to the offensive guys and say, “Hey, I know we do this this way. But so-and-so is doing this, and it creates issues. Is this something that we should look at and research?” So they look at it and research it.

We analyze how we play bunch passes, how we play stacks, how do we adjust to motion. You know, we got a ton of formation in the boundary last year, and a lot of teams would put formation in the boundary and just motion back to the field and try to figure out what you’re in. We had to do some research on how we can do this better, and better has to be simpler.

How has your own approach to coaching changed over the years?

The biggest thing that has changed for me — and you might be shocked when I say this — is that I’ve actually become, through the years and through the experiences, a lot less outcome-oriented and a lot more process-oriented. I think that approach carries over to the players because then they become less outcome-oriented, and they’re more focused on process, they’re more focused on one play at a time, exactly what do I have to do and how do I have to do it, what’s going to help me be successful here, and they’re not looking at the scoreboard like we’ve got to win the game. They’re focusing on one play at a time.

We’ve got name, image and likeness now, so players can make money off their fame. There are people who want to see more changes in college sports. To you, what’s the red line?

I’m all for the players, but I’m for all players and I’m for all sports. I think there’s a lot of folks out there that see college football — college athletics — as a big business. It’s not really a business; it’s revenue-producing. Wayne paid so much for the Dolphins, he made so much every year, he sold it for a lot more than he bought it for, and that’s business.

In college, we revenue produce. We have 21 sports — I don’t know how many hundreds of student-athletes we have on scholarship — and most of those sports create no revenue. But the sports that create revenue make it possible for all of those sports to exist. We reinvest all the resources, all the income, we reinvest in the programs.

I hear people say all the time, “Well, you make a lot of money.” Yeah, but I create a lot of value.

There’s more money to reinvest because the revenue sports do very, very well, so that helps all of the other sports and all of the other opportunities that are created for all of the other sports. So when it comes to name, image and likeness, I’ve got no problem with that.

You know, players have always been allowed to work. They could have a summer job, they could make money. Less and less do because cost of attendance gives them extra money now, and we’re allowed to pay for their summer school, where years ago players weren’t on scholarship in the summer. Everybody chose to work, to make money so they’d have more money. But we didn’t have any other money that we got either; they just got room, board, tuition and books.

Their quality of life has improved to some degree. Name, image and likeness is a good thing for the players — it’s an opportunity for them to work, it’s no different than that. I guess I’ve been criticized for saying this, but opportunities also create some obstacles, maybe, that we haven’t had to deal with in the past, which is that it’s not going to be the same for everybody.

Everything in college has always been the same scholarship, the same cost of attendance, whatever it is, same benefits for when you’re here in terms of academic support or personal development or whatever it is. So it’s not going to be the same. Some guys are going to make more than others, and they’re going to have more opportunities. Some positions are creating more value than others, so how is that going to affect college football teams and players on teams?

We’ve talked to our players about that, so they understand that. I coached in pro football, so everyone didn’t make the same in pro football, everybody didn’t get the same benefits, everybody didn’t get the same opportunities for endorsements, and I’ve tried to explain that. But that is kind of what it is. I’m happy for the players to have the opportunities to do that.

So when you talk about what’s the red line, I think I can’t tell you what the red line is. I just know there’s only so much money to go around, so the more we spend in some ways, maybe you can have less sports. So now there’s less opportunities for other people in sports because if you’re paying players, then there’s only so much money. Therefore, how many players can you afford to pay, which would determine how many sports you can actually have?

I’m not opposed to paying players — I don’t want you to think that. I’m concerned, can we continue to do things the way we’ve always done it because there’s only so much money to go around?

You’ve won more championships than anyone. You’ll turn 70 on Halloween. You’ve got grandkids. But you just signed a contract extension. Why are you still doing this?

I enjoy what I do. I like the challenge. I’m not a sit around, do-nothing kind of guy. I like to be involved in things, I like challenges, and this provides tremendous challenges. I love the relationship that I have with the people in the organization, the players. I love to see the program help players be successful personally, academically and athletically so they have a better opportunity to be successful in life.

And I don’t want to stay here beyond my years and ride the program down. So as long as I feel like I can make a contribution in a positive way, to continue to have a great program for the players and that that’s helping them be successful and we have an opportunity to be successful because of that, I don’t think of age as an issue. I mean, how old’s Nancy Pelosi?

She’s older.

Yeah. Way older. Older than me, and probably has a more important job than me.

Anyway, as long as I feel like I can make a positive contribution in a positive way and do good things for the people in this organization, mainly the players, I enjoy doing this. I've been on a team since I was 9 years old, and sometimes I wonder, “What would life be like if you weren’t a part of a team, if you weren’t in a competitive situation?” And I know there’s a lot of competitive situations in business and a lot of things, but I haven’t experienced that.

But whenever I do quit, I’ll be looking for something like that. I’m not looking to be sitting on the side of the lake somewhere and just staring out into the water and wondering what’s happening.

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