Nick Saban just won his third BCS National Championship in such a short time as a head coach in the SEC since 2000.
Saban is said to be the best in the business, and he embodies the coach you want your program to have in order to win championships. He’s proven it year after year, and he will continue to prove it as long as he coaches college football.
Is Saban a hard ass? Absolutely. He demands respect and accountability within his program and within his defensive schemes.
For this article’s reference, we’ll mostly be looking at his time in the SEC since 2000 when Saban went to coach the LSU Tigers from Michigan State. He was at LSU from 2000 to 2004. Saban went to coach the Dolphins from 2004 through 2006. He then landed in Tuscaloosa from 2007 until the present…and the rest is history.
Although this list could go on and on, here are five reasons Saban has dominated and will continue to dominate college football in the foreseeable future:
1. Recruiting: Ask anyone who knows anything about college football, and they will tell how important it is to recruit great high school athletes in order to get talent filtering through your system and program. In order to be competitive in the SEC, recruiting has to be a staple in your coaching success. It certainly has been for Nick Saban.
Since 2002, Rivals.com has been ranking high school prospects around the country. Obviously, along with individual player rankings, there are team rankings as well.
Since the inception of Rivals, Saban has signed better than a top-five class in the country in eight recruiting cycles.
While at LSU, he finished first overall in 2003 and second overall in 2004 in the team rankings.
And at Alabama, the recruiting did not stop; rather, it only got better. In 2007, Saban’s first year at Alabama, he finished with the 10th best class in the country. From that time on in the next four recruiting classes from 2008 until 2011, Saban signed the top class three times, with 2010 being the only non-number one class, as it was the fifth best class in the country.
Regardless of the number of players he signs, Saban always finds a way to get top prospects to believe in him and his system. He has proven it time and time again and year after year.
However, there has been much made about Saban’s over-signing, and it is up for much debate. In the past, he has run his program like a professional organization, running off the dead weight at the end of every year. However, with the SEC’s new rule that a coach can only sign 25 players per recruiting class, it could change the dynamic of his recruiting. This will be something to keep an eye on moving forward with Saban’s recruiting classes and how exactly that will affect his team.
Oh, and by the way, he has pretty much the unanimous No. 1 recruiting class across the board right now, with only a few weeks until National Signing Day.
If you want to read more about Saban’s evaluation in recruiting, check out this article on ESPN. It’s unreal, and it gives you an understanding of how these players are evaluated and recruited.
2. Player Development: Okay, after Saban shows he has the ability to get top talent on campus in the recruiting season, he has proven the ability to develop that talent. And here’s where Saban differs from a lot of other coaches (i.e. Mark Richt) in the country. It’s all about a coach having the ability to develop those players, and Saban has shown he can do that time after time.
Let’s take a look at a couple of older players on this year’s Alabama team and one from a year ago who were not as highly regarded as other “can’t miss” five-star players during their recruiting cycle:
Courtney Upshaw, OLB: Upshaw was the 131st overall player in the country in 2008. He was the 12th best linebacker in the country. Upshaw is a good example of development because big-time colleges and universities get a player like Upshaw in most recruiting classes who are big, fast and strong. However, Upshaw was arguably the best linebacker in the SEC this year next to Georgia’s Jarvis Jones. Upshaw was dynamic attacking the quarterback off the edge. Saban and his staff developed him from day one. He blossomed under the tutelage of Saban’s staff.
Dont’a Hightower, LB: Hightower was recruited from the state of Tennessee to Alabama, and he wasn’t even ranked in the top 250 players in the country. Go figure, right? This Alabama staff developed Hightower, and he will have a great NFL career because he knows how to play the game.
Marcell Dareus, DT: Dareus is a great example of how a program gets a good-sized, athletic defensive tackle who turns into a top-three NFL draft pick. Guess what Dareus was ranked coming out of high school? Well, he was a three-star, no-name recruit from Alabama. However, with the proper development (and God-given talent), Dareus progressed and became the No. 3 overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft.
I could go on and on about prospects at Alabama who have been developed to play at a high level by Saban and his staff. And don’t get me wrong – Alabama gets as many or more five-star studs as anyone in the country much like Trent Richardson, Julio Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick. But you have to develop those players, too.
Saban essentially has the best of both worlds: he has the ability to get top recruits to sign with Alabama, and he can develop those players as well or better than anyone in the country. That’s a lethal combination and absolutely two of the major reasons Nick Saban has won a lot of football games in his career.
3. Preparation: Nobody in the business or coaching profession prepares the way Nick Saban does. Saban boasts now three national championships, three SEC Championships and five SEC Western division championships from both LSU and Alabama. A true testament of how well a coach prepares his team is to look at the first game of the season and look at the bowl game records, because that’s real preparation.
Since 2000 in opening games of the season where Saban has more than a week or two to prepare for another team, he is 9-1, with his only loss coming against Virginia Tech while at LSU. Likewise, Saban boasts a 7-3 record in bowl games. Combined, Saban is 16-4 (.80) in games he has ample time to prepare for during the season. That’s very impressive, and I’ll bet there are not too many coaches who can hold a candle to those numbers.
Saban saved his best for last in this past National Championship against LSU. Throughout the season, LSU averaged over 38 points per game. A Saban-coached Alabama defense devised the perfect plan of attack against the Tigers, and it completely and utterly stifled their offense for the entirety of the game. Alabama might have kicked five field goals, but LSU only got five first downs the entire game.
4. Relentless Pursuit Of Perfection: Not many are driven more than Saban as a coach. From every aspect of the college game, from recruiting to in-game decision making, Saban wants perfection. He is what we like to call a control freak, and he has every aspect of his program running like a machine because of it.
Saban is as intense on the field as any coach will ever be, and his in-game decision making is right on cue. He demands perfection from his players and coaches, and he is absolutely not afraid to make you aware of that fact, even during or after a play.
But when you look at a school like Alabama that has a strong tradition of winning, it takes someone who is very strong-minded and fierce to withstand the pressure. Saban is that guy.
We can relate Nick Saban to Steve Jobs: Neither were probably the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, and both were pretty cutthroat to say the least. Yet, Saban and Jobs were unbelievably successful and brilliant at whatever they set their minds to.
5. Minimum Coaching Turnover: In this day and age of modern college football, a head football coach is lucky to keep a coaching staff together for a maximum of a couple years. There is a ton of lateral movements within the college ranks because of the small coaching circles in the game, and a lot of job offers come as a result of those small circles. That’s all good and well, and it will always continue to happen.
However, one thing Nick Saban has been successful at over his tenure in the SEC has been his ability to keep together a good nucleus for his coaching staff for several years.
For instance, from 2000 to 2004 at LSU, Saban had one of the best staffs ever assembled in college football. He was able to keep together then OC Jimbo Fisher, DC Will Muschamp and TE/Recruiting Coordinator Derek Dooley. As long as a coach can keep at a minimum the coordinators, he has a large chance to succeed – and succeed he did, winning a National Championship in 2003 with that staff.
When Saban took over at Alabama, he hired Major Applewhite to run the offense and Kevin Steele to run the defense. Applewhite was gone after a sub-par performance in year one, and Steele stayed on until Kirby Smart took over in 2009.
From 2009 through 2011, Saban was able to keep together Jim McElwain and Kirby Smart as his coordinators. Now, obviously, McElwain has taken the Colorado State job, and Smart could be getting a head-coaching gig in the near-distant future.
However, the ability to keep together a good nucleus of a coaching staff can breed success within a program. Another good example is the Florida coaching staff under Urban Meyer from 2005 to 2009. Meyer had the luxury of having Charlie Strong, Dan Mullen and a slew of other great coaches on that staff, and he kept them together. That’s a big reason Florida was able to win two National Championships in three years, in 2006 and 2008.
However, we’ll get to see how Saban’s coaching turnover now affects Alabama moving forward with McElwain’s departure and Smart’s seemingly one foot out the door for a head coaching gig.
Conclusion: So, whether you are an Alabama fan or not, you simply have to marvel at how good of a coach Nick Saban is, and how he has virtually dominated this great league. I, for one, am thankful Saban is in the SEC, and I look forward to seeing how he continues into the future.