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November 18, 2008

Saban's work is never done at Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. Nick Saban is a man in motion. Don't try to stop him. Just get out of his way.

There he goes, walking down a hall in the Mal Moore Athletic Facility with a purpose. He does everything with a purpose. Saban spies star sophomore linebacker Rolando McClain and stops to coach him up.

"When we call that blitz, you have to jam up in there," Saban says. "Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," says McClain, who nods and continues on his way.

Saban heads the other direction, resuming a gait that's almost a gallop. If you saunter, stroll or simply walk, Saban will leave you in his dust. He is headed to a meeting. And if there's one thing Saban loves, it's meetings. They dot his daily schedule, and his goal is to maximize every last tick of time.

Coaching is Saban's raison de etre. It's why God put him on earth. Saban's single-minded obsession often is misconstrued. Unable to relate or understand, outsiders label him a soul-less soldier who tramples those who impede his goal: building a championship team.

"Nothing good in life comes easy," Saban says. "You have to sacrifice."

Saban isn't a monster. He's a hard-driving man who is in pursuit of greatness. And that journey for football nirvana demands discipline, focus and dump-trucks full of hard work. For Pete's sake, this is a guy who had vertebrae in his neck fused in January to end years of pain and was back at work within hours of the operation.

"I love the college game," Saban says. "The NFL? It is too much about self-preservation. It's hard to get everyone on the same page. And the league is too media-driven. I enjoy the college game more.

"And I like what we are building here."

Saban granted Rivals.com unprecedented access last week staff meetings, practices, film sessions, speaking events as the Crimson Tide prepared to play Mississippi State. We even went along with college football's most famous coach to get a haircut.

Come along and see if you can keep up.

*** Wednesday, 9 a.m. ***

Nick Saban's cell phone rings. He glances at the caller ID. It's his daughter, Kristen, a high school senior.

"I wonder what she wants," Saban jokes. "She usually doesn't call unless she needs something. Hello, Krissy."

Saban nods and smiles.

"That's great," he says. "And what did you get on the other part of the test? OK. I will see you tonight, honey, OK? Bye-bye."

This is the Saban that's rarely seen. Here is the coach of the No. 1 team in America jumping smack-dab into the reality of fatherhood. Saban laughs, is even playful. But work beckons.

Saban and his staff spent Sunday, Monday and Tuesday implementing a game plan for Mississippi State. Saban knows the world thinks Alabama should whip the Bulldogs. But he's treating Mississippi State like the USC Trojans. Why not? The Bulldogs have won the past two meetings in the series.

He scans a schedule of the day's activities on his desk. Saban loves schedules almost as much as he loves meetings. His world is a nice, tidy box of order, structure and purpose.

"A lot of people think we work crazy hours," Saban says. "But we don't. I get here at about 7 each morning, and we all usually leave by 8 or so. But when we are here, we work."

There are no noontime workouts. Going out for lunch? Forget it. It's catered in each day. Need a snack? Stop by the "Saban store" in a room that connects his office and a conference room. There you'll find Golden Flake chips, crackers and a mini-fridge full of soft drinks. A big glass jar on an adjacent counter is stuffed with Little Debbie Oatmeal Pies. But don't even think about touching those Saban loves them.

Tight ends/special teams coach Bobby Williams steps in the office. He wants Saban to watch a video of a recruit.

Nick Saban has to go there's work to do.

*** Wednesday, 5:35 p.m. ***

Nick Saban is agitated.

His team his troops grab a knee and gather around him. Practice is over. It's dark, chilly and a little rainy. Wearing a red Alabama pullover, tan khakis and a fedora, Saban raises his hands and begins to speak.

"These guys are trying to sit on your season," says Saban, almost growling. "Are you going to let it happen? And we owe these guys. It's all in the details. You have to focus and take care of what's in front of you at that moment. If you don't, you're cheating yourself."

The team worked out in full pads Tuesday. Today is the last full-pads practice of the week; the Tide will work out in shells Thursday and have a walk-through Friday. Mississippi State will be here in three days. And everything is on the line for the Crimson Tide a No. 1 ranking, a shot at the BCS title game and a place in hound's-tooth lore alongside Bear Bryant's national championship teams.

But don't dare talk about that with Saban. Remember: It's all about focus.

Time and again this week, he utters the phrase, "What we have done matters but it really doesn't."

Saban practices what he preaches, refusing to wear the national championship ring he won with LSU in 2003.

The players sprint off the field for a quick post-practice film session called "last reel," where players are asked to call out assignments and formations of the upcoming opponent. It's a way to leave one final impression on their brains before they leave.

Nick Saban has to go there's work to do.

*** Wednesday, 6:17 p.m. ***

Nick Saban is thinking.

He's in his office, his sanctuary. On a table adjacent to his desk sits a game ball in a glass case, given to Saban by Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas to commemorate Saban's first NFL victory Sept. 11, 2005.

Near that is a Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Trophy won when Saban was at LSU. On top of a bookcase behind his desk, Saban has helmets from Alabama, the Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns and Houston Oilers, along with a picture of Eddie Robinson. A fat binder labeled "Practice Schedules 2008" rests on a circular table.

Sitting here before meeting the media after practice, Saban frets that his defensive line is hurting. And he's not sure if backup running back Roy Upchurch will be able to play.

"We are at that time of year when we are wearing down up front," he says. "I don't think Roy will play. [Defensive tackle Terrence] Cody can't really move. He has no short-area quickness. People still can't block him, but he has trouble getting off blocks."

Saban admits his rehab project is way ahead of schedule. No one anticipated a run at the national championship in his second season in Tuscaloosa, especially coming off a 7-6 debut that featured the Tide losing its last four regular-season games. Saban brushes a hand over his hair and stares at the floor.

"We have to keep these guys going," Saban says. "We have played some physical teams. The grind of the season is starting to show a bit on us. It's important to keep them focused on what's in front of them. They have to worry about just dominating the player in front of them, imposing their will. And instead of telling them to play for 60 minutes, we need to tell them to just play hard for the 5-6 seconds each."

Age has softened Saban to a degree. Now 57, he no longer rips every player who jumps offside, drops a pass or just goofs up.

"I have learned," Saban says. "We still may need that guy to go back on the field and perform. He has to feel good about himself. I tend now to rub a guy on the back of the neck.

"If I need to yell, I usually try to wait until after a game."

Around the office, Saban remains calm while preparing for Mississippi State. Talking in a cool tone, Saban underscores his point by inflecting key words.

"Why did you get on that guy?" Saban says to an assistant during a staff meeting. "Next time, let me handle it, OK?"

And Saban doesn't need words. Nothing says "I'm disgusted" better than a sharp glance, a roll of the eyes or his cobra stare.

Assistant athletic director for football Jeff Purinton tells Saban the media is waiting.

Nick Saban has to go there's work to do.

*** Thursday, 10:29 a.m. ***

Nick Saban is sipping coffee at the head of a long conference room table.

It's almost 10:30 a.m., time for Alabama's daily staff meeting. If you are part of the pulse of Crimson Tide football, you are sitting in this room.

Saban's staff rings a large table. There's Kevin Steele, Jim McElwain, Joe Pendry, Kirby Smart, Williams, Curt Cignetti, Burton Burns, Bo Davis and Lance Thompson. Football operations director Mike Vollmer is by Saban's side. Support staffers line the outside walls, which also include a poster with the score of last season's losses to Mississippi State and Louisiana-Monroe emblazoned with the words "Work, Commitment, Perseverance."

"The players have one of those hanging in their lockers," Saban says. "They can take it down if we win on Saturday."

Saban never misses a motivational trick. One included the logo of each Alabama opponent printed on a square, plastic box. If the Tide wins, players affix their signature to the box if they feel they played a role in the victory. The blocks are displayed on a wall leading to the practice field for the players to see as they pass by.

There is no mistaking who is in charge: It's the guy in red Alabama golf shirt, blue slacks and loafers with no socks. Saban adjusts his glasses, looks down at a note pad and runs down details of today's practice, which starts at 3:30 p.m. Of course, that practice will be preceded by a meeting.

For Saban, practices are about getting maximum reps at a quick tempo. And some of the practice features what Saban calls "good on good." Saban doesn't think his starters get enough quality repetitions in practice, making it necessary to line up the first-team offense against the first-team defense for several plays each practice.

That's the paradox of success. The moment you stop to enjoy it, you are in trouble. You have to keep moving forward. It's not what you have done that's important. It's where you are going.
Alabama coach Nick Saban.

Again, Saban frets about his team's mental and emotional well-being.

"I have seen the Eagles about 20 times in my life," Saban says. "Those guys sing the same songs over and over. They have to be sick of them. But they still do it. We need to come up with ways to keep things fresh for our guys."

The staff reviews where it stands in recruiting. At one end of the room, the names, heights, weights, hometowns and 40 times of Alabama's top targets are neatly aligned on rectangular cards by position. Saban briefs the staff on the recruiting calls he made the night before. He also quizzes staff members on the status of other prospects and gets an update on who will be on campus for visits this weekend.

A screen on one end of the room is lowered. It's time to watch film of yesterday's practice. And it doesn't take long for Saban to get angry with the look the scout team is giving.

"What is that guy doing?" Saban says. "The kid didn't even drop into coverage. We can't have this. The guys on the scout team have to give us a better look than this. This is terrible. We need to talk about this."

The staff clears the room. Saban remains to watch film of recruits, scribbling notes and making grades about prospects on a form. A secretary enters the room to remind him of a meeting he has with Nike representatives.

Nick Saban has to go there's work to do.

*** Thursday, 6:37 p.m. ***

Nick Saban is sitting in a salon chair with an apron on.

It's time to trim his hair, but it must be fast. Saban has to be at his weekly radio show at Buffalo Wild Wings on McFarland Road at 7 p.m.

"Don't give me that chair," he says. "I want the one I had before. That's where I sat the last time, and we beat Tennessee."

The workers at Headstart Hair Care, just outside of Tuscaloosa in Northport, Ala., seem unmoved by the presence of the state's most famous citizen. Saban is just a guy getting a haircut and he has been here before. But the few customers here at this late hour are understandably shocked to see Saban stride through the door. And it doesn't take long for an older man to strike up a conversation about an encounter he had with Bear Bryant years ago.

Saban smiles and plays along. It seems everyone has an Alabama football story, including the woman cutting his hair. Saban enjoys the banter, sharing the fact he has an aunt who attends all of Alabama's games and always has play-calling suggestions.

Saban places two $20 bills near the register and heads for the door. Cedric Burns, a long-time member of Alabama's support staff who was hired by the Bear himself, waits behind the wheel of Saban's black Mercedes to whisk him away.

The scene at Saban's weekly radio call-in show at Buffalo Wild Wings is like a rock concert. In the mob scene, Jane from Northport is given the microphone and makes more of a statement than asking a question, gushing about how proud she is of Coach Saban. Vince from California calls in to wish Coach Saban the best. Saban even is posed questions submitted from the Internet, with Billy in Decatur wondering why Javier Arenas has trouble holding onto the ball. Saban never misses a beat.

During breaks in the show, which is broadcast to other BW3s across the state, Saban wades into the crowd to sign autographs. Afterward, Saban is mobbed as he heads for the door. Fans envelop him, shoving footballs, helmets, jerseys, even their babies at him. Two Tuscaloosa police officers serve as muscle men to help Saban navigate the crowd. Cedric Burns also does his part, politely asking fans to let the coach through because he has to make recruiting calls tonight. It works.

Still, it takes Saban more than 30 minutes to make it out the door. Once in his car, Saban is given a police escort complete with flashing lights.

Nick Saban has to go there's work to do.

*** Friday, 11:43 a.m. ***

Nick Saban is slipping on a sport coat and fixing the knot in his tie.

An officer with the Alabama State Police is waiting to drive him to a "Nick at Noon" function for Tide Pride boosters at Tuscaloosa's Indian Hills Country Club.

"I'm not sure what I'm going to say to these people," Saban says.

On the way out of the office, a few autograph-seekers lurk. They always wait for Saban. During the ride in the unmarked police car, Saban sits shotgun and doesn't say a word, instead furiously making notes.

The parking lot is packed with Alabama worshipers. Suddenly, a pickup truck backs out in front of the police car.

"You should have thrown the siren on for that guy," Saban kids the officer. "You can't let that go on."

Saban enters the country club through a back door, winding by some offices and a room filled with older women playing bridge. The applause starts before Saban even hits the big ballroom. When Saban enters, everyone stands and applauds. Some cheer. It's as if royalty has entered the room. And, really, that's what Saban is in these parts.

Saban stands behind a small lectern at the front of the room and begins speaking. He may not enjoy these functions, but he's good at them. Saban is a small man, but his presence fills the room. In staff meetings at the office, he sometimes speaks in a soft, almost inaudible, tone. But here Saban's voice booms. He gestures vigorously with his hands and seemingly makes eye contact with everyone in a performance that any polished politician could admire. The man is a leader, the ultimate alpha wolf who engages, charms and even intimidates in this setting.

Today, Saban regales his adoring flock with a story about the inner wolves that lurk inside everyone. One wolf embodies positive traits, the other negative traits. Which one will grow inside each of us? Saban asks. The one we feed.

"And that's what we are trying to tell our players," Saban says. "We need to stay humble and work hard."

A question-and-answer session follows, quickly morphing into a pep rally. It doesn't take long for someone to ask Saban a question about a comment he made on his radio show at Buffalo Wild Wings. In an attempt to stress the importance of the crowd for Saturday night's game, Saban had said he "didn't give a [expletive] who Alabama is playing; the fans better be in the stands and be there for the players."

"I apologize for using the word I did," Saban says. "But I was trying to stress how much we need people like you to help get us through."

Nick Saban has to go there's work to do.

*** Saturday, 8:23 a.m. ***

Nick Saban is pacing.

Last night, the team watched the new James Bond movie at the Cobb Theatre. When it returned to the Hotel Capstone on Paul W. Bryant Drive, the offense and defense met, had a snack and bed check was at 11.

Game day is here. Saban and his staff meet at 8:30 a.m., and breakfast is served at 10:30 a.m. Every detail of this day is spelled out on a tiny laminated card that director of football operations Mike Vollmar has made and distributed.

At 11 a.m., the team takes a walk. It's all about staying up and about. Saban doesn't want his players lounging around their rooms for hours before the game. Upon returning, there are position meetings. At 2:15, religious services are offered. Catholics meet in the Fitz-Bagby room; non-denominational services are held in the Gayle-Murphy room. After a pregame meal at 2:45, the players have almost two hours to relax before a team meeting at 4:10. Buses depart for Bryant-Denny Stadium at 4:35, and the team conducts its "Walk of Champions" at 4:45.

The last item on the itinerary is most important: "6:47 Kick-Off: Beat Mississippi State!!!!!!!!!"

Nick Saban has to go there's work to do.

*** Saturday, 9:57 p.m. ***

Nick Saban is jogging.

Heading toward the tunnel in the wake of a methodical 32-7 win over Mississippi State, Saban makes a U-turn to salute the fans. He holds a No. 1 finger up and points at the crowd. A roar erupts.

His players, his team, did it. Alabama is 11-0, fighting through a sluggish first half to bury the Bulldogs behind outstanding special-teams play and a stifling defense. But there is no post-game glow for Saban. True to form, his focus already has shifted to the next task: a Nov. 29 home game against archrival Auburn. After that, a date with Florida in the SEC Championship Game lurks. But Saban doesn't dare go there.

"That's the paradox of success," Saban says. "The moment you stop to enjoy it, you are in trouble. You have to keep moving forward. It's not what you have done that's important. It's where you are going.

"We aren't at our goal yet."

Nick Saban has to go there's work to do.

He has a national championship to win.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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