Nick Saban outcoached himself on the defensive side of the ball Saturday night, taking a bunch of inexperienced defensive players and whipping arguably the best offense in the Big Ten, and shutting down unquestionably its best quarterback, Denard Robinson. Saban coached Alabama to a defensive performance exceeding even that of last year’s BCS championship game, where the Tide’s defense annihilated LSU’s offense, not even allowing progression past midfield until midway through the fourth quarter. The Rematch, as it was dubbed, was easily the Tide’s best defensive performance since Alabama rattled Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta and the Miami Hurricanes in the 1992 championship game so thoroughly that Torretta could be seen at the line of scrimmage trying to take the snap from his guard. Both outings were defensive performances for the ages.
When the Tide lined up against LSU last year, Saban had a group of proven defensive stars, including a handful whose season will start next week with the National Football League. They were a talented bunch who played up to the level of their talent, individually and as a cohesive, well-coached unit. The Crimson Tide defense swamped LSU’s offense like a Gulf coast hurricane; a perfect storm of talent and coaching and experience.
The defensive group that whipped Michigan Saturday night had only a few proven players. To perform as well as they did in the first game of the season, a game that necessarily allows very little chance to prepare for all the schemes and wrinkles an offense might try, can only have been the product of coaching genius. Michigan’s quarterback, Denard Robinson, a Heisman Trophy finalist last year and a favorite to win it outright this year, was not even the most effective quarterback on the field Saturday night, and it wasn’t because his counterpart at Alabama was innately more talented. It was because Alabama’s defense came exquisitely prepared for whatever Michigan and Robinson had up its sleeve.
It’s been a remarkable run for Alabama, and particularly for its defense, and especially for Nick Saban. Alabama’s defense set the standard for game preparation in last year’s BCS championship game, and then exceeded its own standard the very next turn out of the gate.
Kudos to Saban. He’s proved he can coach as well as he can recruit. When guys like Julio Jones and Javier Arenas and Rolando McClain and Mark Ingram started showing up in Tuscaloosa, there was little doubt Saban could recruit. In the early days of his regime, when the Tide lost games it should have won to, among others, Louisiana Monroe and Utah (in a bowl game his second season), there were justifiable doubts about his coaching ability. The metric for determining whether a guy can coach is whether his team wins the games it’s supposed to win—games where his team’s talent level is obviously higher than the other team’s. When the talent is there, but the team loses anyway, it’s on the coach. Saban went 6-6 his first season. But losses like Louisiana Monroe and Utah that aren’t supposed to happen just don’t happen anymore. Saban’s got a team full of his own recruits now, and they all are thoroughly indoctrinated into his system. The only team could stop the Crimson Tide right now is the Crimson Tide.
How did Saban get there? His strategy was two-fold. First, he recruited blue-chip prospects, selling them on the idea they could get in on the bottom floor of a once-proud, but rebuilding football program. He was able to promise them playing time right off the bat (and copious television exposure attendant to the program’s national prestige), because there were huge talent holes to fill. Enough bought in that the talent quickly improved to a level that where the Tide’s players were at least as good as the players on the teams they would face during the season.
Next, he devised a coaching system ingenious in its simplicity. His “system” (as he and his players refer to it) is to figure out where a kid’s talents could best be leveraged to help the team, and then to teach the player in exquisite detail every discrete task he would be expected to perform as part of his particular job. He developed defensive and offensive schemes that were rather ordinary, but easy to learn and teach. Then every guy had it repetitively drilled into him what he was expected to do for whatever play or situation he found himself in. He had only to worry about himself, but if each guy exclusively concerned himself with doing his job to the best of his ability (and the ability was taken care of at the recruiting stage), the result was inevitable: there would be victories, and lots of them. His system is essentially the same as was John Wooden’s system at UCLA. The mantra is for the individual to concentrate on doing the job at hand without worrying about overall team results. The results will take care of themselves if everyone does their job, and it’s the coach’s job to ensure that the guy next to you does his. The strategy turns on relentlessly working the players so they learn everything about their craft as it pertains to their particular job, and to develop their latent talents (speed, strength, mental and physical agility, etc.) to the utmost level attainable.
Once the victories started rolling in, the blue-chippers he’d recruited became stars, and the multi-million dollar NFL contracts started rolling in as well. More than a few players left as soon as they were able, i.e., after their junior season, but Saban didn’t mind. It just made reloading with more blue-chippers that much easier. Saban was one of the first of college football coaches to realize and dispassionately exploit the status of big-time college football as the NFL’s farm league (his predecessor at Alabama in the nineties, Gene Stallings, a former NFL coach, was pretty good at it, too, and well ahead of the curve in that regard). Saban started “three and done” at Bama before even John Calipari started “one and done” in college basketball at Kentucky. Alabama is now an unstoppable juggernaut. So long as Saban can legitimately look in the eye of a young recruit’s mom and tell her how her son might one day be a millionaire if he comes to play for the Tide, the only thing can stop Bama and Nick Saban is Bama and Nick Saban.
Except that a few years of this, and the NCAA might figure some kind of way to keep Saban from loading up on blue-chippers to the detriment of the rest of the competition, just as there are howls of derision from the college basketball world over Calipari’s use of the strategy at Kentucky. If there were a Sherman Act that covered the market for college football talent, Saban would surely be hauled before government inquisitors, accused of anti-competitive, monopolistic behavior. Bear Bryant, Alabama’s legendary coach (whose legend Saban will surely eclipse, in terms of national championships, if he so desires), was famous for recruiting players just to keep them from playing for the opposition. There were few restrictions on the size of the roster and the number of scholarships that could be offered during Bear’s day. Saban doesn’t have that luxury. So in many respects, he’s done better than Bryant. He’s turned Bama into Blue-Chip U, and it feeds on itself in a positive feed-back loop. The more blue-chippers he attracts who buy into his system and get pro contracts, the more want to come. Saban has created a modern-era dynasty. College football, trying to reach parity through scholarship restrictions, has laughably, and predictably, failed.
Sports leagues will always have dominant franchises. Baseball has the New York Yankees, et al. The NFL has the Steelers, Giants, Patriots, Cowboys, Broncos, 49’ers, etc. The NBA has the Lakers and Celtics and Bulls and Spurs, etc., (and in the modern era and immediate future, the Thunder and Heat). But the overtly professional leagues recognize the value to the league of competitive play on the fields and courts and diamonds, and have measures in place to prevent any one team from dynastic monopolizing of the talent. Baseball has a luxury tax. The NFL allows the worst teams in the previous season to draft first. The NBA has the draft lottery, which allows weak teams to draft first, but prevents bad teams from ensuring a first draft by intentionally losing, taking account of the tremendous impact on a team’s fortunes one great player can have in basketball (ex., Michael Jordan and the Bulls, or more recently, Anthony Davis coming out of Kentucky). College football and basketball, by pretending its athletes are there only for the love of the game, tend to concentrate the talent at the schools where an athlete with a viable chance to reach the next level believes his chances for doing so will be most greatly enhanced. The great athletes seek, in their choice of colleges, a clear path to monetizing their abilities. Once a coach can prove his mettle at helping athletes do just that, the blue-chippers recruit themselves.
Maybe when Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide wins its third BCS championship in four years, and its second in a row, the NCAA might reconsider its pretensions to amateurism. The impetus to do so would be, as always, money. No one wants to see Alabama or anyone else so dominant the league that league play becomes dull and predictable, because dull and predictable does not sell Nike’s and Gatorade and Under Armour, etc. If the NCAA finally decides it must move its football factories to a new, professional level, replete with a professional-style draft of high schoolers, perhaps they could dub it the “Saban Sanction”, in deference to his success having been the impetus for the change. Saban would still win football games, because he coaches as well or better than he recruits. But maybe not all of them. Or maybe the games would stay competitive until at least midway through the second half. If they were, the NCAA might sell a bunch more Nikes, Gatorade and Under Armour, etc., which is, ultimately, the whole point of big-time college football. It’s high time the NCAA quit pretending otherwise.