Whenever Alabama’s top-ranked football team sends its offense onto the field, a special scout slides down the sideline, away from the bulk of the Crimson Tide’s sizable coaching staff, for a better view of the opponent’s defense. He studies every move, looking for valuable intelligence he can feed to the offensive coaches.
The scout’s name is Nick Saban. He is better known as Alabama’s head coach, and the winner of five national championships.
When Alabama (14-0) faces Clemson (13-1) tonight in the College Football Playoff championship game, television cameras will be trained on Saban. (He typically gets more face time than his players.) His generally gloomy mood, no matter the score, is hard to resist. But try to note Saban’s position on the sideline, and what he is up to.
Saban said after Alabama’s last game, for instance, a 24-7 victory over Washington in the playoff semifinals on Dec. 31 in Atlanta, that he had noticed early on that the Huskies were thwarting Alabama’s all-important running game with “inside backer plugs” and “corner fires.”
Never mind football’s alarmingly martial terminology. What Saban, who cut his coaching teeth on defense, noticed and passed along helped Alabama find solutions that led to 269 rushing yards — more than twice the average Washington had allowed in games this season.
“It’s good for the offense,” Bobby Williams, a special assistant who has held several coaching jobs on Saban’s staffs, said of his boss’ in-game scouting reports. “Because he’ll tell the offense, ‘Hey, this is what these guys are doing to you on defense, so this is how you should attack it.'”
This scouting is a major part of what Saban does during games. And it is possible precisely because of what Saban is not doing: panicking because his players do not know the game plan, wrestling with decisions about whether or not to pass, or even calling the plays himself.
“I don’t really say, ‘Call this specific play’ or ‘Call this specific defense,'” Saban said last week. “I might say: ‘We need to run the ball a little more.’ ‘We need to pressure the quarterback a little more.’ ‘Our pressures are not effective.’ ‘We need to try to cover.’ It’s more general and philosophical.”
In reality, according to more than a dozen current and former players and assistant coaches, that freedom to take in the bigger picture is a result of intensely prepared and scripted game plans that enable Saban, one of the most successful coaches in college football history, to be his most productive self during the 60 minutes each week that matter most.
So while the since-departed offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was shouting plays into his headset, call sheet covering his lips, at the line of scrimmage during an early drive against Washington last week, Saban was calmly situated 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, roughly parallel with Washington’s safety, seeing what the Huskies were doing. While he could hear what Kiffin was saying through his own headset, he could be reasonably confident that he knew what his team would be up to anyway.
“All these choices and decisions get made based on the plan of how you went into the game,” Saban said, “rather than some feeling you get on the sidelines during the game.”
Saban himself would most likely attribute most of his success to his teams’ talent, which is annually among the best in the country. But even Saban credits his in-game decisions to pregame preparations. He has a small army of talented assistant coaches at his disposal — in addition to the nine allowed under NCAA rules, Alabama employs a special assistant, nine staff members in operations or personnel and at least eight “analysts.” The group included for much of the year five men (not including Saban) who have led a top-tier college football team of their own.
Which is to say: Saban delegates, but only to a strictly defined degree.
“Coach Saban is very hands-on in every part of our program,” the Tide’s first-year defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt, told reporters last week, “from the weight room to the nutrition to all the way down to, you know, what we’re going to wear to this news conference.”
During games, Saban is (mostly) a decidedly dormant volcano. His stock pose is arms crossed and head down, like that mournful portrait of John F. Kennedy that hangs in the White House. His dour demeanor reminds some of Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots coach, who was Saban’s boss with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s.
When Saban does explode, though, it is likely to be because he feels a coach is not correctly putting the game plan into action. When a reporter this season asked about an “argument” in which Saban had yelled at Kiffin during the final minute of a blowout victory, Saban disputed the premise that there could possibly be anything to argue about.
“There are no arguments,” Saban said, using a vulgarity to explain that exchanges like that were one-way conversations.
Kirk Doll, who has worked for numerous head coaches in a nearly four-decade career, said Saban, for whom he worked at Louisiana State, was the most methodical of them all, never changing his schedule or his staff’s. “He just believed in his process,” Doll said.
In addition to watching the other team’s defense during games, Saban monitors his own players. Saban no longer wears glasses, as he did while patrolling Michigan State’s sideline in the late 1990s, but his players swear he has better-than-super vision.
“He finds a way to see every mistake,” said defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson, a senior.
“He wants everything done perfectly,” added Minkah Fitzpatrick, a sophomore safety. (Defensive backs bear the greatest burden of perfection for Saban, a former defensive back.) “When you demand perfection, you’re not going to get perfect every time, but you’re going to get the best out of your players.”
And while Saban is not reluctant to praise good performances, his positive tone is measured.
“Whenever we score a touchdown, field goal, he’s high-fiving,” said Bradley Bozeman, a redshirt junior offensive lineman. When a reporter mimicked an ecstatic high-five, Bozeman corrected him, putting his arm low and a grimace on his face.
But is there no joy in Saban’s perpetual striving? Can one imagine Saban happy?
“Not till the game’s over,” O.J. Howard, a senior tight end, said.
Yet, as Williams noted, everyone with any interest in Alabama football has witnessed Saban on a sideline with a look of unmistakable glee. It was almost exactly a year ago, in last season’s national championship game — also against Clemson — when Alabama executed a gorgeous surprise onside kick in the fourth quarter of a 45-40 victory.
Dialing up that play was, in fact, Saban’s decision. Because of the lengthy stoppages before many special-teams plays, the kicking game, Saban acknowledged, is the phase of the game in which he makes the most hands-on calls.
“Most of the time,” he said, “you can make those decisions before the players ever go out on the field.”
After that onside kick, the biggest game of the year was merely tied. Yet for once, in front of the cameras, Saban could not help himself. He smiled.