Nick Saban’s shift to a modern coaching style led Alabama to the National Championship game


As things went badly against Tennessee on the night of Oct. 25, Alabama coach Nick Saban knelt in front of Bryce Young for a brief discussion on the sidelines. Their foreheads almost touched, as Saban calmly and intimately gave his 20-year-old quarterback some advice, things finally improved, with a 28-point fourth quarter scoring a 52-24 victory.

It was a side of Saban that the world rarely sees. Normally a cauldron of intensity in the game, occasionally raging against assistant coaches, players or officials, it was a different style of training. Stepping down to the level of a player on the bench and talking quietly face to face has demonstrated an often overlooked gift from Saban: at 70, he listens to what people half a century younger need him.

“I think one of the many separating elements for Coach Saban is his ability to deal with a wide variety of kids from different backgrounds and kids who are wired differently,” the Alabama athletic director said. , Greg Byrne, who is as well placed to observe Saban as anyone. “When I was young, if your coach told you to do something, you just did it. You didn’t think about it. The ‘why’ is now an integral part of coaching young people. Because of the intelligence. from Coach Saban, he is able to articulate the ‘why’ as well as anyone else. ”

Given his accomplishments – seven national titles, including six in Alabama between 2009 and 2020, and possibly one on the way – we would forgive Saban for believing he already has all the answers, everything. Do it his way or go out. But he’s always ready to adapt his teaching style to whatever his students will respond to best – and in college football today, that means softening some of the famous edges.

“He’s so different now,” Greg McElroy, ESPN analyst and 2009 Alabama starting quarterback, said on Young’s podcast in October. “The coach has changed so much.”

The fact that his quarterback has a lucrative podcast is the first evidence of Saban’s evolution. No matter what players can rack up from the name, image, and likeness rules, Saban agrees, as long as it doesn’t deter focus and preparation. The bossy coaching figure is a thing of the past, and few have pivoted to the new style more deftly than Saban.

Especially with this team.

For a guy who recently said, “I have no patience,” Saban has shown a lot of that trait this season. He understood that the 2021 Alabama team was going to be a work in progress, after last year’s overpowered team stormed the season undefeated and sent 10 players into the NFL Draft, six in the first round. Leadership had to be developed, and that was going to take some time.

There was a big breakaway in Florida, loss to Texas A&M, struggles against Tennessee and Arkansas and LSU and Auburn. At mid-season, a national championship seemed far away. After A&M was defeated, Saban seemed closer to a mayonnaise bath (God help the bowl manager who should have suggested this to one of the most joyless men in America).

Yet here he is, preparing to play for another nasty Monday night against Georgia, with a squad that is nowhere near as good as last year. As a former Southeastern Conference coach told Sports Illustrated this week, the Bulldogs are best 1-44 on the depth chart, and this year’s draft will underline that. But Alabama have the Heisman Trophy winner as a quarterback, perhaps the best defensive player in college football with linebacker Will Anderson and the greatest coach of all time.

Just as Mike Krzyzewski, the other prominent 70-plus-year-old coach in varsity athletics, reshaped his training, so has Saban. What worked in 2003 might not work in 2021. Especially with a younger team that didn’t accumulate as much scar tissue as Saban.

When asked how many famous Saban’s “ass chews” he had seen during games, Byrne replied, “not a lot”. But defensive coordinator Pete Golding laughed earlier this week when asked if the amount of ass that was chewed by Saban had declined in 2021.

“This is absolutely not correct,” Golding said. “Whatever you do here, Coach will make sure you do it to the best of your ability. You do it however he wants, which I appreciate. The good about him is that it’s black and white and you will find out.

Saban may never roar so much against assistants as when Lane Kiffin was the mischievous offensive coordinator. But the Saban seen on TV in games and experienced behind the scenes in training has adapted. Maybe even softened, at least in terms of his interactions with current players.

“I don’t want to call it education, but I felt like we had to do it with this team,” he said before Alabama’s overturn to Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl. It wasn’t going to help young players develop.

It seems to start with Young. He was a huge and much sought after talent after leaving high school in California, and Saban got him the same way he gets most of his players – by not promising them anything up front, but giving them a chance to win one of the most coveted. things in college football: playing time in Alabama.

Young entered this season after throwing 22 college passes, all on cleaning duty last year while supporting Mac Jones. He had the talent, but didn’t have the reps. To borrow Saban’s favorite word, this was going to be a process. The rudimentary things – playing on time, calling protections on the line of scrimmage, learning when to throw the ball – would take time.

The end result is a 13-1 record, a place in the Championship game and a Heisman Trophy for Young. But that doesn’t mean that everything went seamlessly.

The struggles were interspersed with gusto throughout the season. Nothing summed it up better than Young’s performance at Auburn, where he was largely gruesome for 58 minutes before leading an even 98-yard run to push the game into overtime. The Crimson Tide won in overtime, then turned into an offensive monster the following week against Georgia in the SEC Championship game.

Saban was almost enthusiastic after Auburn’s game, perhaps sensing how far he had taken this team. “It’s something you should always remember,” he told his players. “It’s the feeling of being in a team. The feeling of oneness of everyone committing to supporting each other, being positive, trusting each other and believing in each other enough to come out and make these kind of games that make it a special win.

If you had administered truth serum at this point, Saban might have admitted beating Georgia next week and making the college football playoffs seemed unlikely. But here they are, motivated but also encouraged and supported along the way.

We’ve seen Nick Saban win national championships on defense. Then we saw him win them offensively. But we’ve always seen him win championships with tremendous intensity. Now we can see a nicer, gentler Saban winning one, in what might be his best coaching job yet.

More college football coverage:

• Is SEC playoff dominance bad for college football?
• Three years after the start of the talks, can the expansion of the PSC overcome its obstacles?
• Movie theater: what should Georgia do differently this time against Alabama?
• Why did the southern teams dominate the CFP? Follow the money and history

About Harold Shirley

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