As things went badly against Tennessee on the night of Oct. 25, Alabama coach Nick Saban knelt down in front of Bryce Young for a quick sideline chat. Their foreheads were almost touching, as Saban calmly and intimately gave his 20-year-old quarterback advice, things finally turned around, with a 28-point fourth quarter scoring a 52-24 win.
It was a side of Saban the world rarely sees. Normally a cauldron of intensity in the game, sometimes raging against assistant coaches, players or officials, it was a different style of coaching. Lowering himself to the level of a player on the bench and talking quietly eye to eye demonstrated an oft-overlooked gift of Saban: At 70, he’s attuned to what people of half a century younger expect of him.
“I think one of Coach Saban’s many separators is his ability to handle a wide variety of kids from different backgrounds and kids who are wired differently,” says Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne. , who is as well placed to observe Saban as anyone. “When I was growing up, if your coach told you to do something, you did it. You didn’t think about it. The ‘why’ is now an integral part of coaching young people. Coach Saban, he is able to express the ‘why’ as well as anyone else.”
Given his accomplishments — seven national titles, including six in Alabama between 2009 and 2020, and possibly another on the way — we’ll forgive Saban for believing he already has all the answers, to everything. Do it his way, or get out. But he’s always ready to adapt his teaching style to what his students will respond to best – and in today’s college football, that means softening some of the notorious hard edges.
“He’s so different now,” ESPN analyst and 2009 Alabama starting quarterback Greg McElroy 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. It doesn’t matter what players can rack up through the name, image and likeness rules, Saban agrees, as long as it doesn’t discourage 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 Alabama’s 2021 team was going to be a work in progress, after last year’s superpowered team stormed through the season undefeated and sent 10 players to the NFL Draft, six in the first round. Leadership had to be developed, and that was going to take time.
There was a tight breakaway in Florida, an upset loss at Texas A&M, struggles against Tennessee and Arkansas and LSU and Auburn. Halfway through the season, a national championship seemed a long way off. After the A&M loss, Saban seemed closer to a mayonnaise bath (God help the bowl manager who should have suggested this to one of the saddest men in America).
Yet here he is, preparing to play for another Monday night against Georgia, with a team that’s nowhere near as good as last year’s. As a former Southeastern Conference coach told Sports Illustrated this week, the Bulldogs are 1-44 better on the depth chart, and this year’s draft will highlight that. But Alabama has the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, perhaps the best defensive player in college football in linebacker Will Anderson and the greatest coach of all time.
Just as another prominent 70-year-old coach in college athletics, Mike Krzyzewski, reshaped his training, so did Saban. What worked in 2003 might not work in 2021. Especially with a younger team that hasn’t accumulated as much Saban scar tissue.
When asked how many “ass chews” of Saban he had seen during games, Byrne replied “not many”. But defensive coordinator Pete Golding laughed earlier this week when asked if the amount of ass that Saban chews has gone down in 2021.
“That’s absolutely not accurate,” Golding said. “Whatever you do here, Coach will make sure you do it to the best of your abilities. You do it the way he wants to, which I appreciate. The good thing about him is that he is black on white and you will know it.
Saban may never roar more at the Wizards than 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 feeding, but I felt like we had to do it with this team,” he said before Alabama crushed Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl. It wasn’t going to help young players develop.
It seems to start with Young. He was a huge talent and highly sought after out of 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 having thrown 22 varsity passes, all on cleaning duty last year while supporting Mac Jones. He had the talent, but lacked the reps. To borrow Saban’s favorite word, it was going to be a process. The rudimentary things – playing on time, calling protections at the line of scrimmage, learning when to throw the ball – would take time.
The end result is a 13-1 record, a berth in the championship game and a Heisman Trophy for Young. But that doesn’t mean everything went seamlessly.
The struggles were interspersed brilliantly throughout the season. Nothing sums that up better than Young’s performance at Auburn, where he was largely awful for 58 minutes before leading a game-tying 98-yard drive to push the game into overtime. The Crimson Tide won in OT, then turned into an offensive monster the following week against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
Saban was almost effusive after the Auburn game, perhaps sensing how far he’s taken this team. “It’s something you should always remember,” he told his players. “It’s the feeling of being in a team. The sense of unity of everyone committing to supporting each other and being positive and trusting each other and believing in each other enough to go out and make these kinds of games that makes it a special win.
Had you administered truth serum at the time, Saban might have admitted that beating Georgia next week and making it to 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 with defense. Then we saw him win them with offense. But he has always been seen winning championships with simmering intensity. Now we can see a kinder, gentler Saban winning one, in what might be his best coaching job yet.
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