I recently finished a book on Nick Saban titled “4th and Goal Every Day.” The title comes from an Alabama assistant coach that said coaching at Alabama is like knowing every day you have one play to score. That’s a mantra that you have to believe in every day. It was written by Phil Savage who is the Alabama radio color commentator. He’s a lifelong football guy having served as GM of the Cleveland Browns prior to this role. He was born and raised in Alabama and although he didn’t play football at Alabama is a definite Bama homer. He’s also a worshipper of Nick Saban but let’s face it who isn’t that’s a Bama fan. I say all of that because there’s an obvious bias in the book but it’s a pretty objective read.
He’s known Saban for a long term as his first job in professional football was with Cleveland before they moved to Baltimore. He was the defensive “assistant” which is basically the same as a graduate assistant in college football that does the entire film breakdown and charting of plays. Nick Saban was the defensive coordinator and the head coach was Bill Belichick. Most folks don’t know but Saban was Belichick’s DC for three seasons before he went to Michigan State. They’ve known each other for a long time. There’s a reason they’re very much like each other. They’re a little bit different which I’ll cover in a little bit.
I’ll summarize various parts of the book in no particular order. The book is a great read if you get a chance to read it. It’s not an eye opening book by any stretch but there are some great stories which I’ll cover some. More than anything the book confirms what you probably already believe about Nick Saban. That’s assuming you believe the man is wired to be a great college football coach in every move he makes in life. Nick Saban currently wants to do one thing every moment of every day and that’s to work to win a college football national championship. That’s it and nothing more.
I do believe what Nick Saban does is replicable but it obviously takes a special person. What Nick Saban does is works smarter and harder than everyone else. They key here is working smarter but he also works hard. He doesn’t rest on his laurels and he understands he has to adapt to a changing game. He’s involved in every step of the program and no detail is too small. He’s not a dictator by any stretch but he is the final decision maker on all things Alabama and everyone knows it. If you strive to be great you’ll appreciate any time you spend with him. If you strive to be mediocre or worse you’ll probably think he’s kind of an asshole. He’s not and he doesn’t care. He wants to win championships and that’s what he does with every move he makes. There’s no wasted effort with him.
Probably the most eye opening thing to me is that Saban runs his recruiting like an NFL team. He always has a top class and I just assumed he just cherry picked the top rated recruits because Bama can. There’s no cherry picking at all. Saban actually recruits off the scouting system created by Tom Landry and Gil Brandt in the 70s with the help of analytics people at Stanford University. This system creates a matrix of sorts on various factors such as height, weight, speed, and other factors. Every potential recruit is analyzed and scored on this matrix.
In addition to this matrix of physical and football factors Saban wants to personally see and work out every recruit through various camps. Saban looks at things like body type, flexibility, agility, and coachability. At camps Saban is actually working out the players and not just sitting on a golf cart or giving rah rah speeches at the beginning and end of the camp. The dude has an eye for talent and he wants to see it in person before making an offer to play at Bama. He wants to personally work players through drills. He takes his eyeballs and the matrix and decides who to offer.
The most interesting thing about the matrix is he’s looking for certain physical parameters at each position. He wants a certain height and weight at specific positions and this matrix helps identify the right players. It’s all very scientific in how he builds his roster. There’s no doubt that Bama is able to be very picky in who they select to give an offer but if you think about it Saban RARELY misses on players. He’s never missed on a class like some guys. In the years Saban has been at Bama you’ve never heard they’re going to be a young team or lost too much talent. They might be young at a position or have to replace an All American but they just re-load. No other team in the country does the same thing because Saban is so good at evaluating talent they can develop.
Saban obviously studies a recruit’s film but this matrix and in person evaluation is the most crucial in deciding who to offer. Not only is he an outstanding game coach he’s an outstanding talent evaluator which most people probably don’t realize. The Alabama team looks like they do because Nick Saban is very deliberate about who Bama offers. It’s not really a shotgun approach. Sure, it’s easy to sell winning but he’s deliberate about who he offers because he’s really good at projecting them 2-4 years down the road. A lot of Bama’s analysis is done comparing recruits to previous players they’ve had come through the program. It’s a VERY methodical approach and not just names on a marker board with their ratings and stars. Saban is thinking about all 85 scholarships when he offers a single one. Very few are wasted or missed thanks to analytics and the eyes of him and his staff.
Fundamentals and Practice:
In addition to being very specific in who they offer they also assume each player has never been coached fundamentals. At every player’s first practice they’re going to be taught stance, hand placement, and every other technical thing a player needs to learn from the ground up at their positon. From then on fundamentals are drilled every day. There’s no being lazy from a technique standpoint. They might be better athletes but if they’re not willing to work on their technique and fundamentals they won’t see the field at Bama. That’s part of Saban having a loaded roster so guys push each other and know if they don’t put forth the work in practice they won’t play. The coaches are committed to making the players better every day. They expect the players to do the same.
In addition to coaching fundamentals every day practice is all about preparation for a game. It’s not going through the motions as it’s matching up #1s on #1s at times as well as getting a good look at what’s expected for the upcoming opponent. Thanks to meticulous film study by the coaching staff the team spends practicing preparing for exactly what they’ll see on Saturdays. It seems obvious but I don’t think many teams do as much scouting and have a practice as indicative of what will be seen on Saturdays. Alabama actually has former starting quarterbacks come back and run the scout team so the Bama defense gets as real of a look as they can. It’s not uncommon for a Bama player during a game to say they’ve already seen what the opponent has done in practice that week.
In the middle of it all is Nick Saban. He’s not just on the sidelines barking at people. He’s in the middle of drills and plays coaching. By Saturday he’s pretty aware of what to expect based on how that week’s practice went. Saban immerses himself in practice and he expects his players to do the same. It all starts at the top but there’s not a day when Nick Saban isn’t preaching fundamentals or using a practice for anything but laser focus on the upcoming opponent. He’s running a well-oiled machine that never forgets the basics and using every minute of practice as preparation for the opponent. No minute is wasted.
Part of what helps this is every assistant coach has a student assistant that helps them prepare. They might be working on film, recruiting information, practice set up, or whatever is needed. Alabama assistant coaches don’t worry about administrative stuff. They focus on coaching their players or getting the best players on campus. There’s no wasted effort on something someone with little experience can do and doesn’t help Alabama win football games. Every day is about tasks that help win football games and not waste time. Hence the term 4th and Goal Every Day.
An interesting thing in the book is the author makes a comparison between Belichick and Saban. They’re very similar in their approach to coaching and the game but there is one difference. Nick Saban believes in having a full toolbox of things available to him in a game. Belichick is the exact opposite in that Belichick only wants a couple of tools but he’s going to master those tools and use them in multiple ways. Think of adapting a hammer and screwdriver to more than what they’re intended for. On the other hand Saban wants a full toolbox and that’s how he prepares and practices.
He does this across all three units of offense, defense, and special teams. For special teams an example is the National Championship they won against Clemson two seasons ago. The on-side kick they did early in the 4th quarter was something they had worked on leading up to the game. The staff noticed certain spacing in Clemson’s return team responding to the kick team. During the game Alabama tightened up their spacing on one side which Clemson responded with tightening up theirs. This left an open area they felt they could kick to and have one of their speedsters get to the ball before Clemson could. The Special Teams coach told Saban during the game it was there if they wanted it. Before calling it Saban confirmed with his Special Teams coach who confirmed it was there. Saban made the call and they executed it perfectly. Ironically enough when they practiced it during the week the kicker never executed it properly but he got it perfect when it mattered most. It wasn’t pure luck but film and practice that allowed it to be executed. Saban knew he had that in his toolbox and used it.
Defensively Alabama has a very complex defense that is prepared for almost anything they’ll see from an offense. Every player has some kind of call if they see something. Their linebackers and safeties are usually the most prepared looking for different things but all 11 defenders have things their looking for. They’re looking for things they’ve seen on film and in practice along with things they haven’t seen from the opponent just in case they pop up. The entire defense has a complex set of hand signals including the coaches. If someone sees something that’s not expected as an offense lines up they’ll immediately make a signal to alert the rest of the defense.
Offensively they have every set imaginable to expose a defense to. They can run their “Elephant” package which is nothing but guys pushing 300 lbs or more to block for 2 guys that are well under 300 pounds. They can run an empty backfield or double tight ends and do all of it well. Part of this is how Nick Saban recruits. Above everything else he’s looking for certain parameters for his normal starting offense and defense but he also adds in different sized guys so he can give a defense multiple looks or attack a weakness if he has personnel they can’t match up with.
At this point in his tenure Nick Saban can load up and play line of scrimmage football or he can play to cover the whole field. He’d prefer to line up and pay line of scrimmage football but he’s adapted to the game and has a roster of players that can do lots of different things from week to week. Nobody else in college football can out match Alabama and that’s because Saban has built his team to cover pretty much anything that can be thrown at it.
Along with the previous section about wanting a full toolbox he’s evolved his base defense along the way. Saban originally ran a 3-4 with a mammoth nose tackle and big guys up front to focus on stopping the run. As offenses everywhere have evolved to cover more of the field he has adapted his defense to become more athletic across the board. This allows him to handle the more complex offenses of today. He runs mostly a 4-3 now with four defensive linemen that are in the 280 range. They’re not even really classified as defensive tackles or ends as he likes to adapt them to the opponent they’re playing. Think of Jonathan Allen last year who played between the positions of tackle and end. He has defensive lineman that he can move around.
At linebacker his guys are much more athletic as well and cover handle the pass and run where they used to be about just defending the run. The corners are still mostly the same but the safeties are much more about coverage thanks to spread offenses and a lot of Bama’s safeties have some experience playing corner and covering people.
In addition to adapting his personnel from just focusing on the run to handling multiple offenses the defense has also taken on a much more aggressive role on takeaways. In practice they work on not only stripping the ball but scooping the ball by getting their hands underneath the ball rather than trying to pick it up from the top. They also work on blocking techniques to spring the guy who recovers the ball. If a ball comes out the call is “MONEY” so every defender is looking for the ball. Those that aren’t near it know to set up their blocking scheme which is basically walling off to one side. The defender that gets the ball knows to look for that wall and run to it. It’s the same thing for an interception. It’s not luck the Bama defense has become so good at scoring points on turnovers. It’s all practice and preparation.
While they’re not perfect Bama has no real divas on their team. Think of their receiver or running back position which is normal to have diva type personalities. Bama has had stud receivers like Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, and now Calvin Ridley but you don’t see those guys flash anything. They just go out and do their jobs. At running back they’ve had Mark Ingram, Eddie Lacy, Derrick Henry, and a few others. Those guys never made the spoon to mouth hand gesture to feed them. They just go out and execute their job for what the offense needs. Other than A.J. McCarron’s tattoo none of them have shown a desperate need for attention. They just play football.
Defense is the same. You never see them talking trash. If they do the other defenders take care of their own real quick and shut it down. The reality is they’re too busy trying to read the offense and make calls to worry about talking trash. They’re too disciplined to worry about trash talking partially because they’ve got too much to focus on in doing their jobs. Think of the Alabama players as obedient dogs. Obedient dogs tend to not tear up the house or anything because they’re focused on following commands and don’t act out because they get their needed attention every day.
Saban has a team full off players that have too much to worry about on every play so they don’t have time to be knuckleheads. Plus, Saban just doesn’t deal with that stuff because he knows it takes focus away from what they should be doing. He’ll give some idiots rope but they don’t get very much.
They also generally don’t screw up off the field. Sure, there’s been some arrests here and there but depending on the circumstances they don’t tend to stay on the team. Saban will give a second chance but he never gives a third and if the issues is too severe they won’t get a second chance. Their on the field discipline carries over to off the field because they know if they screw up off the field they won’t get to play on the field more than likely. Saban doesn’t have time for that.
A Roster of Alabama Guys:
Something else Saban does that I think is not noticed is he makes sure to keep a reasonable amount of guys that are from Alabama. In a quick glance of the roster it looks like a little under 50% so it’s not even a majority as he gets a lot of kids out of Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana along with kids across the country because he can. A lot more Texas kids than I realized as well.
The reason he makes sure to have a reasonable number of true Alabama guys is to keep the pride and passion for Alabama football intact. There is no pride in a state for a football program like Alabama. It’s a different culture there and having those guys on the roster make the guys not from Alabama realize what it means to play for Alabama. Saban could have a roster full of guys from across the country with no ties to the state but he understands there’s an element of pride from the Alabama guys. Those guys work without question for the program and Saban knows that will rub off on other guys from out of state. It’s a small factor but it’s a factor going back to Saban thinks of damn near everything to push the program to its limits.
The Lane Kiffin Western Kentucky Game Ass Chewing:
For those of you that remember when Saban chewed on Kiffin’s ass late in a 38-10 blowout last year the book tells why. They were running second and third stringers and Kiffin called a pretty complex play. They wound up turning the ball over. This was with under 2 minutes left and the game was all but over. Kiffin announced on the headset, “Dumb players make dumb plays.” A few seconds later Saban comes across the headset and says, “No, dumb coordinators call dumb plays.”
At that point Saban proceeded to walk over to Kiffin and chewed on his ass for blaming the players and calling them dumb. Saban’s point was that everything begins and ends with the coaching staff. The players are never to blame because it’s completely on the coaching staff to prepare the players and know what they’re capable of in every situation and every game.
I don’t know of any coach in the country that in a game like that would have done what Saban did. Most coaches would have been checked out in a game like that and let it go. Not Saban. The dude was pissed one of his coaches took a lackadaisical approach at any point in the game and even worse blamed his players. Saban is coaching to a certain level at every point in every game no matter the score, time, and opponent.
Saban only has one original coach from the time he arrived at Alabama in 2007. That’s 11 seasons but Saban’s assistants come and go for various reasons. Some move on and take promotions but some move on at Saban’s urging.
The best example is after the 2013 season Saban urged is second year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier he should find another job. That team went 11-2 and averaged 38 points a game never scoring less than 20. Yes, you read that right. After an 11-2 season averaging 38 points Saban told his second year coordinator to go find another job. What other coach in America would do that? I can’t think of a single one.
After he urged Nussmeier to find another job he went out and hired Lane Kiffin. Kiffin was a toxic coach but Saban knew he could coach offense and develop quarterbacks. At the time Saban knew Kiffin would likely be a 2-3 year hire but he didn’t care. They hadn’t worked together before but Saban simply wanted the best offensive coordinator he could find. So Saban fired a guy that ran an offense that averaged 38 points to hire a guy that he’d never worked with that was toxic at the time.
Saban just won’t sit back and get complacent. He’s always looking to have the best staff he can have. He doesn’t always hire his buddies. Sure there’s time he hires people he’s familiar with but he hires the absolute best coaches he can hire. It’s a purely objective approach to Saban. He expects the best so he hires the best assistants and gives them the resources to be successful as coaches. Like mentioned earlier each assistant coach has a student assistant so they don’t have to worry about administrative tasks. He wants his assistant coaches focused on game preparation and recruiting so he gives them a specific resource to make their jobs easier.
In addition to giving them the resources they need to be successful he also values the input of his assistants. He doesn’t run a dictatorship at all as he listens to their input but he does have final say and everyone knows it. His assistants know their input is valuable so they’re never reluctant to speak up.
I obviously enjoyed reading the book. I’d recommend it if you want some insight to how Saban thinks and operates. It’s not eye opening by any stretch but it is a lot of confirmation of what you would think along with a few nuggets here and there that are specific to how he handles things. There’s no doubt in my mind Saban is on a different level than everyone else simply because he can cover everything in the program from talent evaluation, game planning, in game coaching, and all the other details needed to run a big time football program.
Something else that’s important is that Saban is left alone by everyone at Alabama. No one meddles into the football operation at all. It’s Saban’s program and nobody else’s. Just get out of his way and let him do his thing or he’ll up and leave. No big money donor or administrator tries to claim any success with the program. They know better. It’s easy to do when you have 4 national championships in 10 seasons along with having been in the hunt for 2 more. However, people in Alabama know to let Saban do his thing and just enjoy the ride. They don’t mess with success. And Saban knows how to find success.