Nick Saban adapts to the times, keeps on winning
SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — Nick Saban is a creature of habit, waking at dawn like usual the morning after corralling his latest national championship.
That love of routine hasn't kept the Alabama coach from adapting and evolving with the game, from the trend toward spread offenses to a longer, tougher path than ever before to a national title.
The fourth title in seven seasons was the toughest for Saban and the Crimson Tide. Yet they endured in a 45-40 shootout win over Clemson Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium. And that should tell you everything you need to know about Saban's ability to adapt.
Now, as the latest group of Tide players prepares for an annual exodus to the NFL, he will try to do it again.
"What he's doing is unheard of," Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said after the game. "It's just the process. The players change, the coaches change. He's the one guy that stays the same."
Not exactly the same. And that's the point. Saban has made plenty of changes while clinging to habit. Take his urging Kiffin to spread out and speed up the offense at times.
The defense has veered away from the 340-pound space hoggers in the middle, relying on swifter, smaller defenders to better deal with fast-paced offenses like Clemson and dual-threat quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson.
There was speedy linebacker Rashaan Evans sacking Watson twice and safety Geno Matias-Smith, a converted cornerback, racking up 11 tackles. Watson piled up plenty of yards but Alabama made stops when it counted, too — plus Saban's gutsy fourth-quarter onside kick call that led to a tie-breaking touchdown.
Saban tied Frank Leahy for the second-most Associated Press coaching titles, plus a BCS crown at LSU. He had to face his toughest national title game yet at Alabama. The Tide had rolled over Texas, shut out LSU and routed Notre Dame.
This one went down to the wire.
Former UCLA and Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel said it's harder to win titles nowadays because of factors ranging from managing social media to scholarship limits and early departures.
Also, Saban's success has helped spur competitors like Mississippi and Mississippi State to raise their game, he said.
"I think it's remarkable what he has done," said Neuheisel, now an analyst with CBS.
Saban said the players need some downtime after 15 games and 14 wins. That doesn't mean he'll take much himself. He was up by 6:15 a.m. Tuesday like always — even though he didn't arrive back at the hotel until a few hours earlier. He'll head back to the office for Wednesday meetings with players, including the latest group of underclassmen considering turning pro.
That could include Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson. Then he'll try to wrap up another top recruiting class.
"The bus doesn't stop," Saban said. "You've got to keep rolling."
Ask him to opine on the historical significance of Alabama's current reign, and Saban said he's focused on moving forward not looking back.
Maybe he'll truly savor the accomplishments when he retires from coaching — whenever that day comes. The 64-year-old coach certainly didn't sound like he was ready to move on any time soon.
"The one thing I have always said is I've been a part of a team since I was 9 years old," Saban said. "It scares me to ever think of the day when I wouldn't be a part of the team. The feeling that you get being associated with a group like this makes you want to do it more.
"That's kind of how I feel about it. I know you can't do this forever, but I certainly enjoy the moment and certainly look forward to the future challenges that we have and really have no timetable for ever not being a part of a team."
He's already hired Jeremy Pruitt to replace defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, Georgia's new head coach.
No move was bolder than hiring Kiffin, the brash former Southern California, Tennessee and Oakland Raiders coach.
That pairing has flourished the past two seasons, with two very different quarterbacks and styles. The result has been 26 wins, two SEC titles and two Heisman Trophy finalists.
Kiffin passes the credit to Saban for being willing to change with the times.
"He's telling me to go to TCU in the offseason, he's telling me to go see Tom Herman," Kiffin said. "It's a credit to him not being stubborn, saying, 'I'm going to win the old-school way and show everybody I can be in the I formation and play slow.' Instead of being stubborn, you see him changing, evolving.
"You see the same thing on defense. You see smaller, faster players playing in this game than you saw in that Ohio State game a year ago."
In the end, you also see more of the same. Double-digit wins. Titles.
With the likelihood of more of what Saban calls "60-10" games.
"It's 60 minutes of the game and then the 10 minutes in the locker room after the game that you remember for the rest of your life, and what you accomplish actually even transcends your life because they put a plaque up that this team won the national championship," he said. "And the 1926 team, who I'm sure most of those players are not around anymore, they still have a legacy."
Saban's already assured himself a legacy. It, like him, is also still evolving.
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