Nick Saban Pushes “The Alabama Factor” as Crimson Tide Starts the Season No. 2
Bleacher Report senior CFB reporter Lars Anderson discusses all things Crimson Tide
There have been few sure things over the last decade except maybe for Alabama football. Since 2008, head coach Nick Saban’s teams have spent all or part of each season ranked No. 1 in national polls. But things could be changing as the program enters the season ranked No. 2 behind reigning national champion Clemson.
Saban has done what he could this offseason to try and ensure the Crimson Tide resumes its usual spot at the top of the poll, getting rid of seven assistant coaches with more recruiting skill than on-field coaching expertise and doing a thorough evaluation of what led his team to getting thumped by the Tigers 44-16 in the National Championship game.
“Trust me, nobody has done more introspection than Saban,” Bleacher Report senior college football reporter Lars Anderson tells InsideHook. “He’s got a full bag of motivational tricks and one thing he consistently says is, ‘Don’t waste a loss,’ meaning use it as a springboard in the next season to do a deep self-analysis of what went wrong. I think you’re going to see Saban manage his players a little bit differently this season. There’s just no debating Alabama’s road to the national championship game last year was much more challenging than Clemson’s and maybe there is a physical component to that. You heard different Alabama players, notably [current Oakland Raider] Josh Jacobs, talk about just being absolutely worn out by the national title game and say they couldn’t get up for it.”
Anderson knows what he’s talking about. He has a new book about Alabama’s coaching tree, Chasing the Bear: How Bear Bryant and Nick Saban Made Alabama the Greatest College Football Program of All Time, and has been covering the Crimson Tide longer than Saban has been in Tuscaloosa.
Nick Saban doesn’t do underdog. That’s not his style.
During his time covering the team, Anderson, who is also a journalism professor at Alabama, has seen six-time national champion Saban (one with LSU, five with Alabama) go through assistant coaches like used tissues.
“There’s been more turnover under Saban than other top coaches. I mean, you look at Dabo Swinney and his staff at Clemson,” Anderson says. “There isn’t much turnover. Dabo, who I kind of know a little bit, he really cultivates a family atmosphere, a family culture, and that’s not Nick. Nick is all business. Jim McElwain, who was with Nick for three or four years as his offensive coordinator, told me that, in all his time with Nick, he had one conversation that focused on a non-football subject. I think it was like after someone in Jim’s family had died and Nick said, ‘Hey, sorry about that. He’s tough to work for, that’s no secret.”
Saban, who has a career record of 141-21 with the Crimson Tide and is already in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, is also a difficult guy to play for.
“As [former Alabama quarterback] Greg McElroy told me, there is no positive reinforcement from him,” Anderson says. “It’s very rare that he hands out compliments. He’s just always pushing, pushing, pushing and you’re not going to feel good about yourself very often.”
What Saban is pushing for this season is to regain what he calls “The Alabama Factor.” That is, “When Alabama walks on the field and the other team sees them, they take your breath away because they’re so freaking big and physically imposing,” Anderson says. “Nick’s called it the Alabama Factor. It’s usually worth about a touchdown or so. They are physically so much bigger than every other team other than Clemson.”
For that reason in addition to all the success the program has had under Saban, there is no underdog mentality at Alabama despite the No. 2 ranking.
“Nick Saban doesn’t do underdog. That’s not his style,” Anderson says. “There’s an expectation that you’re going to whip the ass of the person right in front of you. The offense set school records last and was historic in a lot of ways and, on paper, they should even be better this year. If you look at their roster objectively, it is easily the most talented roster Saban’s ever had. You’ve got a quarterback [Tua Tagovailoa] who could go No. 1 overall. You have probably seven guys on offense who are eventually going to be No. 1 or first-round draft picks and you probably have six to eight guys on defense who eventually could be first-round draft picks. They’re just absolutely stacked.”
In Tagovailoa, who finished second in Heisman voting last season, Saban has the best quarterback he’s ever had “by far,” according to Anderson.
“There’s not even a close second,” Anderson says. “With Saban it’s always been having a game manager at quarterback, really until Tua came along. I think Tua has got a chance to go down as the best quarterback in Alabama history if he can lead them to a national title this year, but the key for him is his health. I think they are going to manage him and limit the times they put him in compromising positions. I think they’re going to run the ball more.”
With a healthy Tagovailoa under center and Saban on the sideline, it would be a failure, at least from a reporter’s or analyst’s perspective, if Alabama didn’t win the national championship even if they do play in the toughest division in the toughest conference in the country, according to Anderson.
Win or lose, Saban probably isn’t going anywhere after the season and Anderson estimates he’ll be coaching at Alabama well into his 70s as long as he remains healthy.
“He’s going to retire at Alabama and I think he’ll coach until he’s physically no longer able to do it at the level that he wants to do it at,” Anderson says. “I’ve been around him a lot over the years and that internal furnace of his is still firing at full-blast. The dude has not lost any heat off of his fastball.”
Even if that drive does lead to Saban winning again, he still may not be revered in the same way that legendary Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant (six national championships at Alabama) is by fans.
“Bryant is so mythologized in Alabama lore,” Anderson says. “He was much more personable than Saban. He is not one for chit-chat, whereas Bryant, he loved to go out, have a cocktail, smoke his Chesterfield unfiltereds and shoot the shit at the country club. Saban’s not that way at all. Saban has a really small circle of friends, probably eight to 12, whereas Bryant was everybody’s best friend, which I’ve found out in the reporting of this book. So I think Bryant is always going to hold this special place in hearts, If Saban wins another national championship and that gives him six at Alabama, it would be hard to argue that Bryant was the more successful coach but I don’t see Saban ever receiving the level of love that Bryant still elicits from people and I think it just goes back to their personality traits.”
In terms of entering Bryant’s rarified air, it sounds as if Saban actually is an underdog — even if second-ranked Alabama isn’t.