With two BCS National Championships in the last three seasons, Alabama head coach Nick Saban's 4th-quarter conditioning program has proven to be an effective method for generating not only physical toughness, but mental toughness.
When Saban came to Alabama, he immediately began to talk about "the process." As if it were some sort of long-lost biblical passage. What the process actually was became quite the mystery at Alabama. Now, even though there's no official definition, it's clear that Saban's "process" is a team building tool that envelops every Crimson Tide football player both on and off the field.
Saban's 4th-quarter conditioning program is a large part of the process. The moment a freshman recruit walks onto campus in Tuscaloosa he becomes a part of the process. It is every player's responsibility to prepare himself, both mentally and physically, for any obstacle that might come his way. His militant approach has become a source of pride for Alabama.
To help institute and maintain this philosophy, Saban brought in strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran—one of the most intense and vocal personalities in college football. He's both the athlete's best friend and worst nightmare.
Cochran maintains his intensity from the moment the first player walks into the training room until the last one stumbles out. Via Ian Rapaport of The Birmingham News (h/t speedandstrengthcoach.com), "Not everybody wants to lift every day. Sometimes, there are going to be days where class is just wearing them out, they had a test the night before, they have a social issue with a girlfriend, and they walk in the door, and I gotta be at my high energy just to motivate whoever is not ready to rock and roll. It's whatever it takes, whether it be the music or just a motivational quote. My entire staff is willing to go the extra mile, because they know that it's Coach Saban's plan and a piece to the puzzle."
Both Cochran and Saban eat, sleep and drink football. The two are as dedicated to their professions as anyone in the country. This never-ending commitment to excellence and refusal to accept failure has trickled down throughout the Alabama football program.
In Saban's world, a lost day is a lost opportunity—tragic, and to be avoided. Via The Advocate in 2002: "What happened yesterday is history. What happens tomorrow is a mystery. What we do today makes a difference—the precious present moment.”
This belief keeps Alabama athletes working as hard in the offseason as they do in the fall. Crimson Tide football players are expected to be successful in the classroom as well as on the field of play.
Saban's message to his players is clear. Via ESPN, prior to the 2009-10 BCS National Championship win vs. Texas: "What I want our players to focus on is playing their best football and to assume that they’re going to play the best football team they’ve ever played and they’re going to be playing against the best player they've ever played against, and that’s what they should be working to do and what they should be focused on.”
The players get this. Sometimes, as former standout and Kansas City Chief Javier Arenas explains, their take on it can be a little off center. Also via ESPN, “Clutter is clutter, bro. You’re driving down the road thinking about a chick, and you hit a dog in the road. That’s clutter. If you ain’t thinking about what you’re supposed to be thinking about, that’s clutter. I think I’m exceptional at [avoiding clutter]. I slack off every once in a while, but I never hit dogs."
Saban and Arenas arrived in Alabama via two different avenues, but the message was the same.
When it comes to "the process" and the role that the 4th-quarter program plays in it, there are no magic drills. Alabama takes part in most of the same conditioning and training routines as pretty much everyone else. The difference for Alabama is in the repetition. It's in the dedication. It's in the refusal to accept complacency or mediocrity.
Saban and Cochran demand perfection at all times from their players. If it's not done to perfection, do it again. If you fail at something, do it again until you succeed. The rigid routine of endless mental and physical preparation, the constant character building exercises, the insistence that every participant meets the goals set before them, and the eager anticipation of the next challenge is what drives these two. And the players who have bought into 'the process' have reaped endless rewards.