The Process vs. the Mad Hatter: Comparing Nick Saban & Les Miles Coaching Styles

Sanjay Kirpalani@@SanjayKirpalaniNational Recruiting AnalystNovember 8, 2013

The contrasting coaching styles of Les Miles and Nick Saban is one of the more intriguing subplots of the rivalry between LSU and Alabama.

Saban preceded Miles in Baton Rouge, and since he set roots in Tuscaloosa in 2007, the “Saban Bowl” has elevated into a game that is circled on the calendar at the beginning of every season.

The eyes of the college football world will once again be focused on the SEC West titans as the Tide and the Tigers tangle in Tuscaloosa this weekend—which will be the sixth consecutive meeting in which both teams are ranked in the AP Top 10.

Both coaches have been highly successful, yet their methods appear to be on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Let’s break down the Mad Hatter against the orchestrator of the process.


How they deal with the media

If there is one thing both Saban and Miles have in common, it’s that you never know when their press conferences will become anything but ordinary.

Saban is equivalent to a volcano that could erupt at any point. For Saban, the media is mostly a source of clutter, as he commonly refers to it, that distracts his team from focusing on the next task at hand.

Ask any media personality who has covered a Saban presser, yours truly included, and he or she is sure to have a horror story that involves one reporter who simply asked the wrong question or used a word or phrase that triggered “angry Saban.”

Miles is more of a free spirit who could go any number of directions.

Sure, there are times where he can be as intense as anyone, including Saban. However, there’s a playful side to the Mad Hatter.

One that can go into details about chewing grass, or discuss what his kids eat for breakfast while simultaneously running a red light, as he did earlier this week with ESPN’s Kaylee Hartung riding shotgun.

Both coaches have had their moments in dealing with criticism, but for the most part, they are also firmly in control of the message that comes from their respective locker rooms.



Saban is simply a no-nonsense disciplinarian.

Everything he does is organized and has a purpose. His team follows that same standard, as does everyone contributing to Alabama football.

Of course, his approach has been melted down into two words—the process.

The process, at its root, is the fundamental principle of giving the same focus and attention to detail with every task that comes in front of you. The next play is the most important one. Practices and meetings require the same discipline and focus as each game does. With that approach, the desired outcome will take care of itself.

While Saban rules in Tuscaloosa with an iron fist, Miles is considerably looser in his approach.

Communication with his players is the foundation of his program.

As former Tigers All-American (and current Arizona Cardinal) corner Patrick Peterson told ESPN’s Chris Low recently, “I'd go back in a heartbeat and play for him if I had it to do all over again. He just has this special way of getting the best out of guys and making them believe that they can do anything,” Peterson added.

However, behind the casual and loose exterior is an ultra-competitive spirit that is reflected every time he leads his team onto the field.


Gameday and Preparation

There’s a reason why both Miles and Saban have combined to win four national titles and 82 percent of the games they have coached in since 2007.

Both coaches have a tireless work ethic and thrive on instilling their clubs with a mindset to physically impose their will upon opponents. Both have legendary mentors, with Saban being a disciple of Don James and Miles coming from the Bo Schembechler coaching tree.

On gamedays, Saban and his staff excel at pushing the right buttons at the right time. He’s just as intense in the first and fourth quarters of a blowout. However, in moments when his team is being challenged—as they were down 14-0 in the first quarter at Texas A&M in September—he uses positive reinforcement to get his troops to settle down.

Like Miles, Saban isn’t afraid to gamble, either. For example, he one-upped Miles by converting a critical fake field goal early in the 2012 BCS title game.

On the flip side, Miles appears to be less organized than his predecessor in Baton Rouge.

Sure, LSU always has physically dominant athletes and defenses that overwhelm a majority of its opponents.

However, Miles’ teams have been consistent in their inconsistency in areas such as discipline and clock management. The same could be said for the Tigers offense; although the recent hire of offensive guru Cam Cameron has been fruitful so far this season.

Of course, there’s Miles' tendency to roll the dice and go for broke, regardless of the circumstances—an approach that led to his famed moniker.

Regardless of his flaws, Miles has found ways to position his program as one of the SEC’s most consistent powers.



Saban’s recruiting philosophy is similar to the attitude his teams play with—relentless.

He’s consistently excelled at identifying and luring in top-tier talent as well as diamonds in the rough. In addition to the size and speed of a player, Saban works diligently to uncover key components such as mental toughness, character and the ability to respond to a demanding coach staff.

The results have been staggering. Alabama is on pace to land its fourth consecutive No. 1 recruiting class, according to 247Sports.

The Tide’s recent success has allowed them to cast a wide net in their quest to lure the nation’s top talent to Tuscaloosa. For example, only five of Alabama’s 22 commitments in the 2014 class are from Alabama.

Meanwhile, Miles has largely relied on the blueprint Saban established when he was in charge of the Tigers program. LSU tries to lock up the best players in talent-rich Louisiana and pluck blue-chippers out of neighboring Texas.

In fact, 61 of the 89 players Miles has signed since 2010 hail from those two states. In that time period, LSU’s average 247Sports class rank is eighth.

Lately, Miles’ biggest challenge on the recruiting trail has been keeping Saban and the Tide away from the top targets in the Pelican State. Alabama has pulled six players from Louisiana in its last four classes, including the memorable process of former mega-recruit and current Tide safety Landon Collins. Miles had a classic response to Collins' decision, per Jim Kleinpeter of The Times-Picayune:

Saban has won four of the seven contests against Miles, including the last two meetings. The Tide’s 21-0 win over the Tigers in the 2012 BCS title game has swung the momentum in this rivalry toward Tuscaloosa.

LSU is a significant underdog heading into Saturday night’s tilt, but if history has proven anything, it’s that Miles is most dangerous when the odds are against his program.

Regardless of the outcome, the series between the Tide and the Tigers will continue to capture the nation’s attention thanks to the polarizing figures standing on opposite sidelines.


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