TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — They're the scariest words a University of Alabama player can hear: "Coach wants to see you."
They might mean nothing. A quick meeting—no problem. But they might mean you're in the doghouse—and that's a problem.
"You don't want to be in Coach Saban's doghouse," says safety Rashad Johnson of the Tennessee Titans, who played for Saban at Alabama in 2007-08. "It's a tough house to be in."
It starts with an intimidating walk to the coach's office through the maze of hallways in the Crimson's Tide football complex.
"It's scary. It's nerve-wracking," Alabama safety Eddie Jackson says.
Linda Leoni, Saban's assistant, may be as nice as can be, but when you're waiting outside that office door, your mind tends to wander—especially when the meeting is destined to not go well.
"You get nervous, and your palms start to sweat," Jackson says. "You start to go, 'All right, what am I up here for? What did I do?'"
Sooner or later, everyone in a Saban program gets a little tough love, even those who don't end up in the doghouse, which is reserved for those in real trouble. It carries a stigma that's recognized by all of his players, no matter when or where they might have suited up for him.
"As a freshman," says 2004 All-American defensive lineman Marcus Spears, who played for Saban at LSU, "it's the most terrifying thing in the world."
But the doghouse is more than that. It's also a place that's shielded from the outside world as much as possible. Saban often talks about his players being like his own kids. He's a disciplinarian, but he's also protective.
"Sometimes these adolescents disappoint us," he says. "How do we react to that? How do we respond to that? When you have a family and you have someone in your family who disappoints you, we certainly can't kick them out of our family. I think we have to try to support them, teach them, get them to do the right things because we love them, we care about them."
That part of Saban has to be understood in order to grasp how he handles the doghouse. Even when a player doesn't work out, there's usually little more than a news release or maybe a casual mention that he left to pursue something else.
Why? Because Saban never forgets he's dealing with kids, young men who are going to make mistakes.
"He believes that people will thrive if given the opportunity," says Hondo Carpenter, the founder and publisher of SpartanNation.com, which covers Michigan State.
Saban's reputation for giving players second chances started to develop in East Lansing, where he had his first high-profile head coaching job in 1995-99.
"If you're willing to work hard and haven't gone too far, he's willing to work with you," Carpenter says. "I think Nick's greatest strength is his humanity."
Michigan State athletics director Mark Hollis, who has been with the school since 1995, agrees.
"He cares about people," Hollis says. "I think he always has, even when he was driving them maybe a little harder than he does today."
There's always a way out of Saban's doghouse. It's just a matter of which exit a player uses—and how deep they're in.
The Doghouse: The Floor Plan
If the doghouse existed physically, it would have three levels that could be described as the main floor, the basement and the subbasement, which we'll call the cellar.
The main floor is where players who make a first mistake or are in the wrong place at the wrong time end up. It can be pretty easy to escape.
The basement is for more serious issues or repeated poor behavior. Players there might get suspended or suddenly not figure too much in the game plan.
The cellar is for major offenses and players who won't change their approaches or attitudes or won't make amends. They drag others down with them. For some, the cellar can be a way station to someplace else.
Ideally, Saban would never have a player exit through the back door, but that's unrealistic nowadays. Alabama has one of the top graduation rates in college football, but even its best recruiting classes have their failures. Try as he might, the coach can't get through to everyone.
In a defensive moment during SEC media days in 2014, Saban famously said, "There's not one player—not one player since I've been a head coach—that I kicked off the team that ever went anywhere and amounted to anything and accomplished anything, playing or academically."
"The one thing that kills him," Spears says, "is when he gives a guy a second chance and he doesn't 'get' it."
Before there are second chances, of course, there are first chances. Every player who arrives on campus is given a book that outlines not only what's expected of him but also how he should go about fulfilling his daily responsibilities. It includes everything from the code of conduct to when to eat and study.
Saban sits down with each player and goes over the large-scale plan for him and how he's going to accomplish it. The coach is particular about what he wants done, how he wants it done and when he wants it done.
That kind of attention to detail can take a little getting used to.
"He made it so you never wanted to make a mistake," former Spartans running back/linebacker T.J. Duckett says. "If you made a mistake in practice, everyone heard about it from him telling you that you made that mistake. What that did, though, was it forced everyone to be accountable."
Says Jackson: "One day when I was a freshman in practice and Coach Saban was yelling at me, it almost brought tears to my eyes. I'd never had that feeling before. It was scary. Ha Ha [Clinton-Dix] came and talked to me and said, 'This is big-boy ball. This isn't high school anymore.'
"He does it to help you. Like they say, if he doesn't, you should be worried."
Most don't have to worry. But sooner or later just about everyone strays in some way.
Not all situations are the same, and neither are the consequences, but during the season there's an important cog that Saban includes in his decision-making process: the players' leadership council.
"The less the leadership group has to meet with Coach Saban the better off the team's going to be because that means the coaches aren't running the team, the players are," says former Alabama center Ryan Kelly, a co-captain on the 2015 national champions. "[Last] year, we didn't have to meet that many times. That was huge."
When something major happens, though, there's almost always a sit-down meeting with the coach—similar to the ones he regularly holds with players to go over their individual progress. While circumstance dictate the timing and location, it's always held behind closed doors.
Three things are addressed, with the objective to get not just the player but also the person back on track:
Where he went wrong.
How can he fix it?
Most importantly, what he'll learn from it.
"There's a lot of people who make mistakes," says running back Kenyan Drake, who was a third-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in the 2016 NFL draft after some early incidents during his Alabama career, including a suspension for breaking team rules, being left off the travel roster for a season opener and an arrest for crossing police lines to get to his parked car. "It's not that hard for Saban to be upset with you about something."
Actually, the coach being upset is often the least of a player's worries.
Level 1: The Main Floor
It was Sept. 11, 2010, and fresh off a national championship, Alabama was hosting Penn State. There was a special pregame handshake at midfield involving Saban, former coaching wins leader Bobby Bowden and Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, who had passed Bowden and whom Saban had immense respect for from his days in the Big Ten.
Roughly six minutes into the game, redshirt freshman wide receiver Kevin Norwood scored his first career touchdown, a 36-yard catch-and-run on a crossing route. In the clear, he flipped into the end zone in celebration.
"You can't do that" was all Saban said on the sideline, but Norwood landed in the doghouse for embarrassing the coach and program. It took two months for Norwood to make another reception—and two years for him to score his second touchdown. He got the message.
"I just worked my way out of it," says Norwood, who became known for his clutch catches and is now on the New York Giants practice squad. "I just kept my nose to the grindstone and continued to make plays for him. Eventually, he started loving me again."
The Titans' Johnson landed in the doghouse after he was arrested in 2008 for disorderly conduct at a Tuscaloosa bar. When video surfaced of the late-night fracas, he agreed to a plea deal in which the charges would be dismissed after he performed 40 hours of community service and made a statement supporting the police department.
The incident was magnified because Johnson was a team captain and it occurred a few days after defensive lineman Jeremy Elder had robbed two students at gunpoint. Nevertheless, he didn't know he was OK with his coach until Saban said during a news conference, "I would be very pleased if my children had the character of Rashad."
Those were words Johnson says he'll never forget.
"He's not just a guy who throws you into the doghouse and forgets you," Johnson says. "He puts you in there because he's trying to get you to learn something and make you better as a player or as a person. But at the end of the day, he still has his hand out to try and help you if he can in any way."
That's if he can.
Level 2: The Basement
Linebacker Ryan Anderson appeared to be on the verge of stardom when he arrived at Alabama. Hailed by some as a can't-miss prospect, he was rated by 247Sports as the nation's No. 19 overall player and the No. 1 linebacker in the signing class of 2012.
But then he all but vanished to fans. Anderson redshirted and was sent home before the BCS National Championship Game in Miami along with linebacker Dillon Lee for violating team rules. Saban wanted it to be a wake-up call.
"Yeah, it was a culture shock for me," Anderson says about his early struggles. "I had to do stuff that I was never asked to do before. At first, I was real stubborn about it, just being young, and that kind of railroaded me a little bit. I got in my own way."
It took a couple of years, but Anderson started to trust in what he was being told, and things started to come together. He came on strong during the 2015 stretch run and was a key part of the defense this season. In addition to becoming a team leader, the senior was named first team All-SEC by the Associated Press and shared the team's Defensive Player of the Year award with lineman Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster.
His story is like Drake's in that way.
"When I first got to campus, I was a snotty-nosed little freshman who thought he knew everything," Drake said during the SEC's 2015 media days, when he was one of three players representing the Crimson Tide.
"You always make mistakes. I'm a testament to that, being on Coach Saban's bad side sometimes, especially coming up from where I was. Coach Saban is a very forgiving person. You won't meet any better person than Coach Saban, honestly."
Despite some injury issues, including a horrific broken leg suffered at Ole Miss in 2014, Drake finished his career on a high note, scoring a huge touchdown in last season's College Football Playoff National Championship with a 95-yard kick return for a touchdown. He was the third running back selected in the 2016 NFL draft.
"I think Kenyan Drake is a great example of a guy who's matured in the program to become what we all want in a college football player," Saban said at SEC media days last year. "He's had his issues in the past, but he's gained great maturity personally by becoming a leader on our team and one of the guys on the leadership council."
Alabama fans saw something similar from left tackle Cam Robinson and reserve safety Hootie Jones, who were arrested in May and facing weapons and drug charges in their hometown of Monroe, Louisiana, before a controversial decision by District Attorney Jerry Jones not to prosecute them.
Normally, Saban is silent about potential punishments, calling them internal matters, but documents obtained by KNOE 8 News in Monroe showed that Robinson and Jones were suspended and drug tested weekly, had regular drug counseling and monthly video appointments with a mental health consultant and participated in gun-safety education.
They also had to complete 20 hours of community service. Robinson spent at least 26 hours riding along with the Northport Police Department, while Jones spent 21 days in a drug rehab program.
Because they were first-time visitors to the doghouse, neither missed any games. Jones became a key contributor to the secondary after Jackson suffered a season-ending leg fracture, while Robinson was a unanimous All-American selection, won the Outland Trophy as college football's best interior lineman and is expected to be a top pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
So is linebacker Tim Williams, who was arrested in September and charged with carrying a pistol without a permit. Williams served a first-half suspension against Kentucky and has a pretrial court appearance scheduled for two days after the national title game, according to DecaturDaily.com.
They all escaped the doghouse.
Level 3: The Cellar
When it comes to second chances with Saban, there are two prime examples.
One was Alabama defensive end D.J. Pettway, who in 2013 was at the scene when students were attacked and robbed by players on campus. Along with Eddie Williams, Tyler Hayes and Brent Calloway, Pettway was suspended and subsequently dismissed from school.
Only he worked his way back. After Pettway spent a year at East Mississippi Community College, where he accumulated 45 tackles, including 18.5 for a loss and 11.5 sacks, Saban and Alabama gave him the opportunity to return. He did and earned his degree.
"Words can't describe how grateful I am," he said.
Long before him came former Michigan State wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who was arrested in 1993 after police found a gun in his car. That landed him in jail for a violation of his probation from an earlier marijuana bust, but head coach George Perles, one of Saban's mentors, didn't kick him off the team. Two years later, the Lansing, Michigan, native had a breakout season in Saban's first year as the Spartans' head coach and was drafted in the second round.
Muhammad went on to have a 14-year NFL career. In 1999, the Carolina Panthers named him their Man of the Year. The father of eight helped found an investment company, and one of his sons plays basketball at Princeton.
Both Muhammad and Saban both learned from it, and the coach often refers to his former player as a reason why he gives second chances. When Saban was chastised by reporters for bringing Pettway back, he talked about Muhammad.
"Everybody in the school, every newspaper guy, everybody was killing a guy because he got in trouble and said there's no way he should be on our team," Saban said toward the end of Pettway's first season back with the Crimson Tide. "... I feel strong about this now—really strong—about all the criticism out there about every guy who is 19 years old and makes a mistake, and you all kill them, and then some people won't stand up for them.
"So my question to you is, where do you want them to be? Want to condemn them to a life sentence? Or do you want a guy to have his children going to Princeton?"
But not everyone has worked out.
Beyond the Doghouse
Defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor had been arrested on domestic violence charges and kicked off the Georgia team when Saban gave him a second chance in 2015 after Taylor spent a year in junior college. When Taylor was arrested again at Alabama, he was dismissed without ever having suited up, and Saban's critics had a field day at his expense.
Taylor was back in football this year at Southeastern Louisiana.
Another was Timothy Pope, a talented linebacker who was considered a risk when Saban gave him a scholarship to LSU in 2001. He was kicked off the team, and things only got worse from there.
In 2011, Pope was sentenced to 10 years in prison as a habitual offender after he beat up a motel clerk and stole a ring.
Glenn Guilbeau, the longtime LSU writer for the Times in Shreveport, remembers when Saban announced the suspension of Damien James after the starting free safety stopped showing up to practice—even though he knew it would hurt the team.
Sure enough, in the 2002 regular-season finale at Arkansas, LSU appeared to have locked up the SEC West title with a field goal with 40 seconds remaining. But DeCori Birmingham got behind James' replacement for a 31-yard touchdown, and the extra point gave the Razorbacks a 21-20 victory.
Despite the outcome, Saban continued to try to reach out to James and even allowed him to participate in LSU's pro day workouts. According to Phil Savage, the executive director of the Senior Bowl and former Cleveland Browns general manager, there were numerous second-chance players from Michigan State and LSU whom Saban went to bat for with scouts, telling them they should take another look despite the red flags.
"He's won five national championships," Spears says. "He's had over 100 All-Americans. He doesn't need a 5-star who's going to bring a lot of baggage to put on his team to have success. I never get it when people say, 'Well, if that player wasn't a 5-star,' or 'If he wasn't a really good football player, he wouldn't give him a second chance.'"
Jimmy Johns' second chance didn't come until after football. One of the players Saban inherited at Alabama, he had won Mississippi's Mr. Football Award in 2004. A big, imposing running back no one wanted to try to tackle, he was hyped as having immense potential.
But off the field, Johns was a lost soul. He had battled depression. His dad had never been around, and his grandfather died in a car accident in 2006. The only other role models in his life were coaches, but Mike Shula and his staff were fired the same year Johns' life went into a tailspin.
Johns was arrested and charged with fives counts of distribution and one count of possession of cocaine in June 2008. He struck a plea deal but still went to prison for a year.
Johns has since turned his life around.
"He didn't give up on me," Johns said of Saban. "He knew who I was as a person and what was in my heart, and he just continued to give. It's a blessing."
This spring, Johns returned to the place where he used to seem destined for greatness—Bryant-Denny Stadium—and participated in Alabama's alumni flag football game prior to the A-Day game. While fans started to claim their seats for the real scrimmage, many did double takes as Johns was awarded the MVP trophy.
What really had Johns smiling, though, was his personal water boy: wide-eyed son Jimmy Jr.
"I'm doing great," he said. "I'm still in school, about to finish up my degree at the university. I've been online about two years now. I'm training athletes and working every day.
"It's unbelievable to be back, to have my family come with me, to have my son here to see the crowd, the people here and the athletes here. It's just an amazing feeling."
As for what Saban meant to him after everything he had been through, Johns only had a one-word answer: "Everything."
Quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.