The Science of Alabama's Nick Saban

Larry BurtonSenior Writer IApril 30, 2010

Larry Burton (Panama City Beach, Fla.): The longer I am around Nick Saban, the more I learn about him.

I guess that's true of anyone you know. But I am always surprised when I see a new layer of Saban peeled back.

To understand Saban is like dealing with a mutating virus. Constantly changing, always working, always seeking to grow, and infectious to others.

Of course, I mean all that in a good way.

But to talk about Saban on a less personal level, and only as a coach, you have to understand his mindset behind what he does, how much thought goes into it and the science he incorporates into it.

Take recruiting.

Lots of people come to Nick with suggestions on "the next great player," including his own assistants, but you can bet that they don't excessive amount of time with them and no one is signed, unless they have first passed Saban's long look.

The science of psychology is just as important as the study of athletic ability.

"Athletic ability is part of the total athlete we look to sign." Saban told me at an assembled group. "They have to have character, the ability to excel with the class work, and able to live up to expectations we have and the rules we set down.

"Of course, we look for all that and kids who are good athletically, but only those who can and will try to get better each day. It's those rare players you look for who never stop improving.

"I don't want a guy who thinks he already knows it all, because I've been doing this all my life, and I don't know it all." he continued.

Marquis Johnson told me in an interview last season that Saban's coaching isn't all one-sided. When I asked him if it was tough to play his position with Saban always watching the D-backs, his answer surprised me.

"I guess it could intimidate, but not after you get to know him." Johnson said. "I'll try something maybe a little wild and different. and if it works he may like it and incorporate it, but if it doesn't he'll let you know that, too...real quick!

"He doesn't want robots out there doing everything his way; he teaches us to use our skills and our minds to adapt on the fly, but still using proper techniques.

"Sometimes he'll show us a very small thing and it makes a big difference, but he trusts that we'll use it at the right time when the situation calls for it." Johnson said.

"I've seen what he can do to players other than myself if they just buy in 100 percent to all that he teaches and preaches.

"He can raise your game higher than anyone else, he can get you to see things you missed before, and have you fearing no man on that field one on one, because you have the edge." Johnson finished.

Indeed, as I inquired about the little things, I was told about footwork and the subtle use of rotating a shoulder, what position your body needed to be in to cut with a receiver.

By the end of my interview, it was clear that Saban dealt not just with X's and O's but the physiology of the player's body and physics itself.

But mostly it was how to use your sight and body in connection with your mind, to not worry about what happens in that one second of time we call the present.

Saban wanted his players to have already evaluated the present and be working on what was to happen next.

For a linebacker for example, you know you're going to push the blocker to the left, take a quick step the right, and then what?

Saban wants his players thinking three steps ahead.

A great example of the Science of Saban can be seen at this site my friend Franklin Crittenden, another great Bleacher Report writer, showed me.

Take a look at this video for an understanding of what I'm saying.

Strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran has a degree in Kinesiology. Kinesiologists work with individuals with debilitating conditions, to assist in regaining their optimal physical function, as well as teaching them how to better to their bodies to move either quicker or more safely.

It is no wonder that injuries on the team has dramatically decreased nor that Cochran's salary has likewise increased. You can learn more about Cochran here .

It's all just one more part of the Science of Saban.

Then there is the mind itself. Not just inputting the playbook and the knowledge to do your job, but how to condition your mind, just like your body.

For this, Saban brought in the Pacific Institute, a Seattle-based company that has conducted mental conditioning classes for Crimson Tide players since 2008. So if you have a new untested quarterback as Alabama did last season, you get his mind as conditioned as his arm.

"They've proven to us you can be so much more effective if your mind is allowing you to be effective," quarterback Greg McElroy said. "Both Antowaine and Nesby (Pacific Institute instructors) have helped us incredibly."

We talked about the kind of off-the-field activity that had Alabama players in the headlines a few years back. Now, that too has disappeared, thanks in part to the science of Saban and the Pacific Institute.

In talking about both accountability and self esteem, this part of a Jon Solomon interview with Alabama players tells how players learn to deal with more than football.

Linebacker Cory Reamer and safety Mark Barron taught some classes about setting goals and making affirmations. Younger players benefit by hearing the lessons from their peers, Reamer said.

"Especially with everybody coming from different backgrounds, it kind of settles everybody into the same attitude, the same mindset of what you want to accomplish and how you have to go about doing that," Reamer said.

Richardson said he and Glasgow apologized to the team last January after hearing from players about how dysfunctional Alabama was in season-ending losses to Florida and Utah.

"We assumed that the team knew what a healthy, constructive family looked like," Richardson said. "To our dismay, we found many of the players came from destructive homes, so it was hard to understand that.

"So when they found themselves in a dire-straits situation, instead of coming together, they tore each other apart.

"It was dysfunctional activity they got into, both in the SEC Championship Game in the fourth quarter and the entire Utah game. They were derogatory to each other. 'How could you mess that up? How could you do this or that?'"

Many players later described coming from homes filled with drug, alcohol, and verbal abuse, leading to a dialogue about what a healthy family acts like, Richardson said.

Richardson marvels at some of the individual transformations. He said McElroy suffered from self-image issues in the middle of this season as he struggled on the field.

"He talked to me briefly after the Tennessee game and said he was a little overwhelmed, because it had been a while since he'd been in position to be the starter and leader," Richardson said. "He was able to overcome that type of dialogue with himself, though, by simply being himself.

"I told him, 'In order to perform at the level you want to perform at, you have to stop this catastrophic thinking that 'maybe I might lose a game,' or 'maybe they expect too much of me,' or 'maybe I'm not good enough.'"

McElroy said he appreciated simple advice from Richardson and many others: Have fun.

"Sometimes you can get so down on yourself and upset that you don't allow yourself to have fun anymore," McElroy said.

Richardson said linebacker Rolando McClain became the "Tim Tebow of the team," a passionate leader whose energy fills the locker room. Before the rematch against Florida, McClain instructed teammates what to focus on and how to finish the game, Richardson said.

"It's night and day when you talk to a kid in the beginning who doesn't see himself as a leader and says, 'I'm just going to do me,'" Richardson said. "He's not thinking that anymore. He accepted his role."

What Saban does with his players is part father, part coach, part mentor, and definitely part scientist.

It's the science of Saban you hear so little about, that makes such a huge difference.

That science is just one ingredient in that recipe known as "The Process," and now you understand just a little more about that process and the mad scientist behind it.


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