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Don’t Call It the Alabama Blueprint

Because what Nick Saban has built is impossible to replicate

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

In the Internet Age, monoculture is unachievable. But there remain a few things that we can all agree on.​ The Ringer is looking at this rarefied group all week. These are our Undeniables.

For those who have long watched an Alabama team that routinely stresses preparation over payoff, the moment was surreal: After knotting the score at 24 points apiece against Clemson in January’s National Championship game, junior Bama kicker Adam Griffith lined up with 10:34 left in the fourth quarter and … gently floated the ball toward the right sideline. Nick Saban’s decision to take a swing that big on a stage that colossal seemed to go against everything for which coach and program stood. The onside-kick call felt impulsive and oddly desperate. It felt recklessly out of character, especially for a man who typically tolerates risk about as well as someone with a peanut allergy tolerates Reese’s. A fourth national title at Alabama was on the line, one to cement Saban as the iconic coach of his generation. How could he pick this instance to try spontaneity?

Only, Saban wasn’t being spontaneous; he was going all in with knowledge of his opponent’s hand. As Saban later revealed, Alabama had practiced this play since August, and in the week leading up to the game, the coach had realized it would work. The players on Clemson’s kick coverage unit had a habit of packing the middle of the field, so Saban knew the area just beyond the right hashmark would likely be abandoned. When Griffith’s kick fell perfectly into Alabama defensive back Marlon Humphrey’s arms, it was more the fulfillment of an expectation than the answering of a prayer. “I thought we had it in the game any time we wanted to do it,” Saban told reporters of the onside kick after Alabama’s 45–40 triumph. “… I felt like if we didn’t do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game that we wouldn’t have a chance to win.”

Though it hadn’t seemed like it at first, it was quintessential Alabama. Saban’s crew resembles a cosmic force as much as a college football team, so naturally it mastered the flukiest play in all of sports. These Crimson Tide aren’t universally beloved or even generally well-liked, but they’ve made an indelible impact on the way an entire sport is staffed, approached, and perceived. In a college football era defined by change, from the shuffle of realignment to the onset of the playoff, they have been a constant, and therefore have become the blueprint for how teams are built across the nation.

It wasn’t always this way. Before Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, he went 15–17 during a two-year stint with the Miami Dolphins. Before that, he turned in impressive-but-not-legendary tenures at Michigan State (34–24–1) and LSU (48–16, including a national title). And before Alabama hired Saban, it went 67–55 over the previous 10 years, a prolonged stretch of mediocrity that left a state in apocalyptic uproar and a historically proud program hellbent on returning to glory.

The Tide went an underwhelming 7–6 in Saban’s debut season, punctuated by an embarrassing home loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Since then, Saban’s squad has gone 98–12, with no equal.

Unless you root for the Crimson Tide, you probably hate Nick Saban. You probably despise his program, and you most likely resent the fact that it will be favored to win the national title again this year. Over the past decade, Alabama has emerged as both the sport’s gold standard and its supervillain; with standout players Calvin Ridley, O.J. Howard, and Jonathan Allen returning to campus, Bama is widely expected to enter the 2016 campaign as the no. 1 team in the AP poll.

Saban’s squad has crystallized into something unstoppable, a dynasty on par with the Yankees of the 1950s, the Lakers of the ’80s, and the Bulls of the ’90s. It is reviled, but also exalted and feared to a level that is unmatched among its contemporaries. So, what fueled Alabama’s rise to this point? And to what extent has its influence spread?

The first answer centers on Saban: The 64-year-old is famously insatiable. His pathological pursuit of the Process — the single-minded emphasis of preparation above all else — has become the stuff of legend. There are countless tidbits about his maniacal (some might say diabolical) nature in this regard, from the idea that he watches every highlight of the prospects he covets to the notion that some of his assistants claim to have never seen him yawn. The most telling anecdote: According to Warren St. John’s excellent feature on Saban in GQ, not long after Alabama shut out LSU to win the 2012 national title, the coach received a congratulatory call from one of his golfing buddies. Saban’s response: “That damn game cost me a week of recruiting.”

The answer to the second question is more complex, but also more revealing. By pairing Saban with a program willing to provide him with every resource imaginable, a juggernaut formed that has yet to be solved. This is the origin story: Bringing Saban to Tuscaloosa produced the White Walkers whose existence now looms over everyone and everything.

Take Alabama’s impact on recruiting. A few months before Saban arrived on campus, the Tide secured the nation’s no. 13 signing class in 2006, according to Rivals.com. Two years later, the Tide pulled in the no. 1 crop — a haul that included world-beaters Julio Jones, Barrett Jones, Mark Ingram, Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower, and Marcell Dareus. Over the next eight years, Bama inked Rivals.com’s top-rated class six times; competitors were forced to either devote extra resources to recruiting (launching an arms race of sorts) or push for legislation to limit Saban’s effectiveness (like the SEC’s crackdown on oversigning in 2011).

Or take the way Saban’s Alabama has influenced the SEC from a strategy standpoint: In 2008, the conference appeared to be on the brink of being overrun by spread offenses, with Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin leading Florida to a national championship. But behind a run-heavy offense and a stifling defense, the Tide dismantled those Gators in ’09 before winning three of the next four national titles. When fans throughout the South rave about “Big Boy Football,” they are mostly gloating about Alabama — a superior roster elevated by superior coaching that annihilates lesser teams of 18- to 21-year-olds. Most schematic evolutions in the league have been made in an effort to stem the Tide. Usually, those efforts have failed in spectacular fashion.

And, perhaps most notably, Saban’s Alabama has caused a ripple effect that extends to the highest reaches of college athletic departments: By sustaining a caliber of success that’s unparalleled in the modern era, the Tide have played a role in determining which opposing coaches get to keep their jobs. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples wrote a story about this phenomenon in 2012, and that trend has only grown more prevalent since. Gene Chizik, Phillip Fulmer, and Tommy Tuberville were all ousted because they couldn’t keep pace, while former Saban assistants Jimbo Fisher, Jim McElwain, and Will Muschamp were all poached to be head coaches at big-name schools. Last November, Georgia even canned Mark Richt, who’d gone 145–51 over 15 seasons, to hire Kirby Smart, who’d never been a head coach, but who’d served as Saban’s longtime defensive coordinator. That kind of move might sound ludicrous to someone who hasn’t watched Saban stomp his competition for almost a decade, but it’s become the norm rather than the exception.

The problem, of course, is that replicating this version of the Tide is impossible. No other coach is Saban, and no other program is Alabama.

The Crimson Tide’s masterpiece under Saban came in the 2012 national championship, when they obliterated Notre Dame in a 42–14 rout. It was a beatdown on par with the bear mauling Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, only in this case Leo looked like Michael Cera and the bear was accompanied by two grizzly friends. While there were plenty of flashpoint moments throughout that game — Eddie Lacy barreling through the Fighting Irish defense; Ha Ha Clinton-Dix corralling an acrobatic sideline interception; Amari Cooper racing downfield for a 34-yard touchdown — only one summed up what Alabama is truly about.

With just more than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, and with a Bama victory well in hand, quarterback AJ McCarron and center Barrett Jones got their pre-snap signals crossed. McCarron called a timeout before publicly berating Jones, and Jones responded by forcefully shoving McCarron with both hands.

Bama was up 28 points, facing a meaningless second-and-6 with a national title all but assured. It would be the team’s third title in four years under Saban, and it’d stand to reason that McCarron and Jones should have been celebrating. But reveling in a win is simply not what members of Saban’s Alabama do. (Least of all those with tattoos that look like this.) The Tide had already beaten the hell out of Notre Dame, so they decided to beat the hell out of themselves.

And that’s the final part of the equation here. Alabama is not solely a powerhouse because of Saban; he is also a powerhouse because of Alabama. There’s a reason he has stayed at this school longer than any other (he is entering his 10th year with the Tide, compared with five-year stints at both Michigan State and LSU), and there’s a reason his legend has soared to meteoric heights in Tuscaloosa. He’s obsessive, but only to the extent that Alabama’s fans and players are. After all, any fan base can have a rallying cry; not every one is willing to apply it to all facets of life, from placing in regional science competitions to getting arrested for heroin use. To label this the perfect marriage between coach and school would be an understatement. This partnership has been so extraordinarily fruitful that it even revived Lane Kiffin’s career.

Saban has been labeled as the devil too many times to count. That’s largely because he carries himself with the charisma of a machine-automated telemarketer, and because his program has a ruthless, soul-sucking quality that is often reserved for dictatorships. Yet it goes beyond that. Saban is detested for landing in the one situation that could take his Process and make it unimpeachable. As long as he and his team keep winning, they will continue to be seen as evil.

But if that’s the price of immortality, so be it. It’s easy to hate Saban’s Alabama; it’s impossible to ignore its ubiquity. The devil is many things — forgotten is not one of them.