s
s
Sections
You've read 3 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 6 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

PETALUMA — It was July in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the humidity was so stifling, said Trent Herzog, that “after being outside for 20 minutes everyone looked like they are taking a shower in their clothes.”

Herzog, the Casa Grande football coach, didn’t care.

Alabama football coach Nick Saban was telling Herzog he wanted him to coach the defensive backs at Saban’s football camp. You don’t let your mind wander when college football’s god speaks, unless you want an ear blister from Saban’s fire tongue. See the Lane Kiffin video for further amplification.

By what happened next, Herzog felt the sting of Saban’s legendary intensity. Herzog didn’t immediately heed coach Saban’s instruction.

“Hey, coach, we’re coaching here! Let’s go! We need to coach our ass off on the field! That’s the way we do it here!”

“It was a really deep voice,” Herzog remembered.

Herzog explained to Saban he understood the instruction in the abstract but it was a new type of coverage for him and could Saban run just one drill so Herzog could see it?

“I want to know exactly what I’m doing before I teach it,” Herzog said. Saban lowered his thermostat. He understood. Seeing is believing. The blackboard is one-dimensional. No one has ever accused Nick Saban of being one-dimensional.

After a few drills, with Saban perched close by, the man who stands alongside Bear Bryant in ‘Bama legend walked away, satisfied Herzog got the message. Welcome, folks, to the University of Alabama, home to 16 national championships, 24 players who are in college football’s Hall of Fame and 115 All-Americans.

Herzog will give us a peek into the legend within a legend — Saban and Alabama’s legend. How it came to be started simply enough, with Herzog about as far away from Saban and Alabama as Saban is from meditation.

“I just wanted to pick their brain,” Herzog said. “I wanted to be a better coach. I knew I could learn from them.”

Herzog is not talking about Alabama. He’s talking about Cal. Twelve years ago, Jeff Tedford was Cal’s head coach and had a very welcoming open-door policy for local high school coaches. In the summer, high school guys could come to Berkeley and work with Cal coaches. Herzog took advantage of the open door and met Tosh Lupoi.

Lupoi played for De La Salle High School, was a defensive lineman at Cal and at the time 23 and a Bears graduate assistant. Herzog found what so many people since had learned about Lupoi, someone smart and generous and real. No phony baloney. No attitude. Approachable as a warm bath. Thus began the friendship. When Lupoi went to Washington in 2011 as a recruiter, outside linebackers and defensive line coach, their relationship went to another level.

Herzog made Lupoi aware of Elijah Qualls, Casa’s battering-ram fullback and a stone wall on the defensive line. With every Pac-12 school except Stanford heavily pursuing Qualls, Washington and Lupoi won the recruiting battle. Lupoi was hired by Saban in 2014, first as a defensive analyst. A year later, Lupoi’s now the linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator at Alabama.

While Lupoi’s star is rising like a Space Shuttle launch, Herzog began working part-time for XOS Digital, a subscription service available to any American university’s football program.

Herzog scouts Northern California and other regions for players, judging them capable to play anywhere from the NCAA’s highest level all the way down to NAIA. XOS Digital has 200 subscribing universities. One of them is Alabama.

Along with Gary Howard, XOS’ vice president and general manager of recruiting, Herzog made a visit February to several universities in the south. One of them was Alabama.

“It was like going to the Taj Mahal,” Herzog said of Alabama’s facilities. “It’s the cream of the crop.”

That might be understating it. The school has a 37,000-square-foot weight room. They have a waterfall in the 30-foot hydrotherapy room — hot water runs through it before practice, cold water runs after practice. They have a wall with all the names of ‘Bama’s NFL’s first-round draft picks, their names on their NFL jerseys. Six televisions frame the locker room. Each locker has the name of a prominent Alabama player who wore that number, like No. 12 is Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. Each locker has a safe and a cellphone charger. An anti-gravity treadmill was installed for former running back Eddie Lacy to rehab his turf toe; the contraption was so popular ‘Bama kept it.

Seems like a country club, doesn’t it? It does, except for one person. Nick Saban. He’s The Eye That Never Blinks. Herzog was about to find that out. In March, Herzog received a text from his buddy.

“Coach Saban is all over our ass about getting qualified, legitimate coaches for his July camp,” Lupoi wrote. “Want to come?”

There was a caveat to the offer, of course. In 2008, Forbes Magazine named Saban as the most powerful coach in sports. While some people may call him a control freak and others simply say he’s being thorough, Saban sees all, knows all, demands all and will scorch those who stray to a moment of relaxation.

Herzog paused long enough to re-read Lupoi’s text before responding immediately in the affirmative. Yes, this is Alabama Football but, in reality, this is Nick Saban Football. And how’s this for a cherry on the top — Saban would coach the defensive backs in that July camp. Along with Herzog.

“I didn’t feel pressure,” Herzog said. “I wasn’t nervous. I felt excitement.”

Four hundred players went to the Saban camp. About 320 of them were coached by Alabama graduate assistants and high school coaches. The other 80 were judged by Saban to be of the “elite” level. Those players were national caliber. They would be coached by Alabama coaches and about six high school coaches. Herzog was one of them.

Herzog coached defensive backs for four sessions, two hours each session. Saban was with Herzog 25-30 minutes each session. And, yes, The Thought crossed his mind.

“I’m coaching football with Nick Saban,” Herzog thought.

The facilities, the history, the players, they all dovetailed into the Saban persona. It’s as if Alabama was made for him or Saban was made for Alabama. When those elite players were being whipped through non-contact drills, Saban wasn’t trying to recruit.

“He was just showing the kids how to play football,” Herzog said. “This is the national champion year-in and year-out. There’s only one way to do it.”

Saban was Sauron from “Lord of the Rings.” The eye without an eyelid. After the high school camp, Alabama’s players ran their own practice without the coaches. No worries. Saban and his staff watched the practice from their overlooking office windows.

“I learned some techniques,” Herzog said of what he’s applied to Casa football. “I also learned you practice like you play. I get more done in practice now in less time. Alabama might be in a goal-line run drill when the whistle would sound for the kickoff team to take the field. That’s how it was. Saban kept changing things. He kept everyone alert.”

What Herzog could take away, he did. Other times it was impossible. Like that day Saban showed Herzog how he wanted his defensive backs to play.

“It’s called the Rat Coverage,” Herzog said. Most, if not all, coaches teach their defensive backs to use the sideline as the 12th Man. Push the receiver to the sideline. Use the sideline to limit ability, speed, route running.

“At Alabama,” Herzog said, “Saban wants the DBs to force the receivers into the middle for the free safety and linebackers. That’s the Rat Coverage” (where the rat gets trapped).

“One has to have exceptional linebackers and safeties to make that work,” I offered innocently.

Herzog looked at me with one of those “duh” looks.

“This is Alabama,” he said. “They got blue-chip guys everywhere.”

And hydro pools with waterfalls and anti-gravitational treadmills. Yes, Alabama has all the comforts but the players know not to get too comfortable. Otherwise, watch out, you’ll be the receiver in Rat Coverage and Nick Saban will be that linebacker, waiting for you.

Email Bob Padecky at bobpadecky@gmail.com.