Some coaches like to talk about their success, expounding on various strategies, telling the world exactly what they did right.
Nick Saban is not that type.
The Alabama coach stands atop his profession, leading his top-ranked team into the College Football Playoff championship game against No. 2 Clemson tonight with a chance to tie Bear Bryant’s record of six national titles.
Asked recently about his approach to the job, he offered a modest reply.
“I haven’t really ever invented anything in this game,” he told reporters, adding: “Always just learned from really good people that had success.”
The Crimson Tide often benefit from having the most talent on the field, attracting a new crop of blue-chip recruits each spring. And Saban usually makes good in-game decisions, including a surprise onside kick that proved crucial in defeating Clemson for the title last year.
But Alabama enjoys another edge that isn’t as evident on television.
Since arriving in Tuscaloosa a decade ago, Saban has quietly and consistently stayed ahead of the curve on behind-the-scenes tactics that involve recruiting, staffing and practice.
It all adds up to a program that has won 26 consecutive games and is trying for a fifth championship in eight seasons.
“I tip my hat to them,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Unbelievable run they’ve had under coach Saban. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Last week, Saban spoke briefly about adjustments he has made in the kind of players he recruits, especially on the defensive line, that have been key to success.
Although he resisted the trend toward up-tempo, spread attacks in the college game — updating his offense only recently — Saban adjusted for the change in opponents by looking for specific types of athletes.
The result is someone like All-America defensive end Jonathan Allen, who ranks among the top handful of college players at any position. He has 15 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and has returned two fumbles for touchdowns this season.
“It takes even a different sort of guy that’s more versatile, more athletic, because of the pace of play as well as the style of play that has kind of taken over in college football,” Saban said. “To find guys that are athletic enough to play that position but still strong enough and stout enough to be able to play gaps and play blocks and control the line of scrimmage is even more challenging than it’s ever been before.”
Once Alabama finds and signs these recruits, the program takes extra steps in preparing them to play.
NCAA rules limit each top-level college team to one head coach, nine assistants and four graduate assistants. The Crimson Tide website lists nine additional names under the category of “football analyst.”
These paid consultants aren’t allowed to deal directly with players during practices or games, but can break down film and advise the coaching staff on a daily basis.
Some of Alabama’s analysts are relative newcomers, such as Shea Tierney, who previously worked in the Philadelphia Eagles’ front office. Others are veterans with free time between jobs; Mike Locksley, the former offensive coordinator at Maryland, signed on last spring.
Steve Sarkisian, who was head coach at Washington and USC, held one of the positions until last week, when he was promoted to offensive coordinator.