A failure, to paraphrase Nick Saban, is a terrible thing to waste.
Perhaps because failures have been so rare at Alabama since 2008, Saban has learned to treat them as resources, to use them like fuel. The new phrasing from Saban when asked at SEC Media Days about the national championship loss to Clemson – “We certainly don’t want to waste a failure” – certifies that as the motto for 2017.
Does that mean Saban, who hates losses to his very core, likes having a defeat to build upon? Of course not. But he is constantly pondering ways to keep his team motivated and away from entitlement. He’s dealt with the syndrome before, and made history. The 2008 SEC Championship Game loss to Florida was the genesis of the 2009 SEC title win over the Gators, still the closest any Saban team has come – perhaps the closest any college team has come – to reaching the full potential of a powerful roster.
The same thing happened in 2011, with a little bit of luck. The home loss to LSU was a massive disappointment, a textbook definition of what Saban means by “failure.” Events gave Alabama a second shot at the Tigers that season, in the BCS title game. The failure of November was not wasted.
Like most coaches, Saban isn’t likely to rank his Alabama teams, but one could make a strong argument that the 2016 edition of the Crimson Tide was as good as any team that he has coached, whether in 2009 or 2012 or any other year he might care to choose. But 2016 also reinforced a lesson: It is impossible for a team to play at its peak for 15 consecutive weeks over the course of a season, or for 25 straight games if you stretch back into the 2015 championship season.
There isn’t a counter-example. Clemson, the national champions, didn’t do it either. They lost to Pitt, for goodness’ sake. What Clemson did, though, was play its best football in the postseason. How much of that was the Tigers learning from the previous year’s mistakes, drawing on the 2015 loss to Alabama for motivation? There’s no way to measure that, although Dabo Swinney certainly didn’t deny that was a factor.
Clemson peaked at the perfect time. For the second time in three years, taking nothing from those Ohio State or Clemson teams, Alabama did not. It is a point that Saban has spent most of the offseason pondering.
“Well, we really try to do it the same way because whether you win or lose, we’re always trying to self-assess to see what we need to do to get better,” he said. “I think when you lose, everybody’s much more – the mind-set is much more ‘I’m willing to change. I want to learn. I don’t want to waste a failure. What could we have done better?’
“Because everybody’s hurt by the fact that they lost, especially the way we lost that particular game on the last play of the game – but it wasn’t the last play. It’s what led up to the last play. I think our players realize that.
“It takes a tremendous amount of accountability to be able to execute and sustain the execution for 60 minutes in the game. And we played against a really, really good team, which I think when you get in the playoffs, that should be what you expect.
“We weren’t able to finish the game like we needed to. And I think there’s a lot of lessons to learn, and hopefully we won’t waste a failure.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225