Before Nick Saban, there was uncertainty.
There is ambiguity and apprehension that comes with any coaching search. The University of Alabama’s pursuit of a new football coach at the end of the 2006 season was rife with it.
Rich Rodriguez had been offered the job and turned it down in the middle of the Crimson Tide’s bowl preparation. Saban, head coach of the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League at the time, had publicly said he wouldn’t be the next coach in Tuscaloosa. Steve Spurrier’s name was publicly floated for the job. The process that eventually brought The Process to Alabama carried on for more than a month.
“One of the things I knew was that you couldn’t worry about the things you couldn’t control,” former quarterback John Parker Wilson said. “And we couldn’t control who the next coach was going to be or who wanted to come there or not.”
The season had been long and disappointing. After going 10-2 in 2005, Mike Shula was let go after going 6-6 in 2006. Some players felt like 2006 was just a down year rather than a larger step back for the program.
“I think everybody, to a man, would still tell you today that they love Mike Shula,” former offensive lineman Mike Johnson said. “A lot of people had allegiance to Mike and feel like he was done wrong.”
If losing Shula was difficult for players, moving on without a permanent head coach was even more difficult. Defensive coordinator Joe Kines was appointed interim head coach, but there was still a void at the top of the program.
“It’s so weird to play for a program without a head coach,” Johnson said. “You don’t feel like you have any direction. You don’t feel like you have any goals. You’re not sure what you’re getting.”
There was nothing uncertain about Nick Saban. News broke that he had accepted the job on Jan. 3, and he was introduced in Tuscaloosa the next day. Most of the players were home with their families when it happened. They learned about it by watching ESPN or reading a newspaper, much like most of the fans.
Changes from Shula started with the very first handshake. Johnson was watching Saban’s press conference on TV when he saw the incumbent quarterback introduce himself to the new coach.
“They had video of (John Parker Wilson) shaking Coach Saban’s hand in the hallway and I just remember thinking that Coach Saban didn’t look too chatty,” Johnson said. “…I thought that was a big signal for how things were going to go.”
The interaction wasn’t much more comfortable in person.
“I went up there and said, ‘Hey, coach, looking forward to getting started,’” Wilson said. “He kind of chuckled like, ‘Yeah, we’re starting Fourth Quarter drills next week. We’ll see if you still want to be around here then.’”
The first impression many players had of Saban came from his time with the Dolphins. Saban made headlines in summer of 2006 when he berated Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Manuel Wright. The lineman left the field crying in full view of cameras as Saban continued his scorching rebuke.
Alabama players weren’t greeted with so much fire, but some of their introductions were chilly. Linebacker Eryk Anders was walking through the football facility with defensive back Chris Rogers when he found himself face to face with their new coach.
“We bumped into him, and I was really surprised that he wasn’t a bit taller,” Anders said. “But you could tell when you shook his hand that he was there to win and he was about business. … The same day we got introduced to him, he cracked open to the playbook. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that approach. They hired him on to win, and at the end of the day that’s what he’s doing.”
From his very first day on campus, Saban used words like “champion” and “dominate.” He arrived with a new vision for the program and intensity that had been lacking. He had a national championship at LSU to prove his concept and experience in the NFL to round out his credentials. His personality may have been alien to players, but he had the proof that his methods worked.
He had help, too. Strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran was one of the first to arrive. He would be responsible for the offseason program Saban alluded to when he met Wilson.
“They showed us a diagram, almost like a walkthrough, how this Fourth Quarter program was going to be run,” Johnson said. “They wanted to make sure that things ran smoothly when we got to Fourth Quarter. I remember that day, thinking, ‘This is not going to be good. This is not going to be like Coach Shula’s old mat drills. This is going to be different.’ I think we did maybe a total of six mat drills with Coach Shula the year before, and this was a four-day-a-week process, this Fourth Quarter program. It was not a fun time. I remember going through that dry run of it, they were telling you the times we were going to achieve and how quick we were going to do this. We had like a one-minute water break in the middle of an hour of running. I’m sitting there going, ‘We might die.’”
Johnson’s fears might have been exaggerated. The difficulty of the Fourth Quarter program was not.
During one day of conditioning, players were required to run 16 110-yard sprints. Players were all expected to meet certain time standards that were laid out before. Every time players missed their required time, false-started, or made some other error, they had another 110-yard sprint added on top of the initial 16.
“So the first day we ended up doing 36,” Anders said. “That was an eye-opener. We weren’t very mentally tough.”
Running 36 sprints at 110 yards each adds up to more than two miles of all-out running.
“I think that was the most that had ever been done in the history of mankind, seriously,” Wilson said.
Spring practice saw just as many changes. Wilson said there wasn’t much downtime between the end of the Fourth Quarter program and the start of spring. The players struggled as soon as they hit the field.
“What I really remember with our first spring practice, we always start practice with a walkthrough,” former wide receivers coach Curt Cignetti said. “Our players, they were blown. They were gassed by period one or two. And I don’t know if it was anxiety or what, but it was just so different for them. … Maybe they were going too hard and just didn’t know the tempo. It took those guys a while to kind of build up and get to the point where they could make it through practice.”
WINNING THE STATE
The changes weren’t limited to the weight room or the practice field. Saban arrived to find a roster in need of a rebuild. He needed to improve the current players, but also needed to find reinforcements in recruiting. Work was spent on both in equal measure.
“The whole thing is built around ‘The Process,’” Cignetti said. “Just improving every day and improving the program as much as you can every day. It was very organized, structured. Half the day spent on recruiting, half the day spent on football. So the priority really was to improve the program in all areas, in all facets, to create the standards and expectations and change the culture and the mind-set.”
Culture needed to change around the state as well. Alabama was losing recruiting battles in its own backyard. The Crimson Tide had just one of the top 10 players in the state committed for the 2007 class when Saban arrived. Two more, including linebacker Rolando McClain, would eventually sign, but Auburn signed four of the top 10 players. LSU signed two. There was talent in Alabama, but it wasn’t ending up in Tuscaloosa.
Saban and his staff set their sights on the Mobile area. Mobile and Baldwin counties were stocked with talent in 2008 for Saban’s first full recruiting class. Robert Lester, Mark Barron and Julio Jones were all coming out of Mobile-area schools at the time. Todd Watson was head coach at Foley High School, where Lester and Jones were teammates.
“He had some assistant coaches that made it a point: ‘We were told in no uncertain terms that this is an area we need to take back in recruiting,'” Watson said. “I think when you go back to when he was at LSU, he told people they were going to build a wall around the state of Louisiana and keep the in-state players in state. I think when he first got to Alabama, that was his goal. To win the state first.”
Lance Thompson was one of Alabama’s primary recruiters in Mobile, but other assistants also helped bombard the area. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite spent time there, as did Cignetti, who was also the recruiting coordinator.
There were plenty of prizes to be had in Mobile that year – Alabama signed eight players from the area in 2008 – but Jones was the biggest. He was the state’s best player and the best wide receiver in the country.
Foley felt the full force of Saban’s recruiting push. Watson and the Lions used to host a high school jamboree each spring, inviting high-profile programs and top-ranked players to come play. The jamboree always drew attention, but it was different in 2007.
“That spring at our jamboree, Coach (Tommy) Tuberville was there from Auburn, Coach Saban, Coach (Urban) Meyer from Florida was there, all of them were there at the same time,” Watson said. “I do remember all of the hoopla and everything that surrounded those guys, and in particular (Saban) when he got there. Several police escorts, the big fanfare and everything was there. It was probably the largest attendance we ever had at our spring event because people got word that he was coming.”
That was how Jones’ recruitment went for much of the year. Opposing players and fans often asked him for autographs after games. Watson said one opposing coach even asked for Jones’ signature.
Recruiters and media wanted to talk to Jones at all hours. He would sometimes turn his phone off to take a break. That led coaches and reporters to call Watson instead, engulfing him even in the middle of the season. Alabama fans contributed to the atmosphere.
“That spring game, I guess the word got to the Mobile chapter of the Red Elephant Club,” Watson said. “The day before or the day of the spring game, RVs started pulling in. We probably had 15 to 20 RVs on the campus where our stadium is. For a high school, that’s unheard of for a fall game, so much a spring jamboree. It just went to show the influence (Saban) was having right away.”
Results came right away, too. Alabama signed every one of the top five players in Alabama in 2008. The Crimson Tide signed the top seven in-state players in 2009. Saban had staked out his territory in the state.
The 2008 recruiting class was likely the most impactful of the Saban era. Julio Jones, Robert Lester and Mark Barron were joined by Mark Ingram, Barrett Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Marcel Dareus, Terrence Cody, Damion Square and Michael Williams, among others. The roster changed from the moment they arrived.
“I think it was a huge class because, number one, it was a great class, and number two, we needed players,” Cignetti said. “The impact that class made was tremendous, because there were a lot of holes.”
It wasn’t just in Mobile. Buzz was building all around Alabama. Saban set a tone for the fan base as a whole from the moment he arrived. It wasn’t just about the players and the coaches, he said. Saban wanted to enlist fans, boosters, students and anyone else associated with the university.
“I think everybody should take the attitude that we’re working to be a champion. That we want to be a champion in everything we do,” he said at his introduction. “Every choice, every decision, everything that we do every day, we want to be a champion. Everyone take ownership for what they need to do relative to their role, for whatever it is. If it’s being a fan or being a booster, be a good one. Any kind of supporter that you are for this team, everyone take ownership that we support each other so we can have the best possible football program that Alabama has ever had, and there have been some great ones.”
They answered the call immediately. Bryant-Dennny Stadium was stuffed with 92,138 fans for that spring’s A-Day Game. The stadium had just been expanded from a capacity of 81,018 for the 2006 season, and here it was filled for a scrimmage.
“It was really cool to watch, because the year before no one was there,” Wilson said. “That year so many people came around and were there and were buying in. It was pretty neat to be a part of.”
Saban still references the 2007 A-Day Game as a moment that gave the program momentum. Something was happening at Alabama that had never happened before.
“It was just … wow,” Cignetti said.
THE PROCESS OF 2007
Players began to understand ‘The Process’ as well, bit by bit. Saban never laid out a goal or expectation centered on a specific result. He laid out expectations for work and attitude.
His new team was expected to work every day. There weren’t any big-picture discussions about where the program was headed; it was just one day of work after another.
“We’re not going to talk about what we’re going to accomplish,” he said when he was named head coach. “We’re going to talk about how we’re going to do it.”
Changes were coming from the Mike Shula era, but little changed about Saban. He built on what he had learned before. The staff didn’t make many changes once they were established in the program.
“He had been a head coach and won a national championship, so the blueprint was there,” Cignetti said. “You’re implementing your program in the first year, creating the standards and expectations that guys have to meet the bar in terms of workload, effort, attitude, play with energy, stuff like that. If they do, they’re going to improve and the program is going to improve. That’s really what that first year was all about.”
As is often the case during coaching transitions, every position was up for grabs. That was good news to players like Anders and Johnson, who had been backups in 2006. Johnson started spring practice as the second team left guard but would eventually be a captain and a three-year starter.
Wilson was a returning starter, but understood what was being asked. He didn’t look at it as “buying in.” To him, it was about understanding what needed to be done to be a champion. Saban had been there before and knew what it took.
Other players didn’t feel the same way.
“That season, I think there was lots of stubbornness from some of the upperclassmen who weren’t willing to deal,” Anders said. “I think it was a locker room issue more than it was a playbook issue. We knew Coach Saban was going to work (at Alabama). It was just a few of these older guys that were bitter and wouldn’t do it his way.”
The Crimson Tide was 5-2 when Tennessee arrived in Tuscaloosa having won 10 of the last 12 games in the rivalry. It was the third Friday in October when things started to change.
Alabama had five players suspended the night before the game for improper receipt of textbooks. That included running back Glen Coffee and starting offensive linemen Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis. Alabama was caught off guard on Friday, but it was Tennessee that was surprised on Saturday.
Alabama won 41-17. Saban has still never lost to the Volunteers at UA.
“To me, still one of the great coaching moves, was when we opened the game with the onside kick and got the ball,” Cignetti said. “Seized the momentum right away and really never lost it.”
Alabama lost the next four games, including disappointing defeats to Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State. The suspensions took a toll on the team. There was still a void of talent; no Alabama player was drafted after the season. Issues in the locker room may have also contributed.
“There weren’t really locker room guys, there were a lot more ‘me’ guys,” Johnson said. “I remember Coach Saban, he told everybody, ‘When I can replace you, I will.’ These guys that are being selfish and not being team players, he wasn’t going to hurt the team at the time by benching these players or kicking them off the team. But he said, ‘When I can recruit a player to replace you, I will. And it will happen. I promise you, you won’t be a part of this program if you want to be selfish.’”
That was part of what made the 2008 recruiting class so important. The players that arrived with that group had the talent and the opportunity to play right away. Saban was able to make changes immediately.
“The culture was changing,” Cignetti said. “But there were ups and downs in the first year. We got off to a pretty good start, had a tough loss against Georgia. Then the textbook thing hit and we hit a point there in the last part of the year where we had a couple tough losses because we were thin. Really thin. We had some walk-on guys starting. Then the tremendous recruiting class, and it all changed.”
Key milestones in 2007 happened away from the field. Saban’s arrival, the attendance at A-Day and victories in recruiting were some of the moments when things changed. From 2008 onward, the program’s greatest success took place on the field.
Alabama opened the season with an upset of Clemson in Atlanta. It beat No. 3 Georgia in Athens and broke a six-game losing streak to rival Auburn on the way to the SEC Championship Game.
“I think the turning point was after that 07 season,” Anders said. “His first recruiting class was in. That’s when everybody was like, ‘New coach, new players, everybody’s job is available regardless of what you did the previous season.'”
The 12-0 start to 2008 might make it appear that Saban’s Process took hold overnight. In reality, it took time. The Process had started years before that, and it continues on today.
“It really was a slow build,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t like he came in and laid out some game plan of how everything was going to be, which is what you’d kind of expect. But it wasn’t like that. It was almost like he wasn’t ready to give the game plan yet. The message he led off with was kind of, ‘All right, let’s get to work.’ It wasn’t, ‘This is what we’re going to do this day, this is what we’re going to do that day.’ It was like, ‘Hey, let’s show up and bust our butt.’”
Saban has all but erased the idea of a “rebuilding” year at Alabama, winning four of the last seven national championships. But the building had to start in 2007. Saban knew what had to be done.
Changes arrived with Nick Saban when he arrived on Jan. 4, 2007. But the biggest changes took time.
“You have to walk before you can run,” Wilson said. “You have to learn how to do all these things. It was just building everything to the point where it is today. Now those guys are in there and the seniors coach the young guys. Everybody is coaching themselves, they know how to act when they get there. Well, we were learning how to do that when we first got that. You had to build that foundation up. That’s what we were doing in the first year.”
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.