When Nick Saban agreed to take the helm of the listing Alabama Crimson Tide football program in 2007, many supposed that he would be able to right the ship at some point. After all, at every previous college coaching stop, "Saint Nick" had worked miracles.
Few expected the greatness that was in store for the Crimson Tide faithful as Saban's Process began to take hold. There were growing pains in 2007. Saban ejected unnecessary roster clutter from the program in search of the desperately needed "buy-in" from those players and coaches willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become champions.
The next step was to replace the broken cogs in the wheel of success with new talent, players who not only met the physical needs of the program, but who also provided the critical mind-set of champions. Intelligent, relentless, focused, disciplined. These were the qualities from which Bama's future greats would be forged. In a mere 5 years, Saban recreated the Alabama dynasty, awakening the spirits of the Bear and countless other Crimson Tide greats who worked to build the legendary history of the organization.
While Saban is a relentless competitor, an almost obsessive-compulsive detail-manager who schedules even the simple enjoyment of a Little Debbie cake, it is not this trait alone that has bred such success in Tuscaloosa. Rather, it is an offshoot of his micromanaging demeanor that has been the critical foundation upon which the current dynasty now rests. For Nick Saban, recruiting is the game within the game. Another chance to dominate, another chance to set the table for championships that will be won next year, three years from now, possibly even for the next decade.
Recruiting is not an afterthought to Saban: it is THE thought. Moments after winning his third BCS National Championship in four years, Saban, addressing a bank of microphones, couldn't take much satisfaction in the win. "We're behind in recruiting," Saban curmudgeonly grumbled, to the gasps and giggles of reporters who thought he was joking. But he wasn't. Anyone who follows Saban knows that he doesn't have time to part his lips to speak unless he's going to say something important. What he said in those moments of glory after re-establishing the Bama football dynasty spoke volumes. Those words said to the players, "Enjoy your 24 hours. Then, we get back to work. This team hasn't done anything yet." To recruits, his words meant, "You are so important to this program that even THIS moment can't distract me from getting you on campus." To his coaching counterparts around the country, he said, "I never rest, pity on you if you do."
It is recruiting that ultimately lured Saban back to the college game after a brief tenure with the Miami Dolphins. In the NFL, Saban learned that he couldn't exercise the same heavy-handed control of his roster that was critical to his success at the college level. He has stated as much, sometimes couching it with confessions of his desire to develop young men. In truth, the thrill of the chase and the natural benefits of a system that relies on recruiting play right into Saban's strengths.
While Saban is a master of defensive football schematics, it is not that genius that breeds his success. Play-calling is only a facet of success in the game. Without elite talent, even the best-called game may result in a loss. Schemes don't win championships on their own merit--just ask Chip Kelly. Schemes may provide a temporary advantage, but the real defining point is talent.
Elite talent executing even the most basic scheme can result in championships, as the game is, and will continue to be, more about the players than the plays. Alabama's championship teams have not spread the field, or innovated in the use of the tight end, or developed some new fancy and sexily-named formation (we're looking at you, Pistol).
Bama wins with tried-and-true principles of football: blocking, tackling, running, throwing and catching. Fundamentals, in a word. Two tight end sets. Pulling guards. Power running through the interior gaps. Play-action. Stop the run. Win man-on-man situations. It's really pretty basic football. The difference between the current BCS champion and every fair-to-middling program in the country is not scheme. It is the fact that Alabama has an army of 5* talent with the mindset to execute relentlessly, making their opponents wither before them. Make their asses quit. A scheme can be figured out, with the promise of future success after the learning curve is complete. When a team like Alabama beats you with a basic scheme, when every opponent knows exactly what to expect and still gets pummeled into submission, that is the very definition of frustration. Mind-numbing, posterior-stifling, frustration.
For Saban, it's not just about the football talent. It's also about the competition, offering another chance to best his counterparts without even having to take the field. Evidence of this can be found in recent "flips" Saban has pulled out of his hat, converting swear-to-God commits to rival schools into Crimson Tide stalwarts. Cyrus Kouandjio, T.J. Yeldon and Brent Calloway are all players who were once committed to a cross-state rival, only to jump ship in dramatic fashion for the friendly confines of Tuscaloosa. While he wouldn't publicly gloat, Saban is too competitive a man to not derive some pleasure, even if private and fleeting, in the art of gaining a recruit while depriving a rival of the same (insert "Why You Hatin'?" GIF here).
The future looks bright for Alabama. Saban is selling recruits a Rolls-Royce in what Bama has to offer: upgraded facilities and a new weight training complex, a strength and conditioning program that produces NFL bodies, a chance to play for SEC and BCS titles year in and year out, a chance to work with one of the great minds in the history of college football, and a chance to join the dozens of first round ( and second round...and third round...) picks Saban's Process © has vaulted to the next level in the NFL draft. For a 5* recruit, what's not to like?
For those who truly want to be elite, few institutions can compare to what Saban has built at Alabama. That draw will, in symbiotic perfection, keep Crimson Tide football great as long as Our Dark Lord walks the sidelines.
So while the three BCS National Championships in the last four years is impressive, it is important to note that those three crystal footballs began as a palette of stars strewn across the crimson canvas--and, like some Leonidian metaphor, as long as those stars just keep on falling on Alabama, the Crimson Tide will remain firmly atop the college football mountaintop for the foreseeable future.
After all, that is how we roll...