Saban has Tide focused on the future
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Getting Nick Saban to make comparisons, talk about expectations or simply assess where the Alabama football program is right now is about as difficult as beating the Crimson Tide these days.
They haven't lost a regular-season SEC game since the end of the 2007 season, a streak that stands at 16 games and counting.
They're coming off the school's first national championship in 17 years, a season that produced the first Heisman Trophy winner in school history and a season that produced a magical 14-0 run.
Simply, they're the hottest thing going right now in college football, and their coach hasn't basked in one second of it.
Not his style.
And probably more accurately, not the way he's wired.
Even in the wee hours of the morning back on Jan. 8 -- his hotel suite in Newport Beach, Calif., still jumping with revelry and friends following Alabama's 37-21 victory over Texas in the BCS National Championship Game -- Saban couldn't bring himself to celebrate.
Two of his closest friends from Louisiana, both successful businessmen, tried to get him to take a drink. Saban quit drinking several years ago. Never a big drinker, he stopped all together to set the right example for his two children, Nicholas and Kristen, as they got up in their teens.
But this was just a celebratory drink for a guy who had just become the only coach in modern college football history to win a national championship at two different schools.
Needless to say, Saban never took that drink.
"It's about 2 o'clock in the morning, and we've got ESPN on showing all the highlights, and I just said, 'Nah, I'm not going to do it. This success will just cause another set of issues and problems,'" Saban recounted. "And both of my friends looked at me and said almost in unison, 'Probably as we speak.'"
Even in that moment of bliss, all Saban could think about was the future.
Which players were having a little too much fun? Which players were on the brink of turning pro? Who would be the leaders on next season's team? How motivated would that team be in the offseason?
"That's just how my mind is, always working toward the next game or the next play or the next problem," said Saban, who compiled a staggering 49-17 record against SEC foes in the past decade at both LSU and Alabama.
"Even though there's a lot of real positive self gratification for what was accomplished and how proud you are of all the people who contributed, it's like there's no time to enjoy it. I guess one of these days when you get done doing this, then you sort of take a deep breath and assess, 'Well, what did I really accomplish? What is my legacy as a coach?'
"I've just seen so many people who were the coach of the year, and then two years later, they get fired. I know how this profession is. George Perles used to always say, 'You're only as good as your last play, if you're a player. And as a coach, you're only as good as your last game.' For me, it's an ongoing challenge that never lets up."
Some might say it's Saban's curse. Others would tell you that it's his gift.
But this much is for certain: He's never satisfied, which means this next decade for the Tide Nation may truly be one to remember.
"I don't ever see Coach Saban smile on the field," Alabama junior linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "It's always pretty much about business, and he always finds something wrong that somebody's doing on the field. So even when you think he's not looking at you, he's there coaching you up.
"It's what makes him the best."
The obvious question is how much longer can Saban, 58, keep up this maddening pace.
He's in great shape, eats the same salad for lunch every day and insists that his coaches and staff members regularly play pickup basketball, although Saban has been known to handpick who guards him.
Hey, the fiercest competitors are always looking for an edge.
And while it may be difficult to believe, Saban thinks that he's actually mellowed in some areas as he's gotten older.
He credits his wife, Terry, for keeping him grounded and helping to create a balance in his life. He also feels like the demands of coaching have actually gotten easier for him.
Well, because he's better at trusting people than he was earlier in his career.
"It's not as hard for me as it used to be," Saban said. "For one, I trust in more people. I'm still on top of everything, but it's not like it once was. I used to think I had to do everything myself. Now, I just need to make sure that somebody else is doing it right, whether it's recruiting or how we're teaching something on the field or whatever.
"I've developed a lot more trust in the good people that we have here."
As for whether or not the Crimson Tide are ahead of schedule after three short years, Saban offers a familiar answer.
"There is no schedule," he said.
Instead, there's a commitment to do it the right way every year, every game, every practice.
"I don't know what everybody else thinks, but it's the goal of what we do and what we try to do, to get the program to this point," Saban said. "It's a credit to the players and all the people in the organization who've worked so hard to get it there. That's very pleasing. Now, the challenge is: Can you keep it there?"
Saban's no fool, either. He's fully aware of the monster he's awakened in this football-crazed state.
Just recently, he was being honored in Birmingham as the recipient of the inaugural Bobby Bowden national coach of the year award. In vintage Saban fashion, he had to leave a little early to get back to campus for a meeting with the players.
"As I'm walking out the door, somebody in the crowd yelled, 'And you better do it next year,'" said Saban, forcing a grin. "They weren't joking, either."
Ultimately, Saban thinks the keys for this team will be whether or not they can replace their specialists in the kicking game and how well they develop defensively with so many new faces.
He likes where the offense is, likes the balance the Crimson Tide have shown this spring offensively and is pleased with the overall commitment the team has demonstrated all offseason.
If any complacency has seeped in, he hasn't sensed it.
"Sometimes, it doesn't become evident until you get out there in a competitive situation where you have to be at your very, very best, and all of a sudden, your warts start showing up, whether they're physical or emotional," Saban said.
Complacency was a problem for his 2004 LSU team the year after the national championship. The Tigers were nearly upset in the season opener at home by Oregon State, but escaped 22-21 in overtime. They wound up losing three games that season.
These Alabama players sound a lot like their coach. They wouldn't mind locking up everything from last season in a vault, only to reopen it when they get old and gray.
"There are new faces everywhere, and we're hungry," said Mark Ingram, Alabama's Heisman Trophy-winning running back. "Yeah, we won the national championship, and everybody won their awards. But that's in the past. That's in the history books. That will be there forever, so we can live off that when we get older.
"What this team is going to be judged on is what we do this year."
And maybe for a few fleeting moments this spring or summer, perhaps when Saban steals away to his second home on Lake Burton in the northeastern corner of Georgia, he can finally enjoy some of his work.
Then again, probably not.
"Sometimes, I feel like everybody else and step back and wonder, 'When are you going to enjoy some of this?'" Saban conceded. "I will but not right now."
Chris Low covers college football for ESPN.com. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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