Saban counting on 'wolves' to set tone

New Dolphins coach Nick Saban doesn't use the word "leadership" often, but it's definitely a high priority.

Updated: July 29, 2005, 12:03 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

DAVIE, Fla. -- If he is to guide the Miami Dolphins away from the train wreck that was the 2004 season, the first losing campaign for the franchise since 1988, coach Nick Saban probably is going to need a lot more able-bodied reinforcements than are currently on hand.

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But for now, at least from a leadership standpoint, the first-year head coach said he will settle for finding a few good men on the roster. And he made it clear this week, in discussing the quarterback position specifically but every unit in general, that the fainthearted need not apply for those leadership roles.

"We're not looking for sheep," Saban said. "We are looking for wolves. If we need a sheepdog to get them lined up, and to get them where they need to get, then we have the wrong guys. I'm not trying to minimize leadership. I'm trying to maximize the individual responsibility of everyone else to not have to depend on [other players] to do it."

The leadership theme is one that Saban, who understands the importance that element will have on a wounded team attempting to rebound from a disastrous campaign, has delivered almost from his first day on the job. He is anything but heavy-handed with his message, as he didn't invoke the sheep-and-wolves analogy to his team until first testing it on the media Monday afternoon, but it is subtly woven into the fabric of nearly every address he has made.

Saban spent his short summer vacation in Croatia, a five-day respite that immediately followed the Dolphins' mini-camp in June, reading a book that dissected the five areas of dysfunction that can most affect a business. He is, in fact, an avid reader of any material that addresses the components necessary for success in life. And while he won't club the Dolphins players over the head with all the insights he has gleaned, he definitely wants to get inside their heads with a few of them.

Nick Saban
AP Photo/Steve MitchellNick Saban, right, hasn't been shy in trying to get his points across.

Amid all the hackneyed coaching terms and standard clichés, Saban characteristically works in a nugget or two about things such as personal responsibility, group dynamics, and the effects -- positive and negative -- players can have on each other.

"Nick isn't a guy who uses the 'leadership' term a lot," defensive end Jason Taylor said, "but, if you're paying attention, then you understand how important it is to him. It's not like he comes in every day and makes a big point about it. But it's there, believe me. You know he expects people to step up. He wants people to step up. He needs that."

Watch Saban on the field for just a few minutes and his personal leadership skills are obvious, perhaps made even more so by his hands-on style. There is a palpable "follow me, guys" approach that transcends his role and suggests that, if the Dolphins buy into The Saban Way, last season ultimately will be viewed as an aberration.

Said rookie linebacker Channing Crowder: "He gets your attention. Sometimes he gets it quietly. Other times he gets it loudly. He will call you out individually, but in a way that sort of makes you feel bad that you hurt the whole group, not just yourself. But, yeah, if he says, 'Jump,' your [response] ought to be 'How high?' that's for sure."

It's too early to tell whether there are enough players here prepared to help execute the quantum leap that will be necessary to pull the Dolphins from the debacle of '04, or whether the first year of the Saban Era will be marked by progress in baby steps. He has been around long enough to have identified some of the obvious leaders, and to ascertain how those players carry the mantle of responsibility, but Saban said he isn't sure precisely how many wolves he has in the pack or how the team dynamic of the 2005 Dolphins will develop.

A few years back, Saban related privately, his LSU team rose and fell on the performance of Rohan Davey because the quarterback had become such a singularly galvanizing force. Two years ago, Saban spent much of the summer fretting over what he perceived to be a frightening dearth of take-charge guys on the LSU roster, yet won a national title because that team possessed so many players who quietly embraced personal responsibilities.

"I just know," Saban said, "that there are always going to be people who affect the others around them. We want the ones who affect people in positive ways."

At first glance, it would seem the Dolphins are potentially well-stocked with leaders, just given the raw number of older veterans on the roster. Miami is not, it should be noted, a young team. And one of the conundrums Saban faces is trying to rebuild the franchise knowing full well that some of the guys pouring the foundation might not be around long enough to see the topping-off ceremony.

So, although it's nearly a given that veterans such as Taylor, linebacker Zach Thomas and cornerback Sam Madison will be the lead dogs at their respective positions, there is also a need for some young pups to establish themselves quickly. Plus, the landscape has been altered so dramatically in recent months, senior veterans are undergoing a learning curve indoctrination of sorts, too.

A player can look at the depth chart, or see how many snaps he is getting in practice, and have a feel for where he stands. How prominent that player might be, though, in terms of how Saban and his staff see the big picture, though, is a different story. Veterans such as Madison essentially have played their whole careers under one system, the one put into place by Jimmy Johnson and extended by Dave Wannstedt. The hiring of Saban ushered in a new era, and it would be naive to think some players won't be ushered out of the building as part of the turnover.

Saban wants to win now -- he quickly dismissed a suggestion that it will take three years to reverse the fortunes of the Miami program -- but also must undertake a gradual roster refurbishing that establishes future success. So change, even most older players agree, is certainly inevitable.

Sam Madison
Cornerback
Miami Dolphins
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
47 40 7 3 0 0
"We've done things one way around here for a long time," Madison acknowledged. "So here I am now, eight years into it, and having to learn some new tricks. But, honestly, I've enjoyed it so far. I find myself having to pay more attention in meetings now than I've had to in a long time. On the field, I'm the same guy, and football is still football. But new coaches mean new techniques and new terminology, so your head better be in it. And your heart has to be in it, too."

Madison agreed that, with so much change, the coaches expect the older players who survive the fallout to gravitate naturally into leadership roles. He is only too eager to do so, he noted, and already has taken younger players under his wing, the same way former Dolphins such as George Teague and Terrell Buckley did when Madison arrived in 1997.

What he won't do, Madison said, is force the leadership issue.

"Basically, I try to tell the young guys, 'If you follow me, do things the right way, you will be successful because this stuff works,'" Madison said. "If that's leadership or whatever, OK, call it what you will."

Saban would call it being a wolf.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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