By Lars Anderson
HOOVER, Ala. -- The coach was talking football philosophy. He was sitting in the dim light of his office, where the shades are usually drawn, as if to conceal secrets. Leaning forward, a liquid gleam of intensity in his eyes, Nick Saban laid out his plan for Alabama.
It was the summer of 2007 -- he would soon ban his players from using the word "hot" whenever they were practicing in the sticky Southern heat -- and Saban had only been on the job in Tuscaloosa for a few months. "It's the journey that's important. You can't worry about end results," he said. "It's about what you control, every minute of every day. You always have to have a winning attitude and discipline, in practices, weight training, conditioning, in the classroom, in everything. It's a process."
The Process. It's Saban's pet phrase, the distillation of his core coaching principle. Those two words are plastered all over the Alabama football facility on Bear Bryant Drive, and it's been the guiding force in the construction of the dynasty he's built in Tuscaloosa, where he's won three of the last five national titles.
But what exactly is the Process? Where did it come from? To find out, you need to travel to the rolling hills of rural West Virginia, to the heart of coal country.
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The boy was taught to pursue perfection almost as soon as he could walk. Little Nick, as Saban was known in his hometown of Monongah, W.Va. (population: 1,500), began working at Saban's Service Station at age 11, only weeks after his dad, Nick Saban Sr., had started coaching the local Pop Warner football team. Father and son would throw a football to each other in front of the pumps on Route 19 in northern West Virginia until a car pulled into the gas station Big Nick owned. One of them would then grab the nozzle and pump the gas while the other would check the engine oil and clean the windshield.
Little Nick did everything at the station in addition to pumping gas and cleaning windshields: he checked tire pressure, washed cars, collected money, made change, did grease jobs, changed oil and air filters and replaced oil. One time his father asked Little Nick to clean out a drain in the floor of the station. Hours later, it was spotless, as if it had been through an industrial cleaning machine. The son wanted to please his dad. "The biggest thing I learned and started to learn at 11 years old was how important it was to do things correctly," Saban said years later. "There was a standard of excellence, a perfection. If we washed a car -- and I hated the navy blue and black cars, because when you wipe them off, the streaks were hard to get out -- and if there were any streaks when [my father] came, you had to do it over."
Little Nick became the starting quarterback for the Idamay Black Diamonds at age 11. Though the team practiced on a field that was covered with rocks -- each player had to pick up 10 rocks at the end of practice and remove them from the field -- that didn't stop Big Nick from holding marathon practice sessions. On numerous occasions when darkness descended and players wanted to go home or watch a local high school football game, Big Nick wouldn't call practice to a halt. Instead, he'd turn on his car, flip on its headlights, and run his boys through additional drills in the illumination of the car's high beams.
He was tough on Little Nick. If his son threw a touchdown pass, Big Nick usually had a critique: Little Nick's throwing technique wasn't fundamentally sound or the ball didn't travel in a tight enough spiral or he didn't look off the safety before unleashing the pass. Big Nick was a natural-born perfectionist, and his attention to detail was rare among Pop Warner coaches. He wasn't as concerned with results as much as he was with his players performing at their maximum potential, which was something he reminded his players of nearly every practice. Little Nick soaked it all in, locking it memory. Many of the phrases his father used -- "Invest your time, don't spend it" -- the son still utters today.
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Forty-seven-year-old Nick Saban was desperate. It was the fall of 1998 and he was in his fourth season at Michigan State. The Spartans were 4-4 and, in few days, were slated to travel to Columbus, Ohio to play undefeated Ohio State, the No. 1 ranked team in the nation. Recalling the lessons of his father, Saban opted to try something new in practice that week: He told his players not to worry about winning the game. Rather, he instructed them to treat each play as if it was a game, and focus on what needed to be done during that play to be successful. And as soon as the whistle blew on each play, it was to be wiped from memory; all that mattered was the next play and zeroing in on what actions needed to be completed in order to "win" that play. Saban found during the week that his players appeared more confident and were as crisp in practice as they'd been all season. A 24-point underdog, Michigan State then went into Columbus on Nov. 7, 1998 and upset the Buckeyes 28-24. A new element of the Process was born.
"[The Process] basically means just focusing on the little things and not getting wrapped up in the big picture," says Barrett Jones, an offensive lineman who played for Saban from 2008 to 2012 and is now with the St. Louis Rams. "Coach Saban is very adamant about that. It means doing everything the right way. It's essentially a way of life. Always thinking about winning. Always. It's not for everybody, because it's intense at Alabama. It's 100 percent commitment and it never stops. But it all starts with coach Saban. He lives it. His energy is amazing. I mean, I don't know if I ever saw the guy yawn. "
At Alabama, Saban abides by a strict routine, his personal process. On a typical day he'll wake up at 6 a.m., flip on the Weather Channel, drink coffee and eat two "Little Debbie" cookies for breakfast. He'll devote the mornings at the office to football matters -- he'll ask the team nutritionist, for instance, why a player has a certain percentage of body fat and, if high, he'll then want to know what can be done to lower it -- and at noon he'll have the same lunch every day: a salad of iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes topped with turkey slices and fat-free honey Dijon dressing served in a Styrofoam container. Why have the same thing every afternoon? It eliminates the time required to make a decision on what to eat.
In the offseason Saban often organizes a noon pickup basketball game at the university's Coleman Coliseum. He's the league's commissioner -- "I pick the teams, so I have the best players," he said, adding "I also pick the guys who guard me" -- and he's the league's referee. Not surprisingly, he's never fouled out of a game.
The middle of his days are filled with meetings with coaches and players, and then the afternoons are spent on more football-related issues, such as watching film of an upcoming opponent or breaking down his own team's practice film. And at some point every day he'll focus on recruiting -- sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes an hour, sometimes several hours. Saban never stops recruiting; it's an unrelenting 365-day-a-year endeavor. It is fundamental to the Process.
"More than any coach in America," says Phil Savage, Saban's longtime friend who coached with him on the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s, "Nick understands that the jockey doesn't carry the horse, it's the horse that carries the jockey. He knows he needs talent to win and that's why he'll never get out-recruited by anyone." Saban typically tries to be out of the office by 10 p.m.
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The coach was talking football philosophy. He stood before more than 1,200 reporters in the Wynfrey ballroom at the Hyatt Hotel in Hoover last Thursday afternoon, hundreds of cameras clicking and whirring as he spoke. "Our situation as a team is a lot different this year than it's been the last couple years when we were coming off of successful seasons, championship seasons. The challenges were so much different in terms of trying to deal with success and complacency," Saban said. "Having lost our last two games last year, I think it's a little bit different mindset with our players. We have to reestablish our identity as a team at Alabama. It's going to take every player to have a tremendous amount of buy-in for us to be able to do that."
Last season, according to few former players such as quarterback AJ McCarron, the Tide failed to win its third straight national title because selfishness and complacency infected the Process. "In the end, success was our killer," McCarron said in January. "Too much success and a lot of young guys coming in who didn't know what it took to get back to that point to win. They thought we'd just show up and we'd win."
And yet: if Alabama had converted a fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter against Auburn -- running back T.J. Yeldon was stuffed for no gain on the play -- the Tide likely would have cruised to an Iron Bowl victory and probably would have faced Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, Alabama lost to the Tigers on the famed Kick Six touchdown and then sleepwalked through a 45-31 defeat to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. In the universe of Crimson Tide football under Saban, a two-loss season is viewed as one thing: an abject failure.
So this spring Saban did what he always does: he implored his players -- often in the bluest of language -- to stay true to the Process. Whether in the weight room, in player-only seven-on-seven drills, in the classroom or simply out with friends on The Strip -- a cluster of bars on University Avenue in the heart of campus -- Saban preached to his players to always do the right thing, the winning thing. It seems so rudimentary, but he inherited his father's belief that games are won or lost before the teams ever step between the white lines. It should come as no surprise that one of his dad's favorite mottoes was 'practice makes players.'
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He is the great unknown for Alabama in 2014. Transfer quarterback Jacob Coker has not formally practiced with the Tide -- he arrived on campus this summer and is as new to the Process as is the 18-year-old freshman -- and yet he may be Alabama's most important player this autumn.
At Florida State the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Coker, a native of Mobile, Ala., sat on the bench behind Jameis Winston. Since it was announced in January that Coker, a junior who has attempted only 41 college passes and completed 21 for 295 yards and one touchdown, was transferring to Tuscaloosa, the Tide fan message boards have lit up as if he was the second coming of Joe Namath. Then in June Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher poured fuel into the hype jet engine, gushing about Coker to Tidesports.com. "He's more talented than anything they've had," Fisher said to the website. "This guy is extremely talented. Arm and mind… He's a backup because he's behind the best quarterback in America. [Coker] may have been one of the top three or four quarterbacks in America physically."
Coker and fifth-year senior Blake Sims will compete to be the starter. Sims is one of the most popular players on the team. Though he struggled in the spring game (13-of-30 passes for 178 yards and two interceptions), he's intimately aware of Saban's cardinal rule for quarterbacks: protect the ball at all times by not taking any unnecessary risks. The 6-foot-1, 202-pound Sims played well in the two spring scrimmages before A-Day, completing 40-of-62 (64.5 percent) for 455 yards, and he's more mobile than any starting quarterback at Alabama in the Saban era. The big-armed Coker, however, may be better suited for the vertical passing game that new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is implementing.
"I don't know what happened at Florida State with [Coker]," says Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper. "But from what we've seen in seven-on-seven this summer, he has a strong arm and is very accurate."
"Right now he's not that vocal because he's still learning the plays," said wide receiver Christion Jones. "He's still working on trying to progress to be a starting quarterback… It's a process that we're trying to develop with him."
When asked about Coker, Saban, not surprisingly, uttered the P-word. "There's a process that every player has to go through, in any system, to be able to play at that position," he said. "But, an older player who has knowledge and experience, can relate and probably do it more quickly than a younger player because he's been through a college system, and one that was not so dissimilar to ours because we do a lot of the same things."
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The grind of the Process continues in Tuscaloosa, where Saban has landed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class in each of the last four years, according to Rivals.com. The roster is overflowing with NFL talent at virtually every position, and at SEC Media Days the Crimson Tide was voted as the overwhelming preseason conference favorite. "Arguably they've got the greatest collection of football players ever assembled for a college football team," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said of Alabama, noting that he believed Saban was the greatest recruiter in the history of the game. "It's just amazing to me how they've been able to stack and keep loading up players every year."
Will Saban hand the keys to his offense to a player who wasn't developed and nurtured by the Process? Or will he opt to go with Sims -- the safer bet -- when Alabama opens the season against West Virginia in Atlanta on Aug. 30?
Saban won't rule out using two quarterbacks at the start of the season -- he did that with AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims in 2011 -- but right now not even he knows who his starter will be. Practice makes the player. All these years later, this remains a central tenet of the Process.
Fall camp for the Tide begins in two weeks. Saban, wearing his customary straw hat, will carefully watch and study and analyze Coker and Sims with those blazing brown eyes of his. Decisions are never rushed in Saban's world; they require a process.
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Lars Anderson is a 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated and the author of six books, including The Storm and the Tide, which will be published in August. He's currently an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama.