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Tide Rolls Back In: Alabama Hopes To Not Squander Last Year's Championship 'Failure'

Aug 23, 2019
Originally published on August 23, 2019 7:13 pm

The University of Alabama's Crimson Tide have won five national championships in the past 10 years. "That's too many!" shout the haters, who especially love to pillory Alabama's stern head coach Nick Saban. But in Alabama — and especially the team's hometown of Tuscaloosa — there's mostly devotion.

A new college football season begins Saturday, and for the Crimson Tide, there is a renewed sense of mission. In last season's national championship game, Alabama got walloped by rival Clemson. With a new season upon us, Saban and his team are determined to, as he likes to say, "not waste a failure."

Coach Nick Saban barks plays during a recent Alabama football practice.
Russell Lewis / NPR

A season approaches

It's a sweltering mid-August morning in Tuscaloosa, and the Alabama campus is largely deserted. Bryant-Denny stadium is empty, but you can hear a football season approaching.

T-shirts are already stained with sweat as members of the Alabama marching band drumline rip their way through morning practice.

Five, six, seven, eight...one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Band members count off as they move in formation without drums. Once the drumming starts, the rat-a-tat sound reverberates for blocks. This morning session is the first of three. That's right: three-a-days for the group known as the Million Dollar Band.

Hit your notes. Hydrate. Roll Tide!

Members of Alabama's Million Dollar Band practice three times a day gearing up for football season. Like the team, the drummers keep playing until they're nearly perfect.
Russell Lewis / NPR

On the same morning, business is bustling at the Waysider. It's the city's famous Alabama football-themed restaurant where a small black chalkboard out front marks the number of days 'til the next kickoff.

Inside, the walls are crowded with photos and paintings of players and coaches. Diners order from a menu with "Breakfast of Champions" written on the front. Including a woman whose striped shirt and lipstick match the school colors.

"Every day you need to wear a little bit of crimson," says Mary Jo Mason, a real estate professional who has lived in Tuscaloosa for 51 of her 78 years. She's been a season-ticket holder for all 51 years and has cheered many national championships. Under the legendary Alabama head coach Bear Bryant, and since 2007, Nick Saban.

Throughout the Alabama Football administrative building, there are reminders of the Crimson Tide's dominance. Magazine covers highlight the team's success.
Russell Lewis / NPR

Mason is buzzing about the upcoming season.

"We're riding high," she says. "We have a great recruiting class and nobody ever questions Saban's 'process.' And we're looking forward to being in the [college football] playoffs and going into the national championship which is in New Orleans this year."

Indeed, for 'Bama fans, heading into a new season these days isn't a question of 'how will we do?' It's more, who are we going to play for the title?

Amidst her optimism, Mason doesn't mention last season's Clemson game. When asked to consider the national championship drubbing, Mason says she doesn't have revenge on her mind.

The 2017 National Championship trophy is the fifth Alabama has won under Coach Nick Saban. It's displayed in a hall showcasing the team's four other trophies and other notable accomplishments.
Russell Lewis / NPR

"I don't care who we have [as a title game opponent]," she says, adding, "I just want to win the national championship. [Beating Clemson] should not be our focus. Our focus is us, and what we have to do to get there."

She sounds a lot like the head coach she reveres.

"I felt like I personally needed to do a better job of keeping people focused," Saban said a few hours later. He was talking about what he learned from the 44-16 beat down by Clemson.

"I think one of the most difficult things is for the players to stay focused on not the outcome, but what does it take to do to get the outcome."

Trusting the process

That is the foundation of his success. Getting young men to do what's required to accomplish a lofty goal. At Alabama, it's called "the process" and it's a hallowed term in Tuscaloosa, albeit a big vague.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban preaches "the process" to his players. This sign near the team's practice facility gives reminders about what it takes to win.
Russell Lewis / NPR

Ask what the process is exactly, and you get different answers. But you're not wrong if you say the process involves accountability, coachability, effort, discipline. Doing things the right way so many times and with such little deviation that you can't do it wrong.

"We've had good players who buy into the things that we do here," Saban says, "to help them be more successful as people, students and players. And it's worked fairly well for us."

In his 12 years in Tuscaloosa, Saban's won five national titles [he also won one coaching at LSU earlier in his career]; he's got 141 wins against only 21 losses; and he's had more players drafted into the NFL than any other coach. His recruits are regularly among the best in the country.

Inside Alabama's "recruiting hall," 32 helmets of every NFL team scroll through the names of Crimson Tide players who have played in the league.
Russell Lewis / NPR

But there's another important factor that links Saban's success to Bear Bryant's decades ago.

"The one way in which they're alike is that they had 100% confidence in what they're doing," says sports writer Cecil Hurt. He's covered Alabama football for the Tuscaloosa News since 1982.

"But they also had the ability that very few people have," Hurt continues, "to convey that confidence onto the people that they are leading. It's one thing for you to be confident in yourself. It's another thing for a room full of 18-to-21 year olds to be confident along with you."

After the Clemson loss, Saban didn't lose confidence in the process. It just needed shoring up.

"We didn't have as good of accountability and preparation," he says. "We have to have everybody put the team first. [And] those are all the things that we've tried to re-emphasize, to get our players to stay focused on."

The message has gotten through to players like senior defensive back Shyheim Carter.

"People think just because we [are], you know, Alabama, we just going to walk in the stadium and win," Carter says, adding, "it doesn't work like that. We have to prepare just [like] everybody else, just [like] every other game."

Alabama defensive back Shyheim Carter, left, chats with Trevon Diggs during a Crimson Tide practice.
Russell Lewis / NPR

Saban urges his players not to dwell on losses, or wins. But Carter says the Clemson defeat has come in handy.

"When leaders on the team feel like practice is going sluggish," he says, "they always say '16 to 44.' Remember that. And you know that kind of gives everybody an extra boost."

16 to 44. Alabama is first, even in defeat.

Don't waste time

There was nothing sluggish about practice on this day. A loud horn sounded off when players were supposed to move to the next drill. Quickly. Saban was in the thick of it, wearing a straw hat with crimson-colored band, working with his defensive backs. He moved well, despite recent hip replacement surgery. That was in April. He was back at work within 36 hours of the operation.

Saban doesn't like to waste time.

Indeed, before our interview, one of his assistants advised us not to meander with questions. Be direct. How will we know if it's not working? His leg will bounce, we were told. Fast.

Or maybe, we'll get a snarl. Search "Saban rant" and YouTube is filled with clips of him yelling at practice or snarling at the media.

There are moments of levity too. But those don't always make it onto the highlight shows. We're left with the snarl, which, in Alabama-unfriendly territory, has earned Saban nicknames like "satan" or the "Nicktator."

What does he think about his reputation as the dour leader of what's been called a joyless juggernaut?

"I don't think that's fair," Saban says. "I think in this day and age it takes about 40 seconds for anything that you say or do to get out there publicly to be evaluated one way or the other. Obviously you can't always please everybody but hopefully we can please the people in our organization and help them be more successful."

Before a practice this month, Nick Saban reflects on last season's national championship drubbing. He's worked all summer to get ready for this season to "not waste a failure."
Russell Lewis / NPR

And, Saban says, they do have fun at Alabama.

"It depends on how you describe fun. You know is it fun cutting up and doing crazy stuff that is not going to help you sort of be successful in the future? Or is [it] fun knowing you did your best to be the best you could be at whatever you choose to do? And that doesn't mean you don't laugh and enjoy yourself and the relationships that you develop while you're doing it."

It also doesn't mean it's not hard.

Saban is a perfectionist, which he says he got from "great" parents.

"I worked for my dad in a service station," he says, "and if you didn't wash the car right you wash it again. If you didn't do things the right way, you know there were consequences for it. So I guess it just became a part of how things are supposed to be done and need to be done for you to create any value for yourself and your future."

An admirable trait but it can be wearing on others. Saban certainly can be tough on his team. Thirteen assistant coaches have left Alabama in the past two years. They are in high demand, and many went to more prominent jobs, after having worked for a demanding boss.

Outside Coach Nick Saban's office there are enlargements of five Sports Illustrated covers that highlight notable Alabama wins under Saban.
Russell Lewis / NPR

Former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Michael Locksley told the Wall Street Journal, "Every day you walk in that building you better bring your 'A' game. My goal was to show up every day and not have Saban have to rip my butt."

There are seven new coaches this season, and a renewed dedication to the process. Will it be enough for a seventh national title, giving Saban the most of any college coach in history?

A final answer won't come until January, when Alabama may be playing for another championship. But don't ask Saban about that now, eight days before 'Bama's opening game of the season against Duke.

It would ignore "the process," and for sure get that leg working overtime.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Dominance in sports is a funny thing. It can elicit both admiration and total hatred - case in point, University of Alabama football. The Crimson Tide has won five national championships in the past 10 years. That is too many, say the haters, who especially love to insult Bama's head coach, Nick Saban.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

But in Alabama, and especially the team's hometown of Tuscaloosa, there's mostly devotion and a sense of mission. In last season's national title game, Clemson walloped the Crimson Tide. With a new college football season beginning tomorrow, Saban and his team are determined to, as he puts it, not waste a failure. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: On a sweltering mid-August morning in Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama campus is largely deserted. Bryant Denny Stadium is empty, but you can hear a football season approaching.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM LINE PRACTICING)

GOLDMAN: T-shirts are already stained with sweat as members of the Alabama marching band rip their way through morning practice. Hit your notes, hydrate, Roll Tide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED RESTAURANT WORKER: Do you want a copy of your receipt? OK, thank you, darling. See you later.

GOLDMAN: Same morning, and business is bustling at The Waysider. It's the city's famous Alabama-football-themed restaurant. The walls are crowded with photos and paintings of players and coaches. The menu has breakfast of champions written on the front. A woman is finishing her meal. She has a striped shirt and lipstick matching the school colors.

MARY JO MASON: Every day you need to wear a little bit of crimson.

GOLDMAN: In her 51 years in Tuscaloosa, Mary Jo Mason has cheered many national championships, first under legendary head coach Bear Bryant, and since 2007, Nick Saban. For Bama fans, heading into a season isn't a question of how will we do, it's more who are we going to play for the title. You'd think after last season's drubbing, Mason would want another shot at Clemson.

MASON: I don't care who we have. I just want to win the national championship. That should not be our focus. Our focus is us and what we have to do to get there.

GOLDMAN: Sounds like you should be playing for Coach Saban.

MASON: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: What the heck, it sounds like she is Nick Saban.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICK SABAN: I felt like I personally needed to do a better job of keeping people focused.

GOLDMAN: This was him a few hours later talking about what he learned from the 44 to 16 beat-down by Clemson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SABAN: I think one of the most difficult things is for the players to stay focused on not the outcome, but what does it take to do to get the outcome.

GOLDMAN: That is the foundation of his success, getting young men to do what's required to accomplish a goal. At Alabama, it's called the process, and it's a hallowed term here, albeit a bit vague. Ask what the process is exactly, and you get different answers. But you're not wrong if you say the process involves accountability, coachability, effort.

SABAN: We've had good players who buy into the things that we do here to help them be more successful as people, students and players, and that's worked fairly well for us.

GOLDMAN: No kidding. In his 12 years in Tuscaloosa, five national titles, 141 wins against only 21 losses, and the most players drafted to the NFL. Yeah, his recruits are among the best in the nation, but sportswriter Cecil Hurt says there's something else that links Saban's success and Bear Bryant's decades ago.

CECIL HURT: One way in which they are alike is that they had 100% confidence in what they are doing.

GOLDMAN: Hurt has covered Alabama football for the Tuscaloosa News since 1982.

HURT: But they also had the ability that very few people have to convey that confidence onto the people that they are leading.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The Tigers reclaim their crowd by crushing Alabama.

GOLDMAN: Even after the Clemson loss televised on ESPN, Alabama's players, like Shyheim Carter, share Saban's confidence in the process and talk about recommitting to its tenants of discipline and preparation.

SHYHEIM CARTER: People think just because we, you know, Alabama, you know, we just going to walk in the stadium and win. No, it doesn't work like that. You know, we had to prepare just as everybody else, just as every other game.

GOLDMAN: Saban urges his players not to dwell on losses or wins. But Carter, a senior defensive back, says the Clemson defeat has come in handy.

CARTER: When, you know, leaders on the team feel like practice is going sluggish, they always say, oh, 16 to 44, remember that. And, you know, that kind of, like, give everybody an extra boost.

GOLDMAN: Sixteen to 44. Alabama first, even in defeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR HORN BLARING)

GOLDMAN: Nothing sluggish about practice on this day. Wearing his straw hat with crimson-colored band, Saban is in the thick of it, working with his defensive backs.

SABAN: Come on. Set, go. Step, step, step. Come on. Strong, strong with the lock-out. Strong with the lock-out with the punch. Let's go. Come on.

GOLDMAN: He moves well despite recent hip replacement surgery. He was back at work within 36 hours of the operation. Saban does not like to waste time. Before our interview, an assistant advised don't meander with questions. Be direct. How will we know if it's not working? His leg will bounce, we're told, fast. Or maybe we'll get a snarl. Search Saban rant, and YouTube is filled with clips of him yelling at practice or snarling at the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SABAN: I do believe in our team, all right? And we're going to work hard to make our team better. And it's not going to be for you because if it was up to you, we're six foot under already. We're dead and buried and gone. Gone.

GOLDMAN: Sometimes after a tense moment like this, there's levity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Last one with Alex.

SABAN: You better make it a good one now because I'm about half fired up here.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: But the levity often doesn't make it onto the highlight shows. We're left with the snarl, which has earned Saban nicknames like Satan or the Nick-tator. With one eye trained on his leg - it's not moving yet - I ask Saban about his reputation as the dower leader of what's been called a joyless juggernaut.

SABAN: No, I don't think that's fair.

GOLDMAN: Saban says they have fun at Alabama, their kind of fun.

SABAN: You know, is fun cutting up and doing crazy stuff that is not going to help you sort of be successful in the future? Or is fun knowing you did your best to be the best you could be at whatever you choose to do? And that doesn't mean you don't laugh and enjoy yourself and the relationships that you develop while you're doing it.

GOLDMAN: It also doesn't mean it's not hard. Saban is a perfectionist, and he can be tough on his team. Thirteen assistant coaches have left in the past two years. They are in high demand after working for a demanding head coach. Former offensive coordinator Michael Locksley told The Wall Street Journal every day you walk in that building, you better bring your A game. My goal was to show up every day and not have Saban have to rip my butt.

There are seven new coaches this season and a renewed dedication to the process. Will it all be enough for a seventh national title, giving Saban the most of any college coach in history? A final answer won't come until January, when Alabama may be playing for another championship. But don't ask Saban about that now, eight days before Bama's opening game against Duke. It would ignore the process and for sure get that leg working overtime.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Tuscaloosa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALABAMA YEA (UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA FIGHT SONG)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.