Alabama coach Nick Saban said his Crimson Tide team heads into 2019 with a need to re-establish the standard that has brought it national championship success in years past.
The Crimson Tide coach touched on a number of topics at SEC Football Media Days 2019, including what he likes and doesn’t like about the transfer portal, where quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can improve and whether he’s a tough boss.
Saban’s team is coming off a 44-16 drumming by Clemson in the national championship game to close out the 2018 season, which saw the Tide go undefeated in the regular season, win the SEC championship game and defeat Oklahoma in the first round of the College Football Playoff.
But the bad taste from the Clemson loss is what lingers, Saban said.
“I think that we didn’t play with the discipline at the end of the season that we’d like to have as a team,” Saban said. “I don’t think that our preparation, so that we can go in a game and be very responsible and accountable to do our job at a high level on a consistent basis, was what it needed to be.”
The coach said the loss can be used as motivation for the upcoming season.
“I think if you’re a great competitor and you are in a game like we were for the national championship and you didn’t perform very well, and given all much the credit to the other team who beat us and took advantage of the opportunities that they have, not to take anything away from them, but if you’re a competitor, you’re going to respond in a positive way and learn from the things that you didn’t do, whether those things were in preparation, game-day decisions, you know, the habits that you created leading up to the game the second half of the season,” Saban said. “All of those things contribute to, are we going to be able to have success against one of the best teams, or the best team, in the country. And we obviously didn’t do that. That’s my responsibility.”
For Saban, the response is re-establishing the standard.
“I think the most important thing for us, you know, in this offseason and going into this season is sort of re-establish the standard that we’d like to play to, standard of discipline, also, players that are going to be responsible and accountable to do their job at a high level on a consistent basis and also put the team first,” Saban said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have individual goals and aspirations in terms of what you want to accomplish, what you want to do for the team, but it has to be about the team. I think that sometimes people see you when you create numbers for yourself and do great individual things, but you really get noticed when you do those things and the team has success as well.”
That “team first” mentality may have been lacking last year, Saban said.
“Whether or not people were worried about personal outcomes more than team outcomes, it’s always hard to judge that,” he said. “But it seems like we had a lot of distractions at the end of the year. So hopefully we learned from those scenarios, and it will help us do the things that we need to do to be able to play to our full potential throughout this season.”
Saban said it will be important for leaders on the team to help enforce standards.
“That’s something that I think is important on every team and certainly something that we challenge the leadership on our team to do a great job of this year to help our young players understand the culture and the standard that we’d like to do things to,” he said. “And I think it’s important for those leaders to set a good example, be somebody that the young players on the team can emulate, care enough about them to help them for their benefit, and serve the team well because it helps everybody play to a higher standard.”
Speaking of leadership, Saban noted he is once again starting a new season with new coordinators on his staff.
Steve Sarkisian returns to Alabama after two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL. Pete Golding was promoted to defensive coordinator from last year’s staff.
While the coordinators may change, Saban said Alabama doesn’t.
“You know, we don’t change systems at Alabama,” Saban said. “So we change the system to effectively take advantage of the players that we have in our program. So that’s what we want to do. Obviously, we’ll do some different things and some new things relative to the new coaches that we have, but we also maintain the same system that we’ve had in the past.”
Saban has had to replace a number of coaches and coordinators during his time at Alabama, most of them going on to head coaching or positions of increased responsibility at other schools. Is Saban a difficult boss?
“Well, I don’t know. You have to ask some of the people that work for me,” Saban said. “Always interesting that, you know, they may say that, but then when they get a job and they go do it, they do it exactly like we did it. So, I don’t know.”
Constantly recruiting, maintaining a roster of 125 players and maintaining a standard of excellence is hard work.
“So none of this is easy,” Saban said. “And I think, when you’re in a position of leadership and you’re trying to make people be accountable and responsible to a standard that’s going to help you continue to have success, that sometimes you have to make people do things that they really don’t want to do that may be in the best interest of the overall organization.”
The player transfer portal is another element that Saban and his staff now have to face. Saban said the premise of the portal – allowing players to explore transferring and letting interested schools contact them – is a good one. However, Saban does not like the passing out of waivers that prevent a player from having to sit out a year at the new school.
“The issue with the transfer portal is we’ve gotten very liberal in giving people waivers, so, when we do that, it becomes free agency, which I don’t think is good for college football,” Saban said. “So, in my opinion, if we’re going to have a transfer portal that’s good for the players, then we ought to have a rule that says, regardless of what happens when you transfer, you have to sit out a year.”
Saban said it’s his job to create an environment where players want to come and stay.
“So we want to have the best coaches, the best teachers, the best facilities, the best strength and conditioning medical staff, nutritionist, you name it,” Saban said. “We want to have the best that we can so we give every player an opportunity to reach their full potential.”
But Saban said honesty is also important.
“I asked players all of the time to establish goals for themselves personally, academically and athletically, and then I try to get them to edit their behavior to be able to accomplish those goals,” Saban said. “And if their behavior is not in line with that, we sort of tell them. And some people don’t like to believe the truth.”
Saban had more to say about why being truthful with players is the only approach.
“You know, there’s three things about the truth,” Saban said. “I tell my kids all of the time about, if you don’t tell me the truth, I can’t trust you. If I can’t trust you, we can’t have a relationship. But truth is important. I think we all have to tell the truth. I think we have to live the truth, but I also think sometimes you got to believe the truth. So when somebody tells you something you really don’t want to hear that you might need to do that’s going to help you be more successful, you got to believe it. Some people have a hard time with that.”
A full scholarship load has kept Saban and his staff from spending a lot of time looking for players in the transfer portal. Saban said there is one place he looks to add players.
“We look at who is in the graduate transfer pool. And if there’s somebody that can give us immediate help on our team, we have had several graduate transfers,” Saban said. “So we really haven’t been active at all in, you know, that part of how we bring players to our team.”
Saban touched on a number of other subjects.
On Tagovailoa’s development at quarterback: “You know, towards end of the season, we turned the ball over a little bit more offensively than what we had in the first half of the season. And I’m sure that he wants to make sure that the decision-making that led to some of those things are something that he can improve on,” Saban said. “Tua is a great competitor so he’s going to try to make a great play every play. And sometimes those things have worked out extremely well. And other times they’ve led to some disasters. So having a little better judgment about when to say when can be an asset from a health standpoint as well as eliminate negative play standpoint, even though sometimes he’s done that, and it’s worked out great.”
On being 16-0 against his former assistants who are head coaches at competing schools: “I think that’s not a very fair stat. All of the former assistants that we have, they get jobs. They don’t take a program over that has the established, you know, talent, culture and all that that we have at Alabama. So when they get the opportunity to establish those things in their program, they’re going to be able to beat Alabama and compete with Alabama,” he said. “I think a lot of those guys are going to be able to do that extremely well. Some have done it already. So, I think it’s a matter of time until those challenges get greater and greater for us.”
On pinpointing the secret to his success: “I don’t really know the secret to the success other than, you know, we worked hard and we’ve been in some really good situations through the years with really good people who are very supportive and given us the tools that we have that can create value for players so we can attract good players, and we’ve been able to develop those players with the knowledge and experience that we have on our staffs and, you know, with what we’ve been able to create through the years,” Saban said. “And I’m sort of a perfectionist by nature. And I know you can’t be perfect, but we’re always working to try to close the gap on perfect if we can and get everybody in the organization to try to do the same.”