By Adam Hoge-
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CBS) As an 11-year-old working at his father’s service shop and Dairy Queen in Monongah, West Virginia, Nick Saban established the roots of his winning Alabama football program.
Of course, back then he wasn’t worried about national championships in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He was just concerned about getting out of the coal mining town with less than 1000 citizens.
Saban might be larger than life today, but back in the early 1960s, he played second fiddle to an even more important Nick: Big Nick.
Big Nick was his father, his boss and the man who deserves credit for everything that goes on inside the Alabama football program today.
Little Nick’s work at the service station included pumping the gas, cleaning car windows, checking the oil, checking the tires and as he put it, “treating the customers in a certain way.”
Those were the expectations of Big Nick, a perfectionist whose son now runs a similar shop — just one that operates on a football field.
“The biggest thing that I learned and started to learn at 11 years old was how important it was to do things correctly,” Saban said Sunday, the day before his Crimson Tide take on Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game. “There was a standard of excellence, a perfection. If we washed a car, and I hated the navy blue and black cares, because when you wiped them off, the streaks were hard to get out, and if there were any streaks when (Big Nick) came, you had to do it over.
“We learned a lot about work ethic. We learned a lot about having compassion for other people and respecting other people, and we learned about certainly the importance of doing things correctly.”
Saban’s father was also a Pop Warner football coach and the attention to detail and discipline carried over to the football field. The message, as Saban put it, was: “Do what you’re supposed to do, the way you’re supposed to do it, when you’re supposed to do it, the way it’s supposed to get done.”
That mentality guided Saban towards a college degree, which his father didn’t have. And when he graduated from Kent State in the early 1970s, he was able to stay at the school as a graduate assistant football coach. From Kent State to Michigan State to LSU to Alabama and many stops in between, including the NFL, Saban has preached what Big Nick taught him.
“I think that sort of perfectionist type of attitude that my parents instilled sort of made you always strive to be all that you could be, and that’s probably still the foundation of the program that we have right now,” he said.
Being “all that you can be” is something Saban talks about every day with his players. It’s the foundation of growth for every player that commits to the University of Alabama and the reason he has won three BCS championships in the last decade.
But while his core values have been a constant since he was an 11-year-old working for his father, his game-to-game preparation is anything but. While many coaches preach a consistent message from game-to-game no matter who the opponent is, Saban is always finding new ways to gain a mental edge on the field.
“We’re always trying to create and make sure that they have the right kind of psychological disposition to play with the kind of mental energy and intensity that’s going to allow them to be all they can be and play their best football game,” he said.
Mental preparation is not always something he put so much effort into as coach though. Rather, it’s something he has developed in the last decade and a major reason why Alabama is on the verge of winning its third title in four years.
“He goes deep into the mental side,” Saban’s long time defensive assistant and current defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “He spends as much time on that as he does defensively now, and I think that is where he’s grown as a coach, because I can remember being at LSU and I didn’t remember the mental side being so great.”
Smart said every game is different and Saban’s tactics will vary. In preparation for Notre Dame, Saban showed his team a video of New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera to preach the importance of focus.
“When he runs out and they hand him the ball, he’s got one focus,” Saban said. “He’s not worried about the crowd. He’s not worried about any of the external factors. One focus: Three outs. How am I going to get three outs?”
Saban will find any tactic possible to maintain the attention of his players and keep them on the path to be all they can be.
“To me, that’s where he has established himself as a coach ahead of the curve because of his ability mentally to create an advantage with his team,” Smart said.
The defensive coordinator has been with Saban a long time, even going to the Dolphins with him in 2006, and the details rooted in Big Nick’s service shop back in West Virginia are obvious.
“He is very detail oriented,” Smart said. “I mean, down to the minute of practice, he wants every second of practice organized, every walk-through rep, it doesn’t matter if you’re in special teams and you’re doing walkthroughs, he wants it organized, he wants to plan for it, he wants it on paper and he wants you to execute it.”
Smart wouldn’t reveal what specific details they were working on in preparation for Notre Dame, but with a layoff over a month, you know they’ve been driven into the heads of the Crimson Tide players. All that’s left now is execution, which is mostly out of Saban’s hands.
“I think that’s always the challenge as a coach,” Saban said. “You can talk about winning all you want, but really the goal is, are our guys going to go out there, compete and play with the best of their ability, from an effort standpoint, from a toughness standpoint, from a discipline to execute standpoint, so that everybody embraces their role, focuses on their role, does a good job at their role?”
More often than not, Saban’s players do exactly that and the result of that execution has made him one of the greatest coaches in college football history.
So is he driven to be the greatest coach in the game?
“Oh, there is no question,” Smart said. “There is no question he is driven to be the greatest coach in the game.”
With a win over Notre Dame Monday night, Saban will have his fourth national title and third in four years.
That’s quite a case.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.