The unsolvable riddle behind Saban's enduring success is discipline
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
On Thursday, Andrew Greif of The Oregonian published an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the implosion of Oregon's football program, which last year went from being one of college football's most durable contenders to a 4-8 pile of rubble. There previously had been ample warning signs that now-fired coach Mark Helfrich—who led the Ducks to the national title game in 2015—was presiding over a collapse, but Greif's reporting laid bare a series of issues that would doom almost any program: Lax conditioning, cut corners, possibly checked-out coaches, a dearth of leadership, myriad off-field issues, a head coach who had lost the ability to connect with his players, and an overall lack of focus.
None of that is what you want. And yet, seemingly without fail, some combination of the above is what every high-level, dynastic college football program ends up becoming after a certain amount of time. In terms of results, Oregon's discipline erosion under Helfrich is no different than USC annually serving up easy losses in Pete Carroll's later years, or Mack Brown falling asleep at the wheel for Texas, or Bob Stoops' Oklahoma teams perpetually flittering between unstoppable and underachieving, or Urban Meyer's empire at Florida dissolving into an untamable mess, or Jim Tressel's ongoing matador act with the NCAA at Ohio State, all but daring the association to gore his program into a bloody mess.
Nothing ever lasts in college football. With one exception. Alabama under Nick Saban. While Clemson demonstrated in Monday's College Football Playoff championship game just how silly and reductive it can be to view the entire sport through the lens of how it relates to the Crimson Tide, there's no denying the school's sustained success—its sheer capacity to endure, season after grinding season, showing few tangible signs of slipping, cracking, or (Sabam forbid) relenting.
Flip the lens—view Alabama through how it relates to the rest of college football—and it's really quite remarkable.
In Saban's 2007 debut season, the talent-poor Crimson Tide lost six games. In the nine seasons since, they've lost 13, or 1.4 losses per year. Only nine of those have come during the regular season, and only one of those regular season losses was to a team ranked lower than No. 15 heading into the game. None have been to an unranked team. That's consistency. Alabama will almost certainly begin next year as the preseason No. 1, and there is no reason to assume otherwise.
College football's big selling point is chaos: on any weekend, anything can happen. If we're being honest, though, that's only true because superior teams allow shit to happen. Time and again, it has been proven that on-field talent overwhelmingly determines the sport's outcomes, with a 1:1 correlation between national champions and the schools that consistently bring in Top 10-level recruiting classes. There are rarely reasons for top-tier programs to drop games to substantially lower or unranked teams. Yet every season, it happens. Why? Those same powerhouses simply lose their focus—sometimes for a week, as Clemson did during a road loss to unranked Pittsburgh last season, and sometimes for longer, as the Sooners have.
Eventually, that loss of focus lasts long enough to bring about collapse. Programs fall apart; the center cannot hold; overpaid coaching search committees are loosed upon the college football world while men like Helfrich enjoy hefty buyouts. But not Saban. His program keeps rolling. Talent is the key, to be sure. The Tide dominate recruiting. That said, Alabama isn't any more loaded than other past dynasties: 2004 USC, 2005 Texas, 2008 Florida, and early-aughts Miami all could stand toe-to-toe against Saban's best, most NFL-prospect-rich squads.
The difference—as Helfrich's example reminds us—lies in the discipline, and the mystery is how Saban continues to cultivate it. For all of the jokes about his chilling efficiency, Saban's post-human shtick isn't all that far removed from Meyer's totalitarianism in Gainesville. Saban's predecessors atop college football's mountaintop have run the gamut from everyman (Stoops) to buttoned-up (Tressel) to Shangri La (Carroll) to down-home Southern (Brown). There's no singular personality formula for success. For that matter, there's no type immune to failure.
There's the faint possibility that Saban only brings in like-minded players, athletes who are equally focused. That seems unlikely, given what we know about the teenage brain. Moreover, it's hard to imagine that his recruits are immune to feeling entitled, or a little less than ravenously hungry: Alabama brings in heralded five-star prospects year after year, and many of them are from out-of-state, the types of players most often predisposed to expecting preferential treatment and a glide path to success.
So what is it, then? The first coach to suss out the answer, to figure out why Saban is such an anomaly, is the one who stands the best chance of replicating Alabama's consistent excellence. Of course, that's something no other program has managed to accomplish. Given that Saban is arguably the greatest college football coach in history, the Next Saban could be decades away. Or never materialize at all.
In the meantime, expect several more coaches like Helfrich to come and go, building impressive sandcastles that eventually wash back into the sea. In college football, programs succeed differently, but they all fail in the same way. If there's any way out of that cycle, it will come through studying the one person who has managed to escape it, and endlessly striving to measure up.
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