TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban will admittedly tell you that he still doesn’t have a definitive read on what is his fifth Alabama football team.
He likes this team’s effort, the way it’s competed and the way it’s played as one. He would still like to see it play smarter and with more precision.
Chances are the No. 3-ranked Crimson Tide will have to on Saturday when they dive into SEC play against No. 14-ranked Arkansas.
Through three games, Alabama has been tested only once and pulled away from Penn State for a 27-11 victory the second week of the season at Beaver Stadium. The Crimson Tide overwhelmed outmanned foes Kent State and North Texas in their other two contests.
Saban, whose Alabama teams have won 22 of their past 23 games at Bryant-Denny Stadium, sat down with ESPN.com earlier this week for a wide-ranging interview:
How much do you know about your team at this point?
Nick Saban: Not a lot yet. The only time they’ve really had to play like you want to see them play was up at Penn State, and they competed well. We didn’t always execute. We’ve got a lot of things we can improve on, just paying attention to detail and the execution. But the effort, the toughness, how hard they play, how hard they compete they’re good about that. But it’s the attention to detail and execution that we have to improve on. When you do the little things right, it usually works pretty well. And when you don’t, it doesn’t work so well, especially on defense.
Your defense leads the country in limiting teams to 2.52 yards per play, but the structure of this defense is different than your last couple of defenses, isn’t it?
NS: We’re not as good up front. We don’t have the dominant pass-rusher, but we have more play-making kind of guys, guys that can make plays, but not a dominant up-front guy. We’ve tried to use some different guys, mostly in pass-rush situations. Those guys (up front) play the run all right. But in pass-rush situations, we don’t have the guy inside that can make the difference.
How has AJ McCarron's progression at quarterback gone in your mind?
NS: He’s done a lot of good things for us, but he still sometimes plays like a young quarterback. He’ll make a good pass, and you’ll say, ‘Hey, this guy is really good,’ and then all of a sudden, he’ll do something dumb and you’ll say, ‘He’s still a young quarterback.’
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino is one of the best offensive minds in the game, and his offenses are about as multiple as it gets. How much do you think the Hogs have shown on offense this season?
NS: They kind of do what they do. They don’t hold back. I think his theory is more, ‘I’m going to throw all these multiples out there and make you have to prepare for this myriad of things,’ half of which you’re not going to see in the game. But it’s going to keep you from practicing what you are going to see very much, because he has so much stuff. They don’t do it in every game. He picks what he’s going to do against you. Just like last year, we practiced our [butt] off against an empty backfield, and they didn’t go empty against us one time in the game, I don’t think. But up until that time, they’d been empty all over the lot. So, you take all that time we practiced against empty, and we should have been practicing against something else.
You’ve said several times that there are no other horizons for you in coaching. Five years in, how content are you here at Alabama?
NS: We’re really happy here. You always have tons of challenges. College football has tons of challenges, especially from year to year because of the number of players you lose, guys go out for the draft and you’re not ready to replace them. The fun of it is building and getting to that point that it’s so challenging. But then it gets to be a little bit of a grind when everybody’s expectation is that you’ve got to win every game. It’s like nothing is ever good enough. You just have to keep trying to set the bar a little bit higher and higher, as well as the standard, and it gets to be a little bit of a grind because you feel like expectations will never get met.
Alabama is one of those places that as soon as you win a national championship, everybody wants to know when you’re going to win your next one. How do you deal with such dizzying expectations?
NS: The way I manage it is that my expectations for what we want to accomplish are higher than anybody else’s. So it’s not everybody else that frustrates me. It’s me that frustrates me, that we can’t get it like I want it all the time, so I sure ain’t complaining about it. But all that other stuff that people want to talk about I’ve always been able to stay focused on trying to recruit good players and trying to develop those players. That’s the part of it that I like.
You’re the only coach in the modern era to win two national championships in football at two different schools. What’s it like for you, the chase for a championship?
NS: I think that’s the part you like the most, and it’s when you don’t like that and when you don’t like seeing the kid graduate and don’t like seeing the kid do better because he’s in the program and you don’t get some positive self-gratification in guys sort of growing up in front of you, then I don’t think just winning a championship is enough, not for what you’ve got to put into it. But what you’ve got to put into it is the part I enjoy the most -- the offseason program, practice, spring ball, working with the players, teaching the players and coaching the players. That’s what I enjoy. And most of the ball guys that’s how they are. That’s how Steve [Spurrier] is. Jimbo [Fisher] is that way, too. Will [Muschamp] is the same way. He’ll be coaching those guys like he’s an assistant, just like I do.
You’ll be 60 next month. Can you imagine a time that you’re not coaching football?
NS: I could not ever retire. I would have to have something to do. I’m not a sit-around person. But as long as I feel good and all that, I don’t see not doing this. But if I got to where I didn’t feel good or something was wrong with me, I’ll say, ‘I can’t do this like I used to, and if I can’t do it like I used to, maybe I shouldn’t do it.’ I want to always be able to do it the way I do it now. I wouldn’t want to be doing it just to say that you’re doing it, but I don’t see that time coming anytime soon.
How much did the tornado that cut a deadly swath through Tuscaloosa back in April change your perspective on things?
NS: Quite a bit. It’s too bad that you have to have these thunderbolt type of things happen in your life for you to realize and put things into perspective. First of all, it’s just respecting the weather, which I never did. They used to say ‘tornado warning,’ and I’m going recruiting or whatever I’m going to do. Even that day of the storm, I’m working here and go home to get dressed for a speaking engagement and stop [at the football complex] to do a video conference with a recruit. When I drive back here, that’s right after the thing hit, and I’m saying, ‘Why is nobody on the road?’ Then everybody starts calling, and when I go home, there were 12 girls at the house. It looked like a dormitory with all the book bags lined up because they were in the basement. I’m like, ‘This isn’t going to happen.’ And then you see what happens and see the people who are affected and meet the guy who lost his house and lost his daughter and what the people need to rebuild what they lost and they can’t do it. It was heartbreaking. We’ve had a lot of people make a lot of contributions to this community, and they’ve done a really good job of cleaning it up and hopefully rebuilding it.
You’ve said you think there’s a lot more good going on in college football than bad, but what does concern you right now about the sport?
NS: The thing that concerns me the most is when I hear that people are making a lot of money a lot of ways except for the athletes, whether it’s on the bowl games, the TV contracts, the conferences, the schools, the coaches, however you want to say it. Now, I believe in the things players are able to earn when they’re in college, be it degrees and the way we try to invest in their personal development and their academic success and develop them as football players. They’re all better off and have a lot better chance to be successful, but it bothers me that the quality of life thing is not getting addressed like it needs to.
What about some of the recent NCAA issues that have affected so many of the schools?
NS: The rules things that get blown up now used to be considered minor. Now, it’s like these things are the same as giving a guy $200,000 to come to your school. A couple of illegal phone calls or text messages, and it’s like you’re a criminal of all criminals if you do anything that’s wrong.
One of SEC commissioner Mike Slive’s proposals is to simplify the NCAA rulebook and do away with some of the minor stuff, but be even more penal on those who commit major violations such as paying players and inducing them to come to your school with extra benefits.
NS: Right, and there’s still some of that going on that’s not getting addressed, and then people are getting fried over mouse manure. Even some of these extra benefits that they talk about these kids getting why can’t you have every extra benefit that every other kid can? If you want to sell your shirt, sell your shirt. Every other kid on campus can sell his shirt.
So you’re saying that somewhere along the way the definition of blatant cheating has been skewed?
NS: Look at [Terrelle] Pryor. His whole life is turned upside down because he got a free tattoo. Who cares? And the coach [Jim Tressel] is fired because he supposedly knew it and didn’t do anything about it. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m not saying any of this is right. I’m just saying that how wrong it’s being made out to be is totally out of proportion.
Your buddy, Bill Belichick, was wired for an entire season last year, and a documentary on him is currently airing on the NFL Network. Have you had a chance to see any of it?
NS: No, but if they really wired him, he ain’t talking like he used to talk when I worked with him, because there was a lot of cussing going on in those headsets. I hope the show has a triple-X rating.