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The speech that launched the Alabama dynasty

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban knows what he wants to say. For a week and a half, he has thought about this. And today, inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, he has a plan: Start out slow, pat everyone on the back like he's supposed to and then pivot. It won't be a smooth transition, but it will be one everyone remembers.

It's January 16, 2010. It's below freezing. There's a constant drizzle, but it doesn't dampen the spirit of the parade and the celebration that follows. Not after the near-two-decade national championship drought that came before, the void since Gene Stallings and Derrick Lassic dominated Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl. Some 38,000 people have shown up to revel in lucky No. 13, filling the half of the stadium in view of the podium. It's way more people than senior offensive lineman Mike Johnson and his teammates anticipated. A couple dozen fans gather behind the stage for a chance to listen, for a shot at winding up inside the wide-angle lens of history.

Saban is flanked by trophies as he leans into the microphone at midfield. To his left: the SEC Championship, the Heisman, the Butkus. To his right: that old crystal football the BCS used to hand out. His team is behind him. Athletic director Mal Moore and chancellor Robert Witt are on stage, too. They listen intently to the man they spent so long chasing, believing he could resurrect Alabama. After Moore made his final pitch to lure Saban from Miami in 2006, Witt asked him how he felt about their chances. "If I don't get Coach Saban on this plane," Moore told him, "I'm not coming back to Tuscaloosa, I'm going to Cuba."

Three years later, and here they were, Saban making it a point to thank both Moore and Witt as he addresses the crowd. Then comes the turn, the moment he was waiting for.

"But I want everyone here to know," Saban says, holding his hand out to stop the applause. For this, he needs their undivided attention. His voice grows louder.

"This is not the end. This is the beginning."

Those two sentences, that sentiment, would come to mean many things to many people. For Witt, it brought a sigh of relief. For those players coming back next season, a loud wake-up call. For fans, it was everything.

Saban's words that day didn't lead to a second national championship in 2011. Rather, it was a way of going beyond that, a way of reaching out for a third and fourth title to come. It was bold, no doubt. Confident. Focused. Determined. Looking back, it was the mission statement of his plan to build and sustain a dynasty at Alabama.

* * *

No one saw this day coming.

It's August 26, 2016, and Saban is addressing reporters for the final time during fall camp. Up next: the season opener against USC -- the first step in Alabama's quest to repeat as national champions.

Everything is familiar about this scene. Saban is part prickly, part charismatic. Asked whether the staff has discussed playing two quarterbacks, he says matter-of-factly, "No, we haven't had any discussion about that."

A reporter has a follow-up, but wonders first whether Saban wants to finish his answer.

"It's a pretty simple question and pretty simple answer," Saban says before pausing a moment. "Like I'd tell you if we were going to."

Cue the laughs. Cue a big grin across Saban's face.

"This is not the end. This is the beginning."

Nick Saban, after winning his first national title at Alabama

It's all so normal. But in the context of Saban circa January 2010, it's anything but.

Setting aside the notion that he seems happier than ever -- or happy at all -- the simple fact that Saban is still at Alabama, beginning his 10th season as the Tide's head coach, is noteworthy.

Witt was optimistic this day would come, of course, but in his heart of hearts he was never certain. Saban had never stayed anywhere more than five years prior to arriving in Tuscaloosa. Another college job could have pulled him away, maybe the challenge of another shot at the NFL.

When Witt and then-athletic director Moore shook Saban's hand in the locker room after beating Texas for the title, they knew they had to stay on top of him. In what Witt described as a coordinated plan, the two communicated a message to Saban: "Everything we said to you during the recruiting process regarding having the resources you need to be successful, you'll have them."

Sitting behind Saban in Bryant-Denny Stadium six years ago, Witt heard, "This is not the end. This is the beginning," and his wheels started turning. He took a half-beat longer than the rest of the crowd to start clapping. But he thought he knew what Saban meant: What they said when they were recruiting me was the truth.

Witt put it another way: "I was focused on, 'It's the beginning,' of what he's going to do -- at the University of Alabama."

"We weren't sure which direction the program was going to go," said offensive lineman and team captain Mike Johnson. "After Year 3 and winning a national championship, you wonder if something will come up and he'll head out of town. I think when he said that, it calmed everybody down."

Now they felt they had him. For life.

To this day, Witt and Saban maintain a close working relationship. Witt has seen firsthand his growth -- the way he has tried to savor some of the victories, the way he has relished becoming a grandfather. Witt has even found ways to make Saban laugh. But that doesn't mean he has seen him slow down. That singular focus of his hasn't subsided.

"The easiest way for me to describe that dimension of Coach Saban is by example," Witt said. It was a day or two after signing day a few years back.

As Witt and Moore were leaving the football facility they decided to stop by Saban's office to see how he was doing. Only he wasn't there.

"And Mal said, 'I know where he is,' and we went down to a small office he uses for screening film online. He was looking at film of high school juniors. He was already thinking about the next signing day."

"Nick's entire professional life has been very intense working an extraordinary number of hours," Witt added. "I don't see him being able to retire easily. He's just too used to the intensity. So I think we're going to be blessed with a few more years."

* * *

The coaches heard the payoff to Saban's speech first.

It was the day after the national championship. They were all still in California at the team hotel making preparations to leave when a staff meeting was called.

According to then-offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, that's when Saban said it: This is not the end.

Time to start recruiting. Time to start building for 2010 and beyond.

"The understanding is that piece is done, and no one really cares what you did for me yesterday; What are you doing for me today?" McElwain said. "And yet that was the mentality of the whole organization. Not just the players. I'm talking about anything that touches [Saban's] desk. And if you thought any other way, it was probably a good opportunity to leave."

"He knew there was success to come, and he was going to build it," said then-defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

Smart said repeating those remarks at the championship celebration was clearly by design.

It worked on Greg McElroy. As a first-time starting quarterback, he had just won a national championship. He and his teammates were still, as he put it, coming down from the high that began in Pasadena, California. They weren't ready to start thinking about a repeat as they took their seats inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. Then Saban turned on a dime.

"He wanted to make sure, not only us as a team but also to the fan base, that look, this is not something that we're going to settle for, this is not going to be a one-time thing, this is something that we anticipate doing every year," McElroy said.

"He's always focused on what's next. People always mention 'the process.' That is the process -- not looking back, looking forward and figuring out a way to overcome the obstacles that lie front of you."

* * *

O.J. Howard and Jonathan Allen were pups when Saban gave what has become Alabama's version of the Sermon on the Mount.

Howard was all of 15 years old, a gangly tight end imagining what it would be like to make varsity in Prattville, Alabama. Allen was a wide receiver in Virginia still years away from the transformation that would make him a nearly 300-pound defensive end.

Their memories of that time in early 2010 are hazy. But thanks to a video that's played before every Alabama home game, Saban's message has become a sort of callback for the seniors.

This is not the end ...

"This is the beginning," Howard finished.

Said Allen: "When you truly believe in your process, when you truly believe in the work ethic and dedication of you, your staff and your family, then you can have the utmost confidence to repeat the success you've been having."

Confidence is one thing. Cockiness is another, though.

Alabama may have the best coach of his generation. It may be the most talented team top to bottom in the country. And playing in the SEC, it may have the clearest path back to the playoff. But that guarantees nothing. Their No. 1 ranking in both polls is as much a curse as it is a gift.

What isn't certain now -- in fact, what can never be certain -- is how players will handle success. Will complacency creep in? Will they start worrying about themselves more than the team? It has happened before. Former linebacker Reggie Ragland said that in 2014 some of his teammates were more concerned with draft grades than the scoreboard. It's human nature; winning becomes less important the more you do it.

It's why you can't look back. It's too dangerous.

The day after beating Clemson to win the national championship earlier this year, Saban took a brief nap on the team plane as it headed back to Tuscaloosa. Then he opened a laptop to watch a replay of the game. He wasn't trying to relive the glory -- that brilliant onside kick, Derrick Henry's three rushing touchdowns, the confetti and the celebration that followed. Rather, he wanted to do some self-scouting, breaking down offense, defense and special teams. He wouldn't have time later, he explained. He had to be on the road recruiting within two days.

Even now, as Alabama begins its quest for a fifth national championship under Saban, his words following that first title still ring true. He has tweaked the message of late -- "So what? What's next?" is the new locker room manta -- but there's no mistaking the source material.

"The message that I was trying to send when I said that was, 'We didn't just come here to win one national championship and then that's the end of it. We want to continue to build on this standard and challenge everybody to have a consistency in performance over time to a standard that is something special,'" he said. "So it wasn't the end. It was the beginning. That was the way we wanted it to be.

"Now the challenge is, can you continue that in the future? We're certainly going to try as we have for the last nine years."