Nick Saban's biggest challenge

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- This has been an offseason filled with questions for Nick Saban.

Who will play quarterback? How will he replace Amari Cooper? Why does the defense keep getting exposed in big games, particularly at the end of the past two seasons?

And that was before the Crimson Tide saw three players arrested in four days last month, including Jonathan Taylor, whose second domestic violence charge in less than a year touched off an unprecedented level of criticism directed at Saban.

But let's be honest: Just about every coach in America would love to have Saban's problems.

In his eight years at Alabama, Saban's teams have won three national titles and three SEC crowns. He also guided the Crimson Tide to an SEC championship game appearance in 2008 after a 12-0 regular season and has won at least 11 games in six of his past seven seasons. And with four straight No. 1 recruiting classes, the Alabama roster is filled with four- and five-star players.

As Saban enters his ninth season in Tuscaloosa -- four years longer than he's stayed anywhere else as head coach -- he acknowledges these are uncharted waters for him and that the challenge is different than anything he's faced in his Hall of Fame career.

"There's no question about it. It's completely different," Saban told ESPN.com. "What it takes to be successful never really changes, but people's attitude toward what you have to do to be successful starts to change when you have lots of success. After we won two national championships in a row in 2011 and 2012, that's when it really changed for us.

"The last two teams, that's when I saw the challenge was a little different, but that's something that excites me. That keeps me young."

Saban, 63, will always be a builder at heart. That's what he does as well as anybody who's ever coached the college game. Some people build houses. Others build computer programs. Saban builds championship football teams. He and Urban Meyer are the only two coaches in FBS history to win a national championship at two different schools.

But as Saban bears down on a full decade at Alabama, sustaining what he's built becomes more daunting by the year. It's almost to the point that if the Crimson Tide don't win a national championship, everybody wants to know what's wrong. And now, they've had the audacity to go two years without taking home college football's top prize.

"That's a serious standard to be held to," Alabama senior center Ryan Kelly said. "We were winning those championships and everybody was high on us. We lost two games in 2013, two games last year and got to the playoff, and it felt like it was a failure.

"But when you hold yourself to that kind of standard, that's just the way it is.

It's similar, in many ways, to what Duke faces in basketball, with every year being a championship-or-bust pursuit.

"I heard Mike Krzyzewski talking about it the other day," said Saban, recalling an interview Krzyzewski did on the way to his fifth national title. "I said, 'Man, is that so true.' We're sort of in that same boat here."

Perhaps the worst fear among Alabama fans is that Saban could get antsy and be open to the challenge of going elsewhere, restarting his clock and trying to build another championship program. He doesn't have a buyout in a contract that pays him $7.2 million annually.

Former Alabama All-American Barrett Jones, who spent some time with Saban last week, doesn't see it happening. Jones thinks Saban will finish his coaching career at Alabama, which is what Saban has steadfastly maintained.

"I don't think he's going anywhere. I think if he were going anywhere, it would have been to Texas last year," said Jones, who's now with the St. Louis Rams. "I think he's staying put for as long as he wants to coach. That's just me. I don't think he'll ever get to that point where he feels like he's done all he can at Alabama. He's never satisfied. He's as motivated and cranky, in a good way, as he's ever been. He just cares so much."

One thing that has changed in Alabama's program is the way Saban has to motivate players now, especially with the number of blue-chip prospects pouring in every year and their sense of entitlement when a lot of them arrive on campus.

"The dynamics have changed," Saban said. "Just like with Barrett. All those guys came here because they wanted to play at Alabama and wanted to prove something. They were willing to do whatever the process was to be successful. They just wanted to buy in and do whatever we needed to do to do it.

"But as we've had more success, guys come here now -- and this is not necessarily a bad thing -- but in some ways for what Alabama can do for them."

The Crimson Tide have had more issues off the field over the past two years (15 arrests since February 2013) than they did during their run of national championships, or really any other time during Saban's tenure. Of the three players arrested last month, Saban dismissed two, defensive tackle Jonathan Taylor and running back Tyren Jones, from the team.

Taylor signed at Alabama in January despite pending felony charges on aggravated assault and family violence that led to his dismissal from Georgia. Taylor was arrested again last month in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on a domestic violence charge and was dismissed from the team and university even though the accuser recanted her story.

And while he was skewered nationally for taking Taylor, Saban remains unapologetic for giving players with troubled pasts a second chance.

"I really don't think I did the wrong thing. I just think it didn't work," Saban said. "You have to move on and learn from the experience, which I have, so you can make the next-best decision. The part that I don't get is why so many people feel like condemning these young people is right. If we had left all these guys we've given opportunities to behind, would that have somehow made them better people? Even if they fail here, does it give them a better chance to be successful? I think so."

At the same time, Saban bristles at the notion that Alabama has sacrificed character for football ability and maintains that those players who've run afoul of the law are the exception.

"I think we went almost five years and never had a player arrested, which is kind of unheard of, to be honest with you," Saban said. "Not that I've changed or the way we discipline people in the program has changed, but we've had a lot more of that kind of stuff, and that's disappointing for all of us.

"I would put our guys, and our graduation rate, against any other group on campus or any place else. The graduation rate at this university is not what our graduation rate is on the football team."

On the field, Saban's message to his team this spring has been unmistakable: Get an identity or get used to losing a couple of games every year. The Crimson Tide failed to play their best football to finish the season each of the past two years, which is the exact opposite of what they had done previously under Saban.

"We won those two championships, and guys kind of got relaxed these last two years," Alabama senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said. "We've got to get back to doing the things that got us here. Coach Saban is always going to do the things he does. As players, it's on us. When Rolando McClain was here, it was his team. Coach didn't have to coach the team. When Ro said something, everybody did it. When Ro left, it was Dont'a [Hightower]. When Dont'a said something, everybody did it.

"We've got to get back to that: guys being more demanding, getting guys off the field who aren't doing it the way we want even if you've got to fight a guy if they're being lazy. That's the stigma the leaders had back then, being hard-nosed, physical guys and not taking nothing from nobody, and that's what you see in this team."

One of the best things Saban does, according to Jones, is adapt. Sure, he's stubborn and even old fashioned in a lot of ways, but Saban is uncanny when it comes to changing with the football times, be it recruiting prospects, motivating players or going up-tempo on offense.

"Look at his hiring of [offensive coordinator] Lane Kiffin last year," Jones said. "That's a combination a lot of people didn't think would work too well, but it obviously worked really well because [Saban] understands that you have to adapt to survive, and he'll continue to do that."