Nick Saban adapts to college football change, extends Alabama success

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PASADENA, Calif. — In a tent near the Rose Bowl, 72 Nick Saban stood in front of the media last week and sometimes leaned forward to better hear the questions.

AlabamaThe legendary Ottawa football coach also reflected on a question that resonated throughout college football earlier this season.

Is Saban past his prime?

“I think when you’re my age, everyone expects you to lose a step,” he said with a smile.

There was reason to wonder about the future of Saban, the second-oldest head coach in college football in terms of age (two months younger than North Carolina(it's Mack Brown).

Of course, that might seem silly now, with Alabama (12-1) set to play Michigan (13-0) Monday at the Rose Bowl in the College Football Playoff semifinals. With Saban two wins away from an eighth national championship.

The man started football coach 50 years ago, and apparently the secret to its current success goes back even further.

“You have to be able to adapt,” Saban said. “I always say that dinosaurs couldn’t adapt and they don’t exist anymore.”

Nick Saban adapts to today's rookies

In 2010, Greg McElroy was the starting quarterback on Saban's first national championship team at Alabama. He's now an analyst at ESPN and marvels at the changes.

Not with Alabama's offense, which Saban took to the 21st Century a few years after McElroy graduated. But rather with photos on social media showing recruits wearing Crimson Tide jerseys during official visits to the school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

“In a million years, I would have never imagined that Coach Saban would allow a photo op during an official visit for a rookie,” McElroy said. “Back then, if you asked to put on a jersey to take photos for your social media, he would have gone on a rant saying no one cares about your vanity. But that's what modern players like, so he's now totally cool with it.”

Saban adapted because it's critical to recruiting, according to McElroy, who was a redshirt freshman when Saban took over as Alabama's head coach in 2007.

“Back then, if he told us to run and jump off the nearest bridge, I'd say, 'OK, when? Let's go.'” McElroy said. “The modern-day gamer asks, 'Why?' And that's okay, there's nothing wrong with that.

“I think you kind of have to meet today’s players where they are more than yesterday’s players.”

Nick Saban has adaptive traits

Curt Cignetti, Indiana's new head football coach, said he saw Saban's adaptability long before major changes even surfaced.

Cignetti was a member of Saban's first coaching staff at Alabama. As wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator from 2007-2010, he saw Saban work his magic.

“Adapt to change,” Cignetti said. “Dealing with uncertainty. Thriving in chaos. … I mean, he's had to do it his whole life to get to where he is.”

From afar, Cignetti said, he sees those same traits serving Saban as he adapts to a landscape where top recruits expect a lucrative NIL deal and the transfer portal is a constant threat — and opportunity .

“It’s chaos,” Cignetti said. “A lot of variables. But he thrives in those kinds of situations. You have to be light, you have to be smart, think quickly and think deeply. And he is all of those things.”

How players view Nick Saban

Jase McClellana senior running back, said he has seen Saban change since he signed with Alabama in 2020.

This season, for example, Saban listened to members of the player management council rather than simply expecting them to carry out his orders, according to McClellan.

“He tells us stuff, and then he listens to what we expect from him, what we want to see,” McClellan said, also noting changes in Saban’s coaching style this season. “People who know him, who see the video clips of him being pretty tense in practice. He hasn't been like that this year.”

It's probably no surprise to Saban that his team has lived up to his expectations despite lacking more consistent blowouts.

“He’s joking and stuff,” McClellan said. “…I feel like he’s really trying to connect with us.”

Jalen MilroeAlabama's starting quarterback, said he believes there is a “secret formula” that has allowed Saban to be the person he is.

“I don’t know what that secret formula is, but he’s something different,” Milroe said, “and he’s separated himself from the other coaches, that’s for sure.”

What Nick Saban learned from COVID-19

Back in that tent near the Rose Bowl stadium, Saban, ever mindful of the extinct dinosaurs, talked about adapting to an “ever-changing world.”

Take for example the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“I mean when they told us Friday March 13 that everyone had to go home, it was supposed to be our first day of spring training, my first thing was how are we going to adjust ” he told Dan Wolken of USA TODAY Sports. .

“So we bought everyone an Apple watch and scale, gave them a workout program and sent them home. But the fact that we did that and stayed in touch and had had Zooms with the players, we ended up winning the national championship, and I think that was due to the way we handled all the challenges created by COVID.”

But it was about much more than COVID.

“It kind of made me realize, wow, when something happens, you better be one step ahead of the problem so you can adapt to these situations,” he said. “… Our players handled the situation well, and I told them, ‘Whoever handles this disruption best will have the best chance of being successful when we play.’ They did.”

Indeed, they did, with their former coach leading the way.

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