TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Whether he’s beginning the process of defending a national championship or rebounding from a disappointing season, Nick Saban remains the same.
After five decades coaching college football, he’s become a creature of habit. Every time he opens practice at the University of Alabama, it looks the same. There’s an order to it. Each position group is where it's supposed to be. Every player's actions are accounted for. It’s like clockwork. There are no wasted movements. Every moment goes according to his plan.
And, as it turns out, Saban’s process boils all the way down to what he puts on in the morning. Whether it’s been by design or not, the notoriously meticulous head coach has worn the same exact outfit for the first day of spring practice ever since 2008. This year was no different.
A new group of players and coaches walked onto the Thomas-Drew Practice Field for the first time on Saturday afternoon. AJ McCarron was gone from under center, C.J. Mosley was no longer captaining the defense and a number of other familiar faces were noticeably absent. But Saban remained. He put on the same red sweater, khaki pants and nondescript sneakers he’s worn for the first day of spring practice the past seven years. He donned the same straw hat he’s used every year since then, too, with the exception of a rainy day in 2009 that forced his team indoors.
Anyone looking for Alabama to change after ending last season with two losses will be disappointed. Saban may have a new roster, a new coaching staff and a new set of challenges, but his demeanor is exactly the same. His goals haven’t fluctuated: create incremental improvement and focus on what he calls “consistency in performance," which is his process, in a nutshell.
“The first practice is always a sort of work in progress for everybody. [It's] new players learning where to go, old players trying to get back into the swing of things," Saban said.
He used the phrase “work in progress” three times during a hurried seven-minute news conference. He was in a rush, one of his staffers said, because there were a number of recruits he needed to visit with. He went through the motions, answered three questions and was off. With the exception of one position change (ArDarius Stewart at safety) and a few roster moves (Harrison Jones, Chad Lindsay and Jai Miller are gone), it was business as usual.
Saban said he was pleased with the way his team responded to the offseason conditioning program and was eager to see how spring practice would play out. Re-establishing the fundamentals will be the focus for the first few days, he explained, and then they’ll get into the playbook. He made no mention of last season, the last-second loss at Auburn or the poor showing against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It has weighed heavily into the national conversation, but it’s clear Saban has moved on.
“Players have to develop the discipline to sustain so we finish practice, finish games, finish quarters, finish halves like we really want to,” he said.
Trey DePriest, however, is using last season as inspiration. He was on the field when the Sooners embarrassed his defense in New Orleans, racking up 45 points and 429 yards. He was on the sidelines a month earlier when Chris Davis went 109 yards to steal an Iron Bowl win and an undefeated season away from the Tide. The last time Auburn dealt Alabama such a blow, a motivational poster was made as a reminder. “Never Again,” it read, along with a grinning picture of Cam Newton. The next year Alabama destroyed Auburn, went 12-1 and won a national championship.
“Guys are just a lot more hungry,” DePriest said. “We didn’t finish the season like we wanted to. Guys knew that and they just took a different approach to it, and [we] are trying to get back to the standard to how we do stuff.”
Amari Cooper wasn’t around when Alabama was dealt a similar setback in 2010, losing three games after being ranked preseason No. 1. But the standout junior receiver has noticed a different motivation from his teammates this spring. The leaders are stepping up more, he said. What Saban is asking them to do -- “stay focused and finish” -- isn’t different from years past, but Cooper has seen a better focus from everyone.
What remains to be seen is how that sustains itself and translates into results. Cooper doesn’t have McCarron throwing him the football anymore. Doug Nussmeier is no longer his offensive coordinator. He now has five unknown candidates at quarterback, a sixth on the way and a coordinator with a somewhat checkered past. So far, Cooper said, he’s enjoyed the change, noting how Lane Kiffin has simplified the offense and made it more “player-friendly.”
As far as the quarterback battle, he thinks that will be fine, too.
“It’s not weird,” he said. “It’s just a quarterback competition. I think schools have that every year.”
But Alabama isn’t any school. Not when you win three of the past five national championships. Not when your head coach is Nick Saban and losing two games is a disappointment.
The quarterback competition may be simmering on the back burner now, but it’s going to heat up when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May. As far as Saban is concerned, he’d like to keep that on the periphery. He’s going to be asked 1,000 times about it, and 1,000 times he’s going to give the same answer: “We’re going to wait and see.”
If you’re looking for Saban to give into the pressure of naming a starter before he’s ready, you’ll be disappointed. As with everything else he’s done as a head coach, he’s doing this on his own terms. His process is set, his plan is laid out, and after five decades of coaching, there’s no changing it. When a man wears the same thing for seven years in a row, you have to expect some consistency from him.