An Interview with: Alabama Crimson Tide COACH NICK SABAN (transcript courtesy of SEC Media Relations)
THE MODERATOR: Coach, if you could start us off with some general thoughts on the upcoming match up with Florida and the SEC Championship game.
COACH SABAN: It’s a great opportunity to represent our division in the SEC, which is a fantastic league in the SEC Championship game. I’m very proud of what our team has been able to accomplish this year to create this opportunity and to play a team the caliber of Florida, which, you know, is a fantastic football team. Very well coached.
They’ve got a lot of great players. They’re good in every phase of the game as a team, whether it’s their defense being No. 1 in scoring defense and No. 1 in a lot of categories.
And great leader in Tim Tebow on offense. They create tremendous balance, passing efficiency, run the ball effectively, and their special teams are probably in the top in every category in our league, while certainly maybe nationally.
So this is a great opportunity with two great teams having the opportunity to play in the SEC Championship game, and they certainly have a lot of fantastic players, whether it’s Demps and Rainey at running back; Riley Cooper, Hernandez at tight end. Spikes on defense. Cunningham and Dunlap rushing, and Major Wright and Haden in the secondary, Brandon James returning. They’ve really got a lot of really good players who have played extremely well. And they’re very well coached, and it will be a great football game.
THE MODERATOR: Questions.
Q. Just wondered if you could talk a little bit more about their defense and what makes them so difficult to prepare for? And also you think they’re better this year on defense than last year? And are there any similarities with your own defense?
COACH SABAN: Well, you know, I don’t like to make comparisons. They were very good on defense last year. They’re fantastic this year. I think the thing that makes any defense good is, first of all, they’ve got a great secondary in the back end.
Guys can cover. They’re good tacklers. They have Rainey. They’ve play with speed. And they’re instinctive. Their front seven, they’ve got really good leadership in Brandon Spikes. And they’ve got some good down guys that are hard to block.
They’ve a got a combination of guys that are good pass rushers. And they’re very athletic, and they’ve got great team speed on defense. So I think all those things contribute to the success that they have. They’ve got a good scheme in terms of the things that they do and the problems that they create, whether it’s in their even or odd packages of what they do.
And I just think that this is I don’t even remember them last year that much, if you want me to be honest with you. But from what I’ve seen, this is a fantastic defensive football team.
Q. Do you think that conference championship games in general help or hurt a league, place a team in the BCS Championship game, and have your feelings about it now changed or are have you always felt the same about that?
COACH SABAN: Well, I really think that conference championship games, regardless of the BCS, are a really good thing for fans. Creates a lot of opportunity for players. This is one of the greatest competitive venues that I’ve ever had the opportunity to be a part of.
Other than the national championship game, these three games that we’ve had an opportunity to be in I think are as fine a competitive venue as we’ve ever had an opportunity to be in anywhere.
And I’m sure a lot of players feel the same way about it. And I think that the history probably says that there’s been more teams that have benefited from conference championship games in terms of getting in the national championship games than have faltered. We never would have gotten into it in 2003 if we hadn’t had a conference championship game. We leapfrog some people and got into the game. I know it happened several other times. I know it happened for LSU a couple of years ago again.
I’m sure you could look at the stats and make an argument for it one way or the other. But in my opinion it’s great for college football to have these conference championship games, because it’s great for the fans. It’s great for the players. And it’s a great competitive venue for the programs to have an opportunity to be a part of.
Q. Do you feel like if there weren’t an SEC Championship game this week then you and Florida would be in the BCS Championship game?
COACH SABAN: I really haven’t thought about it that way because it’s kind of hypothetical, because it’s not the way it is. So we kind of need to play this game and I’m sure they feel the same way about it, to have an opportunity to go on to the next step.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Trent Richardson, and just the way he stepped in against Auburn as a freshman and really picked up the load when Auburn was focused on Mark Ingram, and how much that means to your team to have a back up like him available?
COACH SABAN: You know, Trent’s played well for us all year long. And he’s done a really good job whenever he’s needed to. And certainly had a tremendous opportunity in the last game and certainly took advantage of that opportunity by doing an outstanding job as a runner and as a receiver.
But he’s played a lot this year. And we have a lot of confidence in him. And we feel like him and Mark are sort of a good pair of running backs for us, and they’ve been a good pair for us all year long.
And we have every confidence that Trent can go in there and do great things for us.
Q. And also when you look at Florida’s defense, Brandon Spikes obviously gets a lot of the attention. But what have you seen on film of Ryan Stamper; what can you say about him?
COACH SABAN: Well, their linebackers are both really, really good. They have 11 really good players on defense. I mean, their secondary is good. Their front guys are good. You know, to me both their linebackers are good.
They’re just a good all around team. And they play well together as a team, and they do a good job of executing. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. And they’ve got a lot of playmakers. And Stamper is certainly one of them. Brandon Spikes is another. But I’ve mentioned quite a few of them. And they all contribute.
But I think they all make plays because of each other, too.
Q. I know a lot of people here in Gainesville remember that fourth quarter so firmly. Do you think it’s something that was kind of motivation for you guys in the offseason to kind of work a little harder, maybe?
COACH SABAN: Well, you know, I think that I was really proud of the way our team competed in the game. We just didn’t finish the way we needed to. And they made the plays in the game when they needed to make them. And critical third down situation kind of changed the momentum of the game when we got a face mask penalty I think on 3rd or 5 and 6 or whatever and would have had a chance to stop them. And they went in and scored.
And that sort of changed the momentum of the game. Not the penalty itself, but the fact that it kept the drive alive and they finished the drive.
And you know that’s something that our players can certainly learn from. And being able to finish in the fourth quarter, I think, is an important part of being a great football team. And that’s why Florida had the success and won the championship, because they were able to do it, and it’s going to be important for us to be able to do it if we’re going to have a chance to do that.
Q. And ’92 to ’96 Florida and Alabama kind of separated themselves away from the rest of the conference. Are we seeing something similar right now?
COACH SABAN: You know, I’m not sure about all that. I can’t remember where I was in ’92 to ’96. But they have a great football team. Urban’s done a great job there. And they’ve certainly dominated the last two out of the last three championships, national championships. And they have great football players and a great football team. And we’re trying to build a program here, and we feel very fortunate that we’ve been able to accomplish in the last two years what we’ve been able to accomplish. And it’s because of the players’ commitment to a standard of excellence and the hard work they’ve put in it with our staff and everybody else that’s involved in the program and consistency and performance is the key to success.
And I’m sure that Florida wants to continue on, and we would certainly like to continue to build on what we’ve started here.
Q. Can you just talk about what makes Javier Arenas such a dynamic returner?
COACH SABAN: He’s a great competitor, first of all. And he’s got a real good feel for picking lanes and he’s got great quickness, can make the first guy miss and has good acceleration. But he’s just a natural return guy.
He’s done a fantastic job of that his entire career. And he certainly made some big plays for us through the course of this season and last season.
And we just keep trying to work to find ways that we can help him make plays.
Q. And with a game that could be such a grind out, how important is special teams and field position going to be Saturday?
COACH SABAN: I think special teams is always a critical and vertical field position. And I think that Florida has very good specialists and very good special teams, and it’s going to be important for us to do a great job so that we have an opportunity to win that part of the game and win the vertical field position battle. I think it will contribute significantly to the outcome of the game.
Q. You’ve mentioned in the past that I think you feel like two days of rest rejuvenates the players a great deal more than one day of rest. I’m wondering if you’ll notice the difference that extra day makes in practice or is that something you can’t really get a feel for until you see them play on Saturday?
COACH SABAN: Well, I think at this time of the season, anytime you get an extra day it’s beneficial. Long season, lots of games, lots of plays and practices. I also think that it helps them mentally just to emotionally to freshen up a little bit and not have to think about another game plan the next day or right away.
So I think two days off is good for them physically, but I also think it’s good for them emotionally, and that’s my thought.
Now, hopefully we’ll practice well and have good focus and intensity in practice and guys will go out and try to practice like they want to play in the game and it will carry over into the game.
But those things you never really know about until you sort of go do it.
Q. I was wondering if you could describe everything that Rolando McClain does for the defense in terms of the complete grasp of the defense, getting guys into position; if you could talk a little bit about his intellect and his kind of command of the defense?
COACH SABAN: First of all, he’s a very good leader. And his performance in and of itself contributes significantly to the success of the defense, because he’s an outstanding player.
But I think he probably affects everybody else on the defensive team as much as anybody that I’ve ever been around, because this is his third year starting. He has a very good understanding of the system and the scheme. He’s a very bright guy academically in school as well as great football intuition and knowledge and I think he has a really good understanding of what the other team’s trying to do, because he really does a good job of preparing for the game.
So he can make adjustments and he can help other players make adjustments in the game with his leadership and his calls and his understanding of the game and he’s done a fantastic job for us all year long as a player, as a leader and as a guy who can make adjustments in effect and help other players play well.
Q. Could you describe the journey that Terrence Cody has made and the improvements this year from last, going from last year to now a finalist for several major awards?
COACH SABAN: I think Terrence has really worked hard to get in a little better shape, have a little better endurance, be able to sustain a little bit better, play with a little more quickness and mobility. He’s a real power guy, and he has always been that. But we’ve been really pleased with all those other things that he’s improved on. He’s maintained his weight a little bit better. His conditioning is better.
And I think his understanding and focus is better. He never really was a part of a whole cycle of the program here, off-season programming, strength and conditioning program and all that before last season. But I think all those things and the hard work that he put into all those things really helped him improve as a player in terms of his strength and physical conditioning and ability to sustain a high level of performance.
Q. You were talking earlier about the fourth quarter of last year’s game. Could you talk a little bit about your club’s accomplishment to get back to this point now, especially considering you guys have won 24 straight regular season games, I guess, which hasn’t been done in this league in almost 35 years.
COACH SABAN: I mentioned earlier that I was very proud of what our team has been able to do to accomplish what they’ve done this season. I was very proud of last year’s team. But the challenge is great teams, great competitors are never satisfied. And they always want to accomplish more and achieve more and they’re very committed to that standard of excellence.
And you know that’s something that this team is going to have an opportunity again to do something that last year’s team didn’t get done. And I think that commitment to that standard of excellence and the passion that they have demonstrated throughout the year are all things that are going to be key ingredients for them to continue to have success.
But I’m extremely proud of what we’re able to accomplish this year. And we had some key players step up for us, new quarterback. Several offensive linemen. Some players on defense that made a significant impact as well as the guys that performed well for us last year seem to continue to improve this year. And I think all those things helped us mold ourselves into a pretty good football team.
Q. One other thing, I’m not sure if anybody asked you this, but could you give us an update on Mark, where you think his injury lies with the hip?
COACH SABAN: I think he’ll be fine. We don’t think he has a significant problem. I think those things are a little bit painful, especially when you first get them. And it was late in the game when it happened. And just never really had an opportunity to go back in.
But we’ll see more tomorrow and how he moves around in practice. But we feel like he’ll be fine for the game.
Q. The game against Auburn this past week, I know you said you felt like the team didn’t play well for maybe part of that game. As you go into this game, does that concern you at all? Or is it almost a benefit that they got, that they had the chance to put together a late game drive, going into a game that’s extremely tough as well?
COACH SABAN: I think, first of all, Auburn’s team played extremely well. And you know I didn’t feel like we came out with the intensity that we needed to sort of control the tempo of the game from the outset on either side of the ball.
And I think we sort of played reactionary in the game. And we got behind. We played a little better and caught up and would give up a play and have to play to catch up again. And then the last series on defense, we had a good series and sort of took them out of field position and got the ball and put together a great drive.
But that’s not really the way we want to play football at Alabama. We want to play every play like it has a history, a life of its own, and try and dominate and play that way all the time and not be sort of have any complacency at all at any time in the game in terms of how we play. And that’s something that I hope our players learn from this game and can make it a benefit for them in the future.
Q. You sort of addressed this a minute ago, but Florida and Alabama were sort of expected way back in September to be here. Urban said it made this year a little more difficult back in Games 6, 7 and 8 because people weren’t satisfied with their performance on the outside. Was it a more difficult year in a sense for you guys as well as opposed to a year ago?
COACH SABAN: You know, I don’t know if it was more difficult. I guess I just kind of we kind of go about things one game at a time. Sort of process oriented in terms of what we need to do and how we need to do it.
I think last year’s team, from the outset, wanted to prove something. So they sort of had a built in motivation to really want to prove something. So it was maybe a little easier to motivate them on a consistent basis.
This year’s team and I’m sure Florida’s team feels the same way that you had to be good and you had to be at your best because you could be, and you wanted to be and it was important for you to be that.
There wasn’t some external factor out there that you were trying to prove something to somebody. And I think that’s more challenging. But I also feel like our players handled it fairly well for the most part, understood it, and even though we had a couple of games where I don’t feel that we played our best football, I still feel that we made the plays in those games that we needed to make to have success and players responded when they needed to and I’m really proud of what they were able to do and the challenge that they had relative to the expectations.
Q. I don’t know if the right word is a sense of relief, but the goal was to get to this game. Is there a greater sense of accomplishment? Is it relieve that it’s here now?
COACH SABAN: The goal is to be a champion. And I didn’t say win a championship. I said be a champion. That’s our goal here. That’s what we want to do. We want the kind of togetherness, respect and trust that we need on our team to be a team, where everybody plays together and understands that importance of positive energy and attitude in trying to be a good team, everybody being responsible for their own self determination and doing their job.
Everybody working hard and committed to doing the things they need to do to be the best they can be and that’s what we continue to try to strive for and that’s what we strive for every week with our team.
And there’s really no sense of relief there’s no complacency. There’s no place for that, to me, in competitive sports, because until you win the last until you finish the last play of the last game, there’s still another challenge out there. And we certainly have a great challenge this week and we’re certainly looking forward to the opportunity that that challenge presents to us.
Q. Can you talk about Greg McElroy’s year. He started out fast and then tailed off a little bit and came on strong. Just the year in general.
COACH SABAN: There was a huge question mark that everybody had about the quarterback on our team this year. And I think Greg has done a fantastic job of doing the things that he needs to do for us to have a productive offense. He probably did a little better in the beginning than some people thought and sputtered in the middle a little bit. But I’m not sure that that wasn’t a byproduct of our entire offensive team.
And he certainly has done some good things in the last few weeks to restore his confidence. And I think all the players’ confidence that we can move the ball and have balance on offense that we need to play to move the ball against good defensive teams, which we’re certainly going to see one this week.
Q. And how much obviously he’s a competent quarterback. But the last round against Auburn had to do him a world of good going into this week’s game?
COACH SABAN: I don’t think there’s any question about it. I think it was a great drive and we converted several third downs in the drive that were critical. And we had balance in the drive, in terms of runs and passes. He did a good job. His leadership was outstanding at that point in the game. And he showed great poise and confidence in leading the team down the field.
Q. You’ve done a good job as has Urban of creating a family atmosphere around your team. Would you talk about how important that is to the development of a team and getting that team concept the way you want it?
COACH SABAN: I think team chemistry is paramount to having success. I think team dynamics are so important to being successful. And I think that everybody sort of being committed to the same goals of what you want to accomplish for your team. And them understanding that those goals are probably going to be the things that actually benefit them the most as well.
That when the team does well, there’s more sort of accolades for everybody, more attention for everybody. And also more opportunities for everybody.
But I do think that the things that I talked about before, you know, the respect and the trust, everybody being responsible to do their job, committed to the positive energy and attitude it takes to be a consistent performer and everybody being willing to work and persevere to be the best they can be are all things that are important to team chemistry.
And I think when players understand that, it’s clearly defined what’s expected of you, this is what’s expected of you, and they know everybody has to do those things, I think that contributes to team dynamics in a very positive way as well and that’s what we’ve tried to do. And certainly every indication, Florida’s team has done the same thing.
Q. From a preparation standpoint, how much can you draw off last year’s game against Florida? And by that same account, how difficult is it to prepare for this offense? Does it help that you’ve seen it already; does it helped you played Mississippi State this year?
COACH SABAN: Well, their offense is different. They’re featuring different personnel and different players than what they had a year ago. I think anytime you have a little experience playing anybody, it’s always helpful in how you plan for them and it’s helpful to the players because they have a little better understanding of what they’re going to see on both sides of the ball.
So anytime you play somebody the first time it’s always a little bit more difficult. So I think that they’re doing some things that are different, and I think some of the things they do are very good things and very difficult to defend. And they have an outstanding defensive team. So it’s all going to be very challenging based on the ability to execute regardless of whether we played them last year or not.
I just think that that is helpful in terms of knowledge and experience that you have done that at least once.
Q. The stakes for this game, you’ve got No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country. Both are 12 0. A spot in the BCS title game is at stake here. Have you ever played in a game with so much at stake and what’s it like for you?
COACH SABAN: I think last year’s game was very similar. I think whoever won the game last year was going to go to the BCS National Championship game. So I guess we have. And in 2003 we were in a similar type game.
But it’s really not about me. I mean, it’s really about our players, our coaches, the program, our fans, everybody that’s involved and has been involved in helping this team be successful has created a tremendous opportunity for themselves and it’s a great thing about competitive sports that if you get an opportunity to play in a venue like this and you don’t get very many of them in your lifetime. We’re certainly excited for our players and everybody involved in the program, our staff, and just want to do a great job for our players so that we can put them in the best possible position to have a chance to be successful.
Q. What are your thoughts on Florida cornerback Joe Haden, especially given when he came to college he never played defense before?
COACH SABAN: He’s a fantastic player. I mean, I think they have a great secondary. And he’s one of the outstanding players in the secondary.
And he can play man to man. He can play zone. Very instinctive. Good ball judgment. He’s a good tackler. All those things to me contribute to being a good defensive back, and I think he has all the critical factors.
Q. I know Javier has made a name for himself with special teams. I wondered if you could talk about his importance to you on defense and how much better he is this year than last year, where he’s improved, I guess?
COACH SABAN: You know, he was a very good player for us last year, even as a defensive back. And because of his experience and playing the position, you know, I think he’s more confident, and he’s had a lot of production this year in terms of whether it’s defending, covering, you know, pressuring, just done a really good job in his ability to execute in his position.
He’s eliminated a lot of mental errors, because of his knowledge and understanding, and he’s been one of our most productive consistent performers on the defensive side of the ball.
Q. Tim Tebow, the passer and Tim Tebow the rusher, how do you balance that game defensively?
COACH SABAN: It’s very difficult, because Tim Tebow is a fantastic football player and he’s a big, strong runner, which most of the time you don’t play a quarterback that has those sort of big tailback attributes as a runner.
And he’s a very efficient passer. I mean, they’re one of the top passing efficiency teams in the country. And that always starts with the quarterback who is completing 66 percent.
And they do a good job of spreading you out, making you defend the whole field and enhancing his chances when you’re spread out of being able to scramble and make plays as well as scramble and make plays thrown.
So it’s a very, very difficult preparation, and I think that he contributes largely to that because of the style of player he is and the great physical attributes that he has as a runner and as a passer. And he’s a very instinctive guy. So he doesn’t make a lot of bad choices as a quarterback. And that’s why they have such good efficiency and balance in their offense.
Q. Nick, you’re a few years removed now from the Dolphins. Reflecting back on that time, how did those years help you as a coach?
COACH SABAN: I think that the NFL was a great experience for me in terms of the football part of it. I mean, you spent a lot of time on football and you don’t have to recruit. There’s really only two things you do is coach and make your team better and understand the game better. And evaluate players to try to make your team better in terms of who you’re going to bring to your team.
So I think those experiences helped tremendously and have helped me learn and grow as a coach and certainly appreciate the opportunity that I had there with Mr. Huizenga and the Dolphins.
Q. Why do you think your talents as a coach might be more suited to the college game than the pro level after your time in the NFL?
COACH SABAN: I like the opportunity that we have here. It’s been fantastic. I like the impact that you can have on young people in college in terms of helping them develop personally, academically, as well as athletically, and there’s a lot of positive self gratification of seeing guys mature and develop and develop careers off the field, on the field and seeing them take advantage of opportunities in both those areas.
So I certainly enjoy recruiting and the personal relationships that you have that you develop in recruiting with families as well as the players that are on your team. So it’s just been a real positive experience here for us. And our college experience has been great. And we’ve certainly learned a lot in our pro experiences.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.