Alabama’s Nick Saban was the first coach to take the podium on the final day of Southeastern Conference Media Days on Thursday.
The coach of the reigning BCS National Champions spoke about how difficult it is in college football to carry momentum from one season to the next, how he’s different as a coach than he was five years ago and, scheduling, the new kickoff rule, his thoughts on Joe Paterno and other topics.
Here is the transcript from Saban’s quotes on Thursday:
COACH SABAN: Thank you. It’s great to see everyone. Great to be here. You know how excited I am looking forward to this event. The fact they moved it up a week really made me have a great summer, and I hope you’ve had a great summer (smiling).
We certainly appreciate what you do to promote college football and college athletics. I think you do a tremendous amount to provide a lot of positive self‑gratification for a lot of student‑athletes. We appreciate that more than you know.
We’re obviously looking forward to the challenges of a very probably difficult SEC football season. A lot of good teams, lots of good players. That’s what makes the league great. Even though we’re very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in the past, not just in terms of what we’ve done on the football field, but I’m very proud of the fact that our team won the Disney Spirit Award last year and we were second to Stanford in the BCS to the top 10 graduation rate. We had 38 guys last fall make SEC honor roll, which is some kind of a record. I’m very proud of what that team did.
Having success in a football program can have two effects. You can demand more success or you can get a little complacent and be relaxed about what you have accomplished, really think more about what you did rather than what you’re going to do.
It’s human nature to relax, but there’s been a lot of examples of very successful people. And I think success should be defined: consistency in performance. Whether it’s the Chicago Bulls in the ‘90s, the Yankees organization through the years, Roger Federer, Malcolm Johnson as individual athletes who have had great careers, been successful over a long period of time.
We’ve obviously learned a lot at Alabama over the last five years. The most important thing we’ve learned is you got to stay on top of the little things. Things don’t happen by accident. You don’t win a play by accident. You don’t win a game by accident. You don’t win a division by accident. You have to make it happen, and you have to make it happen by what you do every day.
Your commitment, everything in the organization, to the principles and values of the organization, and the standard that you have set for that organization, become primary in the development of team chemistry. If everybody doesn’t buy into those principles and values, everybody doesn’t buy into the standard, there’s no way you can have the type of team chemistry to be successful, especially at an elite, high level. High achievers don’t like mediocre people, mediocre people don’t like high achievers. So everybody has to buy into the same principles and values.
We have had a really good off‑season with our team. This team seems to be less affected by the previous year, what has happened in the previous year. They’re not really the 2010 team, they’re not really the 2011 team. There’s a lot of players on this team that this is the opportunity for them and their season.
We have guys on our team that have been on both of those past teams. I know you’re going to ask me a lot of questions about the future, but this team seems to be very much committed to creating an identity for themselves.
It’s really, really difficult in college football to carry momentum from one season to the next. You lose 25% of your team. That’s an understatement for us. We lost 13 starters from our team last year. And the new 25% that you bring to your team, really they don’t have knowledge and experience, they haven’t played. They’re young players. Maybe very talented players, but they’re very young players.
So you have to create your own identity by what you do. You have to create your own momentum by what you do. Everybody has a new role. We have new people who have new opportunities. This is their opportunity to make this their team.
So everybody embracing those new roles is very, very important to have a team that reaches their full potential. It’s a shared responsibility, by older players who may have new roles, who may have to be leaders, who may have to affect other people with their leadership, and how the young players respond to that and accept that leadership and move in a direction that will create the type of team chemistry that will help you be successful.
But I think this 2012 team will be defined by what they do, not what we’ve done. We’re looking forward to the challenges of the 2012 season.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll continue with questions for Coach Saban.
Q. You have a number of young receivers last year, like Kenny Bell, like DeAndrew White, like Kevin Norwood, who contributed well. Do you see within that group any of the play‑makers that you had in the departure of Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks who were willing to step up and take those roles?
COACH SABAN: All of those guys proved when they got opportunities that they could make plays. Obviously, those guys made some outstanding plays in the championship game. I think they all had a good spring. I think Amari Cooper is a young guy who is a freshman who came in at mid semester who showed some ability and talent to make some plays.
These are the things that I’m talking about. How are these players going to embrace their responsibility and make this their season? You have to look forward to what you want to do, to be able to take advantage of that. I’ve been pleased with the way these guys have sort of accepted that.
Q. Every year we have freshmen that stand up and surprise us. Who are the freshmen that you think have whatever it takes to step up this year?
COACH SABAN: Well, I really can’t predict that. Every year we do have freshmen. I think everybody in the league does. But I don’t think I have personally enough foresight to be able to predict who that might be.
It’s a little easier with the guys that were in spring practice because you saw them perform, you saw them compete, and they had an opportunity in the A‑Day Game and a couple scrimmages to show what they can do.
I think it’s a little bit unfair to put expectations on incoming freshmen without having coached them, viewed them, or helped them try to develop and see how they respond to that.
But I think we have a very good young class of freshmen players. I do think that some of those players will make some contribution to our team. I think that may be critical to our success.
Q. You mentioned a minute ago the things you’ve learned in the five years. How are you a different coach than you were five years ago?
COACH SABAN: Well, you know, I think as a coach, at least from my standpoint, we learn new things all the time, from new experiences, from other people, from being a good listener in terms of what has helped other people be successful, and how even technology has changed our game to some degree, how we adapt to the players, the team, the personalities, the strengths and weaknesses of what we have to work with. I think all those things probably change you a little bit each year as a coach.
But I don’t think the core values of what is important in being successful has changed at all. That’s the principles and values in the organization, and the standard that you set for those, and the importance of everybody buying into that. Defining personally, academically and athletically the expectation you have for everyone so that people can be responsible and accountable to that.
I still think that’s critical to being successful in any organization.
Q. Could you speak to the importance of having experience returning on the defensive line in guys like Jesse Williams and Damion Square?
COACH SABAN: I think experience is important at all positions. I think the experience and knowledge that certain players have certainly can enhance the development of other players around them, plus elevate the consistency of their performance.
The fact that we do have some defensive linemen coming back that have some experience, I think everything starts up front. Even though we’ll have some new linebackers, I think those front guys can make the linebackers’ job a little easier if they do the things they’re capable of doing.
Q. Gary Pinkel talked about how you were instrumental in him getting the job at Toledo. How do you think his program will do coming into the SEC?
COACH SABAN: I think Gary is a great coach. He did a great job at Toledo. I did recommend him for the job when I left there because I thought he would do a fantastic job, and he did a wonderful job there. I know he was up here bragging about the fact that he’s younger than me.
But, you know, there are other coaches in this league, like Steve Spurrier, that are older than me, that I look up to, that are my mentors, that I really learn a lot from, that I really want to try to be like. In fact, I was even going to consider wearing a visor on the sidelines this year. I was afraid I’d throw it (laughter).
He’s done a good job. Looking at his team at Missouri, he has a good team, and I think they’ll compete extremely well in our league.
Q. Could you comment on Barrett Jones’ career moves from guard to tackle and now to center, what it takes to have that kind of versatility at this level?
COACH SABAN: Well, I think it tells you what kind of special person, competitor, athlete that Barrett Jones is. I was asked earlier today have I ever seen anybody else that could do these things sort of so effortlessly and consistently in terms of the performance level. I think it’s because Barrett is bright, he’s a very good athlete, and he’s not affected by change like a lot of people would be.
Probably the only offensive lineman that I’ve ever been associated with was Bruce Matthews at the Houston Oilers. He could play center, he could play guard, he could play tackle, he was a long snapper. He’s the only guy that I ever remember. That’s pretty high class there to be compared to someone like him.
Barrett Jones has been an outstanding leader on our team on and off the field and his academic record is absolutely as good as anybody we’ve ever been around.
Q. What was the thinking and the attraction of the opener against Michigan at Cowboy Stadium from your standpoint?
COACH SABAN: We’ve had a lot of national exposure that has really enhanced the development of our program, especially in the early years, by playing neutral‑site games against very good national competition, whether it was Florida State in Jacksonville our first year, Clemson in Atlanta, or Virginia Tech in Atlanta, Penn State home and home the last couple years. Now having the opportunity to go play Michigan in Dallas, and we’re going to come back to Atlanta and play Virginia Tech and West Virginia in the next two years. These are the kind of games we look for for national exposure.
I think playing a great opponent like Michigan the first game of the season really enhances your players’ sort of work ethic and preparation in the off‑season because they know they’re going to play a top‑notch team right off the bat, and that’s very challenging. That’s kind of been the reasoning behind it.
It’s worked out well for us. But we know that Michigan is going to have an outstanding team and it will be a very challenging game for us this year.
Q. The SEC has proven it’s forward thinking in the last 20 years in terms of conference expansion, conference championship game. I know you don’t like looking ahead, but what do you think the game of college football and the SEC looks like in 10 years?
COACH SABAN: Well, that’s one I haven’t thought about (smiling).
You know, we’re really kind of focusing on what we need to do to get ready for this season. I will say that I think Mike Slive and the leadership we have in the SEC has been fantastic in terms of whether it’s the kind of TV package that we’ve had to maximize the league’s exposure, which I think has enhanced the quality of play in all sports, the foresight that we’ve had, some of these issues, whether it’s how many players we’re allowed to sign, the foresight that we’ve had in a four‑team playoff on how it would affect college football in a positive way, how we implement that. I think our league has been at the forefront from a leadership standpoint, and that’s why the quality of this league has sort of sustained success over time. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t continue to do that if we continue to have the same quality of leadership that Commissioner Slive and his staff has offered us.
Q. Can you talk about the new kickoff rule. Do you think we’re trending towards eliminating the kickoff all together. Also the helmet rule.
COACH SABAN: I think all these rules are probably geared towards player safety. I think that’s the number one thing we should always evaluate in terms of our game, and rules that we can sort of implement that hopefully don’t change the integrity of the game, but enhance the safety of the players.
Obviously with the kickoff being moved up, we’ll probably see less kickoff returns. But I think there’s some facts out there, you know, we tried to change the three‑man wedge because there are some facts out there that support there are maybe more injuries on kickoff and kickoff return than we’d like, so we’d like to try to tweak the rules so we protect the players’ safety.
I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that a player’s helmet coming off is not a good thing. It’s probably dangerous for the player. I don’t care whether it’s stylish or whatever it is, the players need to wear their helmet properly, it needs to fit properly, and it’s never good when it comes off. I think whatever we can do to sort of manage that toward player safety would be a real positive for our game.
Q. I saw earlier where you suggested some sort of ticket tax or surcharge for the abuse victims at Penn State. Could you share your feelings with us on that and general feelings about Joe Paterno?
COACH SABAN: I don’t really have a lot of feelings personally. This is obviously a very criminal thing that occurred there.
But, you know, I just kind of think of things like this because I think of it with players a lot. You know, we all think that discipline is punishment, how are we going to punish someone. What I always try to think of is, you know, what do we want the outcome to be. If there’s some kind of way that we could create a win‑win, and I don’t really know what that is, I just threw out a tax on every ticket at every athletic event and donate all the money to organizations that prevent child abuse, would be more of a win‑win than worrying about punishing someone.
Probably not a very good idea and I probably shouldn’t have said it. I just think that more focus on outcome is always more beneficial that might create a situation in the future that would be beneficial to someone.
Q. How is Eddie lLacy’s recovery from foot surgery coming? Do you expect a lot of competition at running back in camp?
COACH SABAN: Eddie Lacy has done extremely well over the summer. I think all of our injured players are doing well and would be cleared for practice if we started practice today. We continue to work hard to try to get the conditioning level of these players back to where, you know, they’ll be able to be prepared to have a full role on our team.
I do think that we have a couple runningbacks that will probably create some competition. But we’ve always played more than one runningback. I mean, we’ve never been just a one back. We had Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson sharing time as players. Hopefully we’ll be able to find somebody as productive as those two guys have been to share that role again sometime in the future.
Q. You mentioned in your opening statement about commitment, doing things right, people working together, also looking out for student‑athletes. A big topic locally here in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Huntsville, dating back to last November, was the Board’s idea not to allow UAB to have an on‑campus football stadium, and UAH downplaying the hockey program. What are your thoughts about that? Last year you said when you were at LSU, there were hardly any disparity between satellite campuses. Do you have any assessment on that?
COACH SABAN: No, I don’t. I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t think it’s really my place to make those kind of judgments. I don’t really feel like I’m qualified, you know, to have an opinion as to whether UAB should have a stadium or not. I think we have a chancellor and a Board of Trustees, a lot of people who do a lot of research that I’m not privilege to in terms of cost‑effectiveness, the economics of such things that should be making those decisions.
I’m certainly not one that’s capable of doing that at all. I’m sorry, but I’m just not.
Q. Understand you favor a nine‑game SEC schedule. Would that make it more difficult for this league to win a national championship? How much support do you have from other SEC coaches on a nine‑game SEC schedule?
COACH SABAN: You know, here’s the priority. Trying to look at this whole thing from a thousand feet rather than looking at it as how it just affects us, my opinion was the number one priority should be that every player at every school have the opportunity to play every SEC school in his career. That’s the number one priority.
Now, it doesn’t have to be nine games. But what scheduling format gives us an opportunity to do that? So we’ve always played two teams on the other side plus a fixed opponent. You can do that by playing eight. You could do it by playing nine. Everybody’s got a self‑absorbed opinion about why we shouldn’t do it because maybe they won’t get bowl eligible.
People said when we started the SEC championship game that we’ll never be able to win a national championship because we’ll play this competitive game at the end of the year, people will get knocked out. The fact of the matter was more people got into the national championship game because of what happened in the SEC championship game than got knocked out.
We’re all playing somebody that is a quality opponent outside the league right now. I don’t think the difficulty of schedule would be any greater. I think if you’re one of the best teams, playing another team in our league, I mean, would just be an opportunity to prove that you are a quality team.
So I don’t know if it would or it wouldn’t affect it one way or the other. I just look at it that the number one priority should be that every player have the opportunity to play every school in the SEC rather than being so divisional oriented. I think that should be the number one priority in scheduling.
Q. Back to Penn State. In the wake of what Commissioner Slive said about no one man or program having too much power in relation to their institution, how do you address the perception, fair or unfair, that Alabama football and you, in particular, are too big and have too much power in relation to their institution?
COACH SABAN: Well, you know, it’s not true if that’s the perception. I personally have a tremendous amount of respect for our athletic director, our chancellor, Bob Witt, the honesty and integrity that they run the program. When we have someone who doesn’t do what they’re supposed to, whether it’s NCAA rules or something that might be criminal, those decisions get made by those people as to what is in the best interest of the university.
I have always thought that was handled in the proper manner. It certainly wasn’t my decision and my decision alone. I have tremendous faith, trust and confidence in our institution in that we will do the right things to try to promote the moral obligation that we all have to protect other folks, other people, to make sure that the people in our organization are sort of assuming the responsibility that they have to represent it in a first‑class way.
Q. Do your former assistants, Will Muschamp, Derek Dooley, seek your advice about certain aspects of the job, even though they’re now coaching your competition?
COACH SABAN: I have a tremendous amount of respect for all the coaches that have worked for me and done a fantastic job, and am very happy to see them have opportunities because that’s what they worked so hard for. That’s what they did a great job for us.
We would not have had the success that we’ve had if it wasn’t for the staff and coaches that worked for us in the past. So I have a tremendous respect and admiration for what those guys have done for me.
So when they do call or they do ask or we discuss things that may affect the future of college football, I’m always willing to be as helpful as I possibly can to helping them enhance their programs.
Look, I’m for everybody having a good program. And the idea that you have to dislike somebody to compete against them is not something I’ve ever really boughten into. I like Derek Dooley, I like Will Muschamp, I like Jimbo Fisher, I like Mark Dantonio, I like Jayson Garrett. All these guys have worked for me somewhere along the line, and I would like to help them every way I could, have the best program they can have for their players. That’s what college football is really all about.
It’s our job to go create a good product of our own. Whether it’s right or wrong, my dad said, You should always try to win the game based on your execution, not hope that the other guy’s lack of execution is going to help you win the game, all right? So that’s the way we’ve always kind of approached it.
So what they do, if we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll still be sort of at the top of our game. So that’s what we try to emphasize. We really do appreciate the contribution that those guys have made through the years to our success.
Q. You have a redshirt freshman this year, Jabriel Washington, can you talk about where he’s at in his development, any kind of expectations you have for him?
COACH SABAN: Well, Jabriel has done a good job of developing, gotten bigger and stronger, had a really good spring. He’s competing for a role at the cornerback position, maybe someone who can contribute at special teams and be a backup at corner.
Q. Derek Dooley is going to follow you on the stage, get a lot of questions about job security. Your perspective on what he inherited and the job he’s done from then to today.
COACH SABAN: I think Derek Dooley has done a really good job. I think he inherited a very difficult situation. A lot of things, a lot of lack of continuity probably created a difficult situation in terms of quality of personnel depth. I think Derek has done a lot of things to create a lot of program stability there. I think he had a stroke of bad luck last year when he lost a very good quarterback and a very good receiver, which may have enhanced their ability to win a few more games, no doubt.
I think they’ve done a very good job. When we play them on the field, we have a real positive respect for the way they coach and what they do and how their players compete and how they play.
I look for them to have a much better team this year. I think that Derek is going to be just fine and do a wonderful job in the future at Tennessee.
Q. You talked a little bit about Barrett. Would you mind talking about the other two guys here, Mike Williams and Damion Square.
COACH SABAN: Well, you know, the way we try to select who came over here was we don’t have a lot of seniors on our team this year, I think one of the fewest in the country actually in terms of numbers of seniors.
These guys have played a lot of football for us. Even though a couple of them may not be viewed as star players, they are seniors. Their role is very important to the development of our team. Young people who are trying to take advantage of opportunities. I thought it was imperative that we bring some senior guys who had contributed a lot to the success in the past and who had showed a willingness to create an established leadership for the future.
So that’s why those guys are here. They’ve all played extremely well for us. They’ve given a lot to the program in more ways than just the football part of it. They’ve been personally responsible, done well academically, have been very productive performers for us on a pretty consistent basis.
Q. Can you talk about the changes, if there were any, as far as play‑calling and defensive sets from the first LSU game to the last game.
COACH SABAN: Well, we sort of analyzed some of the things we did in the first game that we didn’t do very well, some things that we weren’t prepared for and did a little bit better job in the next game in terms of our execution.
I do think our players responded to the first loss psychologically so that they were really sort of geared in, locked in, focused on preparing and executing much better than they did the first time around.
I thought that the quarterback played an outstanding game, and the defense executed extremely well. That was probably the difference in the two games.
Q. With this new playoff system that we have, how big of a criteria should being a conference champion be, especially in light of the season you’re coming off of?
COACH SABAN: Well, I think what the fans want to see in the four‑team playoff is the best teams, the four best teams in the country, get in the playoff. You don’t have to win your conference championship to get in the basketball Final Four. I mean, you got to play your way into it. Whether you win a conference championship or not, if you’ve played and you’re ranked in the top four teams in the country, you ought to have the opportunity to play in the game.
I think that’s what people want. Just because we have a really, really strong conference, we may have two or three teams that may be in consideration as the top five or six teams in the country to be in the final four. So the possibility definitely exists that one of those teams aren’t going to be conference champions.
We’ve had two teams in the BCS a number of years. One of those teams wasn’t a conference champion. To me it should prove the value of a good football team who loses a game, loses a chance to win their conference championship in overtime, to a very, very good team, LSU, that goes on and wins the rest of their games. I don’t know why they should be eliminated.
Kentucky and North Carolina play a basketball game, one of them lose, but everybody wants to see Kentucky and North Carolina playing in the championship game.
In the NFL, you lose. You might not even win your division. You might be a wildcard team. You still get in the playoffs. You still have a chance to win the Super Bowl. You still have to play your way to win.
I think, to be quite honest with you, whoever’s making the statements about conference champions is really making a statement against the SEC and against any league who has more than one good team who would qualify, trying to enhance the opportunity for somebody from their league to get in.
Q. You mentioned AJ’s performance in the national championship game. How much better do you feel about the quarterback position heading into this year as opposed to last year?
COACH SABAN: I think any time you have an experienced quarterback, there’s a comfort level that, because of knowledge and experience, because there’s so many intangibles that go with being a good quarterback, like judgment, accuracy, timing, leadership to affect other people on the offensive team to execute with a little more consistency. The experience you have at that position always makes you feel a little bit better about all that.
So I think the key for us is, we’re going to have to develop some depth at that position. But AJ had a really good spring. Hopefully he’s poised to continue to improve and have a really good year for us this year.
Thank you, guys. Again, thanks for all that you do for college student‑athletes.
Courtesy SEC Sports