HOOVER, Ala. — It”s all about the swagger for Nick Saban and Dan Mullen.
The methods used at the University of Alabama and at Mississippi State to instill that mind-set are as different as the coaches who lead the young men.
Saban has a sheen and a language all his own that comes from winning two championships and from coaching in the NFL. He uses terms like “organization” to discuss his football program and liberally says “relative to” when he is trying to stress a point or to make a comparison.
His manner of speaking sounds professional and something you would expect from a president or chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company. But that”s what Saban has become. As coach of the defending national champions — something he tried to downplay in the third sentence of his opening remarks Wednesday at Southeastern Conference Media Days — Saban has a bigger profile than any other college football coach in the nation. Some — like Penn State”s Joe Paterno — have been around longer, but there is no denying Saban”s methods are successful. He doesn”t intend to do anything differently this season.
“The only difference I see in coach Saban this year is that he wants us to know we can”t be complacent,” junior linebacker Dont”a Hightower said. “That message is being sent through, and that got everybody else going. Another thing is leadership. With not being complacent, there had to be guys who had to step up and be leaders. That kind of got everybody coming together.”
Hightower said the Crimson Tide feed off Saban because he is a master motivator. While some coaches rant and rave to get players to do something, Hightower said Saban doesn”t really tell players they have to do anything. He said he provides reasons why they should listen.
“If you want to be good, you have to practice hard,” Hightower said. “If you want to be great, you have to be do more than what everybody else does.”
Like all coaches, Saban enjoys emphasizing concepts like accountability, focus, and chemistry. He also has a colorful way of referring to positive and negative players — “shining lights” are leaders, while “blinking lights” are ones who could bring a team down. Those team intangibles often are keys to helping players come together, or, as coaches say, “buy into” a philosophy.
Hightower, who is eager to return to the field this season after tearing his meniscus and the anterior cruciate and the medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, isn”t sure how Saban came to use “organization” when talking about the Alabama program, but he said the terminology puts everyone in the right frame of mind.
“I guess it is more of a business now,” Hightower said. “Football is fun, but we”re here to win games, so I guess that is why he calls it an organization.”
Mullen hopes his leadership can help MSU climb the SEC”s corporate ladder. While Saban immediately sought to end discussion of the 2009 season, Mullen wants the Bulldogs to use it as motivation. A season-ending victory against the University of Mississippi helped galvanize MSU and its fans, even though it closed an inconsistent 5-7 campaign.
That fits with the personality of a blue-collar coach who wouldn”t have a problem banging a cow bell — at the SEC approved time, no doubt — and mixing it up with fans and rivals.
Mullen appeared more at ease in his second appearance at SEC Media Days. It is one thing to be an offensive coordinator at the University of Florida, but it is another to be the man in charge of everything. Junior defensive back Charles Mitchell said Wednesday that Mullen was “tense” a lot of the time last season but that he is different this year.
“(Coach Mullen) is giving us a lot of confidence,” Mitchell said. “There is something about him that makes you believe in him, not just what he has done in the past. … He works the crap out of us. That is motivation in itself. He is always bouncing around saying, ”Let”s get it going.” He always tells us, ”If you don”t believe in each other, who else is going to do it?”
Mullen is more relaxed because he has learned how to manage being a coach, father figure, disciplinarian, and fundraiser. Coaches also have to do their best every day to be cordial and engaging to members of the media, which can be a daunting task.
This season, Mullen and the Bulldogs face significant questions as they prepare for their season opener Sept. 4 against Memphis. Can they find a replacement for Anthony Dixon, who led the SEC in rushing last year? Can Chris Relf emerge as a confident leader of Mullen”s Spread offense? Can coaches Manny Diaz and Chris Wilson instill a new attitude in a defense that often was porous in 2009?
The air of confidence and the ease with which Mullen carried himself shows he believes the Bulldogs have the answers. He closed his opening remarks by saying the Bulldogs are going to “find a way to win games and get us to championship level this season.”
“I think we took a huge step forward,” Mullen said when asked how much the team had improved. “I think the way we finished the year off our guys believe they can compete.”
Believing often is the first step to becoming a champion. Players need that commitment in the offseason to keep them motivated in the weight room. They need it in the spring and summer when it might not sound very inviting to do conditioning drills in 90-plus degree heat.
Junior offensive lineman Quentin Saulsberry said the players” confidence in Mullen has helped them understand what they need to do to help the program realize its championship dreams.
“Our swagger is different,” Saulsberry said. “That is one thing (coach Mullen) and coach (John) Hevesy told us when they came from Florida. They told us, ”You have to have a swagger about yourself.” (Former NFL great) Deion Sanders used to say, ”Look good, feel good, play good.” That is not just in the game of football. That is in being a person, too.”
Saulsberry and Mitchell believe things will fall into place this season if the players take care of the “attitude and effort.” It remains to be seen if the mind-set will bring a SEC Western Division championship, or even more, but the methods Mullen is using appear to be in step, or relative to, what other title contenders are doing. That”s a promising sign for this season, and the years to come.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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