Mike Florio's interview with Nick Saban
Florio's Interview with Nick Saban
August 22, 2005
"So you're the guys who rip everybody, right?"
That question didn't come from Dolphins coach Nick Saban, but from Team Security Investigator Stu Weinstein, who was stationed outside Grand Ballroom #1 at the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center on Friday afternoon while Saban attended a production meeting for the television and radio coverage of Miami's preseason game against the Steelers.
"Yeah, I guess we are," I replied.
Great, I thought, this guy's gonna kick my ass before Saban ever gets a chance to do it personally.
Weinstein, I then learned, took issue with the "Barney Fife" reference we recently made when characterizing reports regarding the theft of running back Lamar Gordon's Escalade from the hotel at which the players stay during training camp. (The lot, as it turns out, isn't manned by security when the team is out of town, and the players are urged not to leave their vehicles there.)
Once we got through a minute or so of insignificant-but-still-noticeable tension, Weinstein, Director of Media Relations Neil Gulkis, and I had a cordial conversation about, of all things, boxing.
At that point, I felt fortunate to be talking about the sport rather than, you know, having it performed on me.
A quarter of an hour or so later, Saban and Dolphins Senior V.P. of Media Relations Harvey Greene emerged from the production meeting. Grand Ballroom #2 was vacant, so the three of us entered and took seats at a large round table.
What in the hell am I doing here?
That phrase popped into my mind a few times during the initial portion of the session. Sure, the fact that Coach Saban and I both grew up in West Virginia likely made him more willing to grant the interview request. But, still, we're the guys who, as Stu Weinstein astutely observed, "rip everybody."
And over the past several months that "everybody" has included on more than a few occasions Coach Saban. It started in late December, when Saban emerged as the leading candidate for the Miami gig. Plenty of players were opposed to the idea of Saban getting the job over Jim Bates, who had succeeded Dave Wannstedt on an interim basis after Wannstedt "resigned" in November. And plenty of our league sources offered information and opinion regarding Saban's reputation for being too hard to work and/or play for.
Sure, a few of our stories expressed praise for Saban's abilities. But most of the stuff we were getting from our sources was negative. There was the story about the staffer getting ripped for putting the wrong size "Little Debbie" cakes in Saban's office. About the secretary who complimented him on his haircut and was later told not to address him, ever. About the direction to front office personnel that they should not to make small talk with him.
The fact that Saban promptly clamped down on access to assistant coaches and front office personnel resulted in a negative reaction from the local media, and we'd be pulling a Del Rio if we were to suggest that we didn't get some of our stories through industry sources who were put off by the restrictions that Saban has imposed.
Then there's the nickname. You know what we're talking about. Yeah, others might be getting and/or taking credit for it now, but we came up with the "Nicktator" label.
And for a few minutes on Friday afternoon, I was wishing that we hadn't.
But to Coach Saban's immense credit, he agreed to talk despite the tone and content of our past reports. He was professional, respectful, and genuine. Though he was juggling a tight schedule, we talked on the record for at least 15 minutes, and then we visited for at least another 15 minutes after the formal interview ended.
We started things off by discussing our common West Virginia roots. He said that he misses "all the relationships with the people that had a significant impact on my life when I was growing up," and he mentioned that 47 friends and relatives would be making the trip to Pittsburgh for Saturday's game, which thanks to Interstate 79 is a far shorter journey than the three-hour drive Saban and his family would make during his youth for an annual trip to Forbes Field and Kennywood Park.
And he confirmed that folks in Louisiana and South Florida have never heard of a "pepperoni roll," which is a simple concoction devised by West Virginia Italians consisting of (you guessed it) pepperoni baked into bread. (For those of you who have never been to North Central West Virginia, the freakin' things are everywhere.)
The conversation then turned to meatier topics. Given recent reports that Raiders receiver Randy Moss, another West Virginia native, admitted that he has used and still uses marijuana, I asked Coach Saban if he knew why pro athletes are so attracted to the wacky weed.
"You know, I really don't know," he said. "The concern I have for my own children growing up is the exposure that they have to all these things at such an early age that maybe when you and I grew up we didn't have to deal with that.
"When I grew up, if you knew somebody that drank, that was a really bad thing. We didn't have any of that exposure nor did we have very many people that did that. So you know what I see with my kids growing up is how exposed these kids are to that stuff at such an early age. And I guess that's part of what makes it a problem later on. As everyone grows and develops, they've been exposed to something and do it."
So is it a problem for guys like Randy Moss or Ricky Williams to puff periodically on the magic dragon? "I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have a really good feeling for actually how it affects them," Saban said. "ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a lot of scientific evidence that we all talk about and hear about, but . . . Randy Moss is still the best wideout. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not saying it's okay for him to do [it], I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mean it that way. But what are the consequences?"
Whether it's marijuana, alcohol, or any of the other temptations that can get an NFL player into trouble, Saban believes that the most important thing a pro player should do is to never forget the discipline that helped them get to the highest level of the sport. In his view, players often become too "results-oriented" when they reach the NFL.
"One of the things that I've always struggled to try to get some good players to stay in touch with is being process-oriented [and] to remember what got you here. Make sure you try to maintain that. Because they forget about that. And as you go up in the levels, whether it's high school to college, college to pro, it becomes more important to have the discipline to those values that made you what you are. But yet the tendency is to say that's not important anymore."
Saban explained the he has addressed the issue of discipline with the Dolphins through a simple series of questions. "'[I]s there anybody in this room,'" he asked them, "'who didn't get to the National Football League because of the self-discipline that they were taught somewhere along the way in their life growing up as athletes, . . . whether it was little league baseball, pee wee football, high school football, college football, whatever? Is there anybody in this room that would stand up and say that hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t been a real decisive part of you developing into what you are as a player?'
"Not one player stood up," he said. "Everybody agreed that that was a really, really important quality.
"And I said, 'Well then let me ask you this, guys, is it true now that you're pro players that you think that's less important?' And they kind of agreed. And I said, 'But I think it's more important. Because we're not playing at Monogah High School anymore. We're in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. You've got the best musicians in the world now that you're playing against and competing against. So the little things, the details are more important, not less important. You have great ability, but the other guys do, too.
"So sometimes you lose sight of those things. And that can be dangerous, and it can be very poisoning to you as a competitor to lose sight of those things. And then all of a sudden you're not playing as well or not having the success you're used to having and then what happens [is] you get frustrated and that affects your performance even more. So now you get into all of these negative things that are happening that if you'd just stayed focused on those very values that you always believed in and clung to you wouldn't be having the problems."
Although Saban believes that self-discipline is even more important for players who have made the transition from college to the NFL, he believes that motivation through external means has less value in the professional ranks. Referring to a report from Army Archerd of Variety that Saban showed the film Seabiscuit to his LSU squad for inspiration on the night before the national championship game against Oklahoma in January 2004, I asked Saban which movie he planned to show to the Dolphins on the evening before the team's regular season opener against the Broncos.
"I haven't seen one lately," he said, laughing.
(He's laughing, I thought. Holy crap, he's laughing.)
Saban then clarified Archerd's report regarding the timing of the Seabiscuit screening. "I showed them Seabiscuit I think before one of the big games that we had to win. . . . I actually showed them The Last Samurai before the national championship game, which was all about the things weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re talking about. Honor, doing things to a standard of excellence as a samurai warrior, rather than focusing on the result.
"I said to the team, 'You know, guys, when we start practicing for that game, every time you think of winning a national championship I want you to slap yourself and say, "I'm not allowed to think about that."' And everybody looked at me like I was crazy. And I said, 'I want you to think about what you have to do to play the best football you can play and dominate the guy you have to play against in the game, and assume that it's the best player you ever played against. Don't think about winning the game, think about that part of it.' I think it made it a little more fun for the players, because playing for that game in Louisiana was Ã¢â‚¬â€œ you know, you couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t turn around without somebody getting in your face about, 'We gotta win, we gotta win, we gotta win.' Sometimes when you start thinking about that you forget about the other stuff."
So will there be a movie on September 10? "Probably not. . . . I find that pro players . . . because of their maturity and their age, they listen and they kind of get it when you tell them. Sometimes college players, you tell them and they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t quite [get it]. And then they see a movie and you can say, 'Now, you see what the movie showed you?' And then they kind of get it. The whole purpose of all this stuff is to get the most people to get it.
"Sometimes they need to be reminded, because we all kind of can get off the track every now and then," Saban added. "I think the guys, they know [and] they understand, but they actually want you to try to keep them where they can have success. That's really their goal. And I think that's why they appreciate a good position coach."
Looking deeper into the schedule, I then asked whether Saban would prefer to face the New England Patriots sooner than November 13, given all the holes that his former boss in Cleveland, Bill Belichick, has to fill both on the roster and in the assistant coaching ranks. Though predictably diplomatic, Saban's answer indicates resignation to the reality that, come the middle of November, Belichick will have fully adjusted to the changes.
"I just have a tremendous amount of respect for Bill," Saban said, "and I know that heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll make the best adaptations to the situations that he's confronted with and over time they'll go away. So it is what it is, we've got to play them whenever we've got to play them. But by that time I figure he'll have most of the stuff worked out."
Then again, come November 13 Saban also will have Ricky Williams, who'll serve a four-game suspension to start the season based on his past misadventures with Mary Jane. Since many folks seem to assume that the team has merely forgiven the $8.6 million arbitration award the team secured after Williams retired in July 2004, I asked Saban whether the judgment is still pending.
"I try to stay out of the business side, and I'm not trying to dodge the question here. But the business side of some of this stuff, there's a lot of legal ramifications relative to all this, and I think these are things that are all going to have to be resolved as he continues to play. And it's between his agent and our organization to try to do whatever is fair and equitable for whatever the consequences of all those situations are. I haven't gotten in that arena, nor do I want to."
(Possible translation? We've going to hold that thing over his head like a big, fat club to keep him from flaking out again.)
The return of Williams followed the decision to use the No. 2 overall draft pick on Auburn running back Ronnie Brown. The end result for the Dolphins is a glut of tailbacks. Though some believe that undrafted free agent Kay-Jay Harris (who holds the single-game rushing record at West Virginia University) will be the odd man out, Saban threw him some praise on Friday.
"He's done a nice job. He's really done a good job on special teams. That's where he's been a real surprise to us. He's been one of the real good kickoff guys. He's busted the wedge a couple times, made a couple tackles inside the 20. But he's [also] done a good job as a running back. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got a pretty deep group there right now that we're trying to work through. Even though Ronnie just got to camp, there's still four or five guys that have played and have made contributions. So if [Harris] makes the team it's because of his ability to contribute on special teams, as well as be a solid runner."
Brown's late arrival was the result of a protracted contract impasse. In the end, Brown got nearly $20 million in guaranteed money, which is far and away above the going rate for established, Pro Bowl running backs on the open market. So I asked Saban whether he has any concerns about a system of rookie compensation that puts too much money too soon in the pockets of guys who have never taken a snap in the NFL, and whether he'd like to see the NFL implement a structure for paying draft picks similar to what the NBA uses.
"I don't know the ins and the outs of the NBA system that they use for their rookie pool," Saban said, "but I certainly feel like there should be some balance between what a rookie makes and what a veteran player makes [who] has made Pro Bowls, been a consistent performer, and done a great job for his team for a long time. There should be a little less emphasis on that amount of money relative to where your selection is in the draft. There should be a little bit more balance in all of that.
"I want to see the players do as well as they can do in whatever agreements that we have. That's what the fans want to see, that's who they come to see. You'd like to have the best system in place to reward the guys that do the best job in that endeavor."
And speaking of agreements, I asked Saban to share his thoughts on the growing trend of players under contract to withhold services in the hopes of landing a new deal. Does he, like we do, believe that a contract needs to be respected?
"I'm sure they have some reason that must be a good reason for them to want to do that. . . . But from my perspective I have respect for a contract, and have always tried to [show] that."
Our guess, based on our time with Saban? Plenty of folks are going to be showing him respect as well, and sooner than most think.
Along the way, we expect that many will continue to gripe about his tactics, and the complaints at times will be justified. But, hell, he's a football coach. Vince Lombardi was no milquetoast, and the guys who have had the most success in the profession succeeded because they demanded success from those around them.
None of this means that we plan to go fruity in our coverage of the Fins. When criticism is warranted, criticism will be leveled. And when unflattering news or rumors regarding the organization makes its way to us, we won't ignore that information simply because we got some access.
Still, we were impressed with what we saw and heard, and we're even more convinced that, within the next three years, Saban will be showing the movie Cinderella Man to 53 guys who'll be preparing to compete the next day for the trophy that bears Lombardi's name.
Re: Mike Florio's interview with Nick Saban
^^^ That's a lot of reading. Anyone care to summarize it for me?
Re: Mike Florio's interview with Nick Saban
In a nutshell, Saban plans on following in the footsteps of his former boss, Bill Belicheck...and he has both the cojones and the skill to do it. It remains to be seen if he can assemble the right personnel, but the author seems to believe that he can do it.