Nick Saban on preparing for all possible circumstances

On his radio show recently (see this link at around the 17 minute mark) Saban discussed how his staff prepares for all the myriad game situations. He said before the game they have a forty-five minute meeting whereby they discuss, among other things:

  • How they will handle the coin toss
  • Which side of the field do they want to def;end (wind, weather, etc);
  • Whether they want to go on offense or defense first;
  • When they will go for two;
  • When they will get into their two-minute offense, and how they will handle field goals with the wind and late in the half, etc;
  • When they will and won’t go for it on fourth down;
  • And then player specifics, including exactly how many plays each will play before their backup will come in (for defensive line rotation, for example), how many carries or touches certain players should have or are limited to, and so on.

He said the point is to decide all of this stuff before the game ever starts. I’m sure much of it gets discussed earlier in the week too, but the point is to have it all finalized.

Interestingly, Saban noted that Charlie Weis mentioned — and he could confirm that he did this when he worked for him — that Belichick still conducts this same 45 minute meeting where, no doubt, the infamous fourth down play was decided there. It seems a bit wild to think that they discuss that possibility every week (though they do so from a high level of generality, no doubt), but I believe Saban on such a point.

It’s a lesson to all coaches: Always good to prepare, and for head coaches, whether they like the meeting or not it’s good to have your whole staff involved to make sure everyone is on the same page.

  • This reminds me of an article on game planning where Bill Walsh stated:

    “I know this, your ability to think concisely, your ability to make good judgments is much easier on Thursday night than during the heat of the game. So we prefer to make our decisions related to the game almost clinically, before the game is ever played. We’ve scouted our opponent, we have looked at films, we know our opponent well. If you coach at the high school level, often you are in the same league with the same coaches and you know them like a book. With out question you can make more objective decisions during the week as to what you would do in the game than you can spontaneously as the game is being played. To be honest with you, you are in a state of stress, sometimes you are in a state of desperation and you are asked to make very calculated decisions. It is rarely done in warfare and certainly not in football; so your decisions made during the week are the ones that make sense. In the final analysis, after a lot of time and thought and a lot of planning, and some practice, I will isolate myself prior to the game and put together the first 25 plays for the game. They are related to certain things.”

    The article relates to offensive game planning, but the same idea applies to other such situations, as Nick Saban has described.

  • Kevin

    Nice call, Craig. I love to hear how these coaches practice and prepare. One thing I’d like to hear about is how they use contact throughout the week. I know there are different levels of contact that some coaches use. As a high school coach, I am afraid to develop bad habits if I did that.
    Another topic of interest (for me) is off season workouts and the “warmup” and “stretch” periods of practice. You can do it 100 different ways…but what seems to be the best and most efficient I don’t konw…

  • RtownCoacher

    failing to plan is planning to fail….quoted from someone…. i forgot who

  • Shaz

    The preparation and attention to detail is what makes coaches like Bill Walsh and Nick Saban.

  • RtownCoacher

    Wonder if Les Miles will start having meetings for time management. That was brutal clock management in the final minutes of their game against Ole Miss. May cost them a BCS bowl game with the L.
    I bet John Reed will go nuts with that one….

  • Huntsvegas

    Notre Dame is going to have a fine coach when they hire ole Rich Nick away from the bamers.

  • Topher

    That Bill Walsh philosophy is a good one. I saw him speak (to football coaches) before he died and he re-emphasized how he likes to make every decision he can before the game begins so that he has a full risk-management portfolio before they’ve even kicked off.

    I am one who believes that 80% of life success is doing the basic things basically good, and the other 20% is the elevation, taking advantage of opportunities and exploiting mismatches. In football that means everybody doing their job and keeping the team in the game, then the stud players stepping up on key plays to put the team past the opponent. The coach’s job is to get everybody in the right place, and knowing when to go for the high-stakes play that turns the ballgame. These coaches earn the highest compliment – “he gets the most out of his team.”

    It holds in most areas of life, too. If you are a entrepreneur trying to raise money for a start-up, you better have your elevator speech practiced because they will ask the same thing over and over. They sell books of common interview questions and good answers to them. If you want to hit on women (or men) the same basic stuff tends to work, then you let your uniqueness show.

    Most people aren’t superstars, so they need to differentiate from others by doing their basics well. Coaching football teams is the same way.

  • Matt

    This was posted on Friday, but it reads like an introduction to a post about Les Miles against Ole Miss.

  • Mr.Murder

    Sunlight. Certain games will have enough sunlight along a sidline or to an end zone that certain routes to that side are almost impossible to defend with certain techniques, or more importantly, for the receiver to locate the ball while running certain directions.

  • Joe

    As several people have already mentioned regarding the chaotic end-of-game clock management in the Ole Miss-LSU game, isn’t it ironic that Les Miles succeeded Nick Saban at LSU? And I would say that ANY decision made by Les Miles would be the antithesis of Smart Football. 🙂

  • Joe

    Not that his opponent, Coach Giggity, is exactly a football Einstein. (Norman, of course)

  • stan


    I think that some readers of this might not appreciate that there is not as much specificity or rigidity as might be implied. I think the point is to be sure to address all the aspects of the game that might come up and begin to nail down those that can be nailed down ahead of time. But everything is adaptable once the game starts.

    You want to have a good idea what plays you think will work in special situations. but that list comes with assumptions which may no longer prove valid when the situations arise. Mismatches may not develop as expected or may pop up elsewhere.

    I’ve seen some of the best regarded defensive coaches think they had a real shot at a shutout going into a big game, yet end up giving up over 40 points in a shootout. Stuff happens and plans need adaptation.

  • Andy

    Nick Saban had the same 45-minute meeting when he was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. The only difference is that it was on Saturday nights instead of Friday nights. It didn’t help much. He went 15-17 in two seasons before quitting and going back to college football, where his authority and control are absolute.

    There aren’t any Florida International’s, North Texas’s, or Tennessee-Chattanooga’s in the N.F.L.

    Saban isn’t successful because he knows more about football than other coaches, or because he has a meeting to discuss how his team will handle all the various situations that might occur during the course of the game. Every coach goes over the possible options with his staff, whether in a formal meeting or not. Saban wins for the same reason other coaches win- he usually has better players than the guy on the other sideline.

  • James


    You are vastly underestimating Nick Saban’s ability to coach. I’ve heard plenty of poor things about him as a person but even I will not doubt his coaching ability. The defense he runs at the college level is unprecedented as far as complexity and it usually runs smooth as silk with him.

  • Topher

    “Nick Saban had the same 45-minute meeting when he was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. The only difference is that it was on Saturday nights instead of Friday nights. It didn’t help much. He went 15-17 in two seasons before quitting and going back to college football, where his authority and control are absolute.”

    Your point is technically valid, but also sophomoric. No one is saying that having a preliminary meeting going over the “what-ifs” of a football game is going to be the difference between a losing season and a top-ten team. The point is to avoid a situation like LSU’s, where the gameplan was either not practiced or horrifically botched.

    Also, coaches that plan two days ahead probably find a lot of stuff in their gameplan they realize they shouldn’t have wasted Tuesday and Wednesday on, and throw it out, which further limits the chance of calling a doomed play (like Jim Harbaugh did on Saturday against Cal, flat-out blowing the game for an outschemed Stanford team that had miraculously played itself into position to win.)

    Saban was certainly lame in Miami, although I’m inclined to only blame him for 75% of it because the Dolphins franchise was such a mess until the Parcells hire.

  • James

    “(like Jim Harbaugh did on Saturday against Cal, flat-out blowing the game for an outschemed Stanford team that had miraculously played itself into position to win.)”

    What happened in the Cal-Stanford game that makes you believe Stanford was demonstrably out-schemed?

    Not being snarky but I did not see the game, only the score.

  • Devin

    One item that needs to be discussed in these meetings: stop settling for long field goals instead of running another play. Tennessee did it against Alabama and the Texans just did it tonight, just not smart to force your kicker to make a long kick when you could try and move him ten yards closer.

  • Topher

    “What happened in the Cal-Stanford game that makes you believe Stanford was demonstrably out-schemed?”

    Cal stacked up the line on first down, nullifying Toby Gerhart on first down and putting Stanford in long-to-go positions. Cal was also able to fake out the quarterback with coverages and fronts so that he anticipated pressure that wasn’t there, throwing the ball early and not stepping into it to overthrow open receivers.

    On offense, Cal rode its horse 40 times, but that was not a surprise. Stanford had no defensive answer though.

    Stanford also out-schemed itself. Inexplicably, Stanford seemed intent on showing off its ability to throw the ball, even to the point of failure – including their last drive when they threw the game-ending interception instead of running the best power back in the country. Absolute madness, born in the gameplanning process and fledged on the field.

  • Jonesie

    We did this in the early 1990s when I was @ East Stroudsburg University (PA, Div.II). It was more like a 15 minute meeting, but all of the above was discussed.

    We also did a mock game every Friday practice to go voer every special team and substitution. It culminated w/ running the FG team on at the last second to kick a game winner. Perhaps I should have Coach Denny Douds forward the script to Les Miles at LSU (yes, he is still there).

  • Unfortunately, not every does do these types of meetings. I think there are a lot of head coaches and coordinators out there who put too much of this on themselves and don’t get any input from their staff.

    The decision in the game is still going to be a quick one, judging the particular situation you’re in. But you’ve got the input of your entire stuff ahead of time to help you make the decision. Guys who are successful at many different places aren’t just lucky, prepare meticulously and know what they’re doing when the time comes! Of course, everyone still makes mistakes.