Alabama coach Nick Saban's quest for perfection

Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide is once again ranked No. 1 and undefeated. How does he do it?

The following script is from "The Perfectionist" which aired on Nov. 3, 2013. The correspondent is Armen Keteyian. Draggan Mihailovich, producer.

Nick Saban is the most dominant head coach today in college football -- and maybe all of American sports. With the regular season in its home stretch, Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide is once again undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country -- gunning for a modern day record third straight national title and fourth championship in five years. He is worshipped by his rabid fan base...feared by his rivals, who see Saban as an intense, tightly wound control freak who takes little or no pleasure in all of his success.

For the last eight months, Saban granted 60 Minutes rare access inside his program. What we learned is while the rest of college football may be chasing Nick Saban, Nick Saban's chasing something else: perfection.

[Players: Get your mind right!]

The chant is get your mind right. It's the mantra of the man out front, the heartbeat of the Alabama Crimson Tide, head coach Nick Saban. His program has become the gold standard of college football.

To get a sense of how Saban has driven Alabama to the top we begin with an afternoon in early August. An energized Saban couldn't wait to get to his favorite part of the day.

[Nick Saban: Okay, blow the horn. Let's go...]

To practice...A thunderstorm had forced his team indoors, but it didn't dampen Saban's passion to teach his players the finer points of football.

[Nick Saban: I want you to step, step, step....I'm talking about jack him up!}

In demanding his players be as exacting as he is, Saban can be volcanic.

[Nick Saban: I've already told you three times!!]

Armen Keteyian: Why are you so tough on people?

Nick Saban: Well, I don't know if it's fair that I'm really tough on people. We create a standard for how we want to do things, and everybody's got to buy into that standard or you really can't have any team chemistry. You know, mediocre people don't like high achievers and high achievers don't like mediocre people.

Saban doesn't miss anything. On this afternoon, a freshman caught Saban's eye...

[Nick Saban: Hey Eddie!]

No. 4, Eddie Jackson, who seemed lost...

[Nick Saban: You an offensive lineman or what?]

Jackson, a defensive back, was stretching with the offensive linemen.

Trying to master Alabama's complex schemes was too much, too soon for Jackson.

[Nick Saban: Hey Eddie! It's kick support!!! It's Cover Two, why you backing up!!! You're supposed to come and force the edge!!!]

Jackson looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole.

[Nick Saban: Come on Eddie!]

All of Alabama's players have been there. Safety Vinnie Sunseri remembers the day he and a fellow defensive back forgot a play.

Vinnie Sunseri: And he throws his hat. It's a straw hat and it's not really heavy. He's able to throw it like Zorro at us. I thought it was going to hit us and knock us out. And just starts yelling at us. And we were like, "We just got Sabaned."

Armen Keteyian: Got Sabaned?

Vinnie Sunseri: Yeah.

[Nick Saban: You messed up my hat... ]

But Saban's players have faith in their coach largely because of a revolutionary approach he designed years ago called The Process. Ignore the scoreboard, Saban preached to his players. Don't worry about winning, just focus on doing your job at the highest level, every single play, and the wins will follow.

Nick Saban: The approach was to challenge the players to play every play in the game like it had a history and a life of its own and tried to take the other team out of the game and make it all about us in terms of what we did.

Armen Keteyian: It's like jumping out of a plane without a chute. I mean in your business, what? We're not going to focus on winning?

Nick Saban: Right. But it really is the simple way to do it and it's the best way to do it.

AJ McCarron: It's a way of life around here. It's the way we play the game. It's the thought process behind everything.

Star quarterback AJ McCarron was involved in the one play that epitomizes just how deeply The Process has been programmed into Alabama's players. Late in last year's blowout win over Notre Dame in the championship game, McCarron and his center Barrett Jones called different plays at the line of scrimmage, both insisting they were right. A bizarre shoving match ensued on national TV. Saban loved it.

Nick Saban: The game's probably won, and they're...

Armen Keteyian: Well, it's 42-14...

Nick Saban:...still trying to get, yeah, they're still trying to get it right, all right, which to me is the kind of pride and performance that you want in the players.

Armen Keteyian: Can you see the critics saying, 'Come on, coach, just take a breath. Relax. Enjoy the moment.'

Nick Saban: Right. I, I can, I can see the people saying that. But we're still coaching. We're trying to get 'em to do it right. I don't ever want the players to relax in a game.

Saban urges his team to do things the right way, all the time. So when this player arrived late for a meeting because he was busy taking out his earrings, it didn't go over well,

[Nick Saban: Number one thing: Be on time. 'Cause it shows you care. All you're telling me is your earrings are more important than your damn football.]

Saban never lets up. No matter the stage. On a sweltering June day when he could have taken the afternoon off, Saban was instructing young campers as if he was preparing to play LSU. Even the simple act of handing out camp certificates turned into a life lesson.

[Nick Saban: Shake my hand...shake my hand]

Why is Saban such a perfectionist? The answer lies on another football field, in a small, West Virginia mining town. Saban's father, Nick Sr., started a Pop Warner team called the Black Diamond. Today, the Black Diamonds are still playing, on the same field, only it's now named for Nick Sr., a local legend. Nick remembers how his dad's long, demanding practices always ended on a hill in the back of the end zone.

Nick Saban: And it was like a three-level hill. And it's almost straight up. And we, we would line up at the bottom of that hill. And that was our conditioning. We'd have to sprint up that hill. And it was so dark he couldn't tell whether you made it to the top. So there was a row of trees up there. You had to bring a leaf back to him, prove that you made it to the top.

Nick grew up in a coal camp, with just nine streets. His dad owned this service station down the road. Nick started working for him at age 11.

Nick Saban: If we washed a car when I worked for him at the service station and it was not done exactly perfectly correctly, he would say, "Wash it again."

Armen Keteyian: And you had a fear, as I understand, of certain cars?

Nick Saban: The navy blue ones and black ones were really hard to keep the streaks out of. A single streak. You had to do the whole car over again.

Armen Keteyian: Well, now we know where the attention to detail comes from.

Nick Saban: That's where it comes from.

Nick thought he wanted to run a car dealership after playing football at Kent State. But while serving there as a graduate assistant coach in 1973, he told his dad that coaching was in his blood.

Nick Saban: And I said, "I think this is really what I want to do." That was the last conversation we had, 'cause he passed away the next weekend.

His dad was only 46. Saban began a nomadic coaching career, never staying in one place more than five years. After he won the 2003 national championship at LSU, Saban was lured to the NFL to coach the Miami Dolphins. As Miami struggled late in the 2006 season, the University of Alabama, a fading football power still living off the days of the great Bear Bryant was searching for a new coach. Alabama made Saban its No. 1 target. Saban uttered these words.

Nick Saban: Well, I guess I'll have to say it then, "I'm not going to Alabama..."

Armen Keteyian: Do you regret that, Nick? Saying...

Nick Saban: Oh absolutely. I mean I...

Armen Keteyian: You said, flat out, "I'm not going to Alabama."

Nick Saban: Right. I really in the end, you know, it affected my integrity as a person by saying one thing and doing something else.

Today in Alabama, Saban is treated like a god.

Saban now has his own statue outside the stadium, a tribute to his national titles. Alabama has made him the highest paid coach in the game. Dr. Robert Witt, Alabama's chancellor, approved the contract.

Armen Keteyian: Nick Saban, Dr. Witt, makes north of $5.5 million a year. Very simply, is he worth it to the University of Alabama?

Robert Witt: Nick Saban's the best financial investment this university has ever made. We have made an investment that's been returned many-fold.

Armen Keteyian: The best investment the University of Alabama has ever made?

Dr. Robert Witt: I believe...

Three national championships in four years has translated into a 112 percent increase in revenue for Alabama's athletic department. Last year, $4 million was returned to the university in the form of academic scholarships.

[Nick Saban: Good morning guys...]

At 62, Saban continues to coach as if his next paycheck is in doubt.

[Nick Saban: We can't go to the line on offense and stand there until the shot clock runs out trying to figure out what the defense is going to do so we can call a play...]

Saban's idea of relaxation during the season? Watch more film -- and no one is more relentless at evaluating recruits.

Armen Keteyian: Is it true that if you really like a high school player you will have every single play of his career put on tape?

Nick Saban: And I watch that guy.

Armen Keteyian: Every single play?

Nick Saban: Every single play.

If you think Saban needs to get a life, well, you're not alone. But in a profession that is a minefield for couples, he's been married to his grade-school sweetheart Terry for 42 years.

Armen Keteyian: What's the secret of you two staying together?

Terry Saban: Besides winning?

Armen Keteyian: Yeah. That helps.

Terry Saban: That does help.

Together, they've been a powerful team, never more so than in April 2011, when a monstrous tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa. This was the view from Saban's office. Sixty-five people were killed.

Terry Saban: It's the first time in 42 years I've ever seen him totally put football aside.

Nick Saban: I immediately called a team meeting and I said, "Look guys, you know, we have to go serve the people who have always supported us."

[Terry Saban: This family has two little girls...]

Terry and Nick's fund, Nick's Kids, has helped rebuild 15 homes destroyed by the tornado. It's another sign that Saban seems to have found the right fit in Tuscaloosa. This is his seventh season at Alabama, the longest he's ever coached at one place.

Nick Saban: There's not the University of Mars, which is a better place. You know, there's not that. So now it's easy to be comfortable here.

Armen Keteyian: He appears more content. Is that a fair assessment?

Terry Saban: I think that's true and I think I've heard the assistant coaches who have been with him for years say that he's mellowing a little bit. And yet, outsiders will see him on the field or in, at practice and say, "Mellowing relative to what?"

Remember No. 4, Eddie Jackson, the poor freshman who couldn't do anything right back in August? Well, he stuck with it and by late September, here he was starting in an important game against Mississippi.

He intercepted a pass and helped the Crimson Tide shut out Ole Miss.

Armen Keteyian: How gratifying is that for you Nick to see that kind of growth?

Nick Saban: That's really what I enjoy about all this, you know, is to see guys, you know, do that. But sometimes you invest the same time in another guy and they don't make the progress. And that can be just as frustrating.

Saban and his players were tested in September in front of one of the most intimidating crowds in the country: a showdown at Texas A&M, the only school to beat Alabama last year, against a magician named Johnny Manziel.

[Announcer: Manziel magical play...Oh my gosh!!!...]

When Manziel and A&M raced to a 14-0 lead in a matter of minutes, Alabama didn't fold. The Tide methodically regrouped, did what they were taught, played the play and, ultimately, prevailed in its biggest game of this season to date.

[Announcer: Touchdown Alabama!]

In the locker room afterward, the players' reward was not only victory, but something just as treasured: praise from the perfectionist.

Nick Saban: This is a great win. It's a great win for our program. It's important and we did a great job of competing in the game today. To get behind, 14-0, on the road and show the resilience to come back like we did. I'm so happy, happy, happy. I can't tell ya. And I'm so proud, proud, proud!

There's a lot more to what makes the Alabama football program so strong, and part of it is strength itself. We'll show you how and why Alabama may be the most-fit team in the country Wednesday on 60 Minutes Sports on SHOWTIME.

  • Armen Keteyian

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