Senior College Football Columnist

'The Process' gives No. 1 Alabama even greater competitive edge


Nick Saban is dominating college football in ways you don't even know. (US Presswire)  
Nick Saban is dominating college football in ways you don't even know. (US Presswire)  

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- "We're sick and effing tired of going into living rooms and hearing, 'Do you have the same program Alabama has?' "

Not saying that quote came from an Alabama rival, not saying it didn't. Just saying that in Nick Saban's sixth year of what is becoming college football's next dynasty it was uttered out of competitive frustration.

It's that bad here -- or good, depending on how you see it -- this week of the LSU game. Alabama is dominating. For the fourth straight season the national championship may not leave the state. At the same time Auburn -- with that championship less than two years ago -- may be changing coaches, another result of being strangled by The Process.

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"It means everything," said senior center Barrett Jones, who has turned into Alabama’s unofficial spokesman. "The Process means not focusing on the results and focusing on how you get there. ... What this whole program is built on is if you worry about doing the little things right, the big things will take care of themselves. That's what The Process is. It's playing to a standard."

A standard that is beating your butt on the field while getting ahead off of it. Saban is locking it down in ways his rivals don't even know. Alabama is one of eight clients of a boutique consulting firm staffed by former NFL executives. For a fee, Cornerstone Sports Consulting of Leesburg, Va., will come into your program and give you an NFL agent car wash.

Tide players learn how to select agents, how to interview them, how to evaluate them. At Alabama that does three things -- a) sells players and recruits that Alabama can get prospects to the NFL better and sooner than anyone; b) stiff-arms runners from infiltrating the program and; c) asks the tough questions.

"We were interviewing this one agent, he's over 300 pounds," said Jack Mula, a Cornerstone partner and former general counsel for the New England Patriots. "We asked him about his health. He was a little taken aback. I said, 'Listen, you've been doing this for 25 years, you're a 50-plus year-old man and you're well over 300 pounds. Your health is directly relevant to this player. ... It’s not so much your appearance, I had to look after this man's best interests.'"

A reminder, there, for everyone that Saban does pay attention to every detail -- or hires someone who does. The Process has taken on almost a mystical quality. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, a former Saban assistant, has basically recreated Saban's approach, even hiring the Pacific Institute, which specializes in mental conditioning and self-actualization.

There are a variety of ways, it seems, to kick the other guy's butt.

"I'll say this, they care for their players as a whole," Mula said of Alabama. "This affects the player in his future. These guys leave [for the NFL], but our program helps these kids long after their gone hopefully allowing them to develop relationships with reputable agents."

Cornerstone is run by Joe Mendes, former Washington Redskins vice president of football operations. Interest is so high that his staff has doubled, going from two to four. Mendes recently added Lal Heneghan, former vice president of football administration for the 49ers and Billy Kuharich, former Saints GM and Chiefs director of pro personnel.

Six of Cornerstone's eight clients are from the SEC, including Auburn and Alabama. (LSU, Arkansas, Georgia, Washington, Kentucky and Oklahoma are the others.) Cornerstone will come to your school and basically reduce the liability of your program being undercut by unscrupulous agents.

"People still break the rules," Mula said. "What we used to teach the players is if you've got a recruiting coordinator inside a big agency calling you, if they're so interested in you, why aren't you talking to the agent?

"You only want to talk to the agent."

Mendes had the idea thrust upon him when Pete Carroll was at USC. The Trojans were (and are) so loaded with NFL prospects and the slimy runners who approach them (see Reggie Bush) that Carroll wondered if there was a way to control the process.

Remember, this is before The Process became famous with Saban. The Andre Smith situation before the 2009 Sugar Bowl was embarrassing enough. Smith was suspended by Alabama for what was reported to be improper dealings with an agent. The NCAA later said it was not an infractions matter that concerned them.

Steve Sarkisian followed as a Cornerstone client when he took the Washington job. Soon, Mendes found himself before the SEC coaches and ADs making a presentation. Commissioner Mike Slive was more than willing to have Cornerstone make a presentation to the entire body.

After that presentation, no school stepped forward. Mendes learned a valuable lesson about life in the SEC.

"I said, 'Joe, does [Bloomingdale’s] tell Macy's when they're having a sale?' Mula said. "Go back home and all the sudden, Alabama will call. Arkansas will call. As soon as Auburn finds out Alabama did it, boom, they're going to call."

That's exactly the way it went down. Now it makes perfect sense that half the conference that produces the most NFL players is using the service.

"It's eliminating distractions," Mula said. "You get these guys to focus on what's important in their lives. That's why I like guys like Saban and [Les] Miles, and other top coaches. They get it. ... We're also forcing them to eliminate clutter, eliminate noise. I think the coaches love that."

Cornerstone will visit here about five times a year. Each agent interview takes 1-1½ hours. The firm has a list of 150 prepared questions each agent has to answer. Most of the agent interviews are done in January before the combine. Figuring an average of five or six prospects each interviewing five agents that’s 7½-10 hours of agent interviews for each player.

"We as universities supply this kind of counseling if you're an engineer and want to work at Boeing," said Washington AD Scott Woodward. "Because of our goofy rules you can't talk to NFL scouts. We want to give them good advice."

That produces deep questions like, should an agent's weight matter and who the heck was Mula referring to?

"We'll just let all the fat agents wonder who it is," he said.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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