|No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson on his college coach: 'He prepares you for this.' (AP)|
He hasn't roamed an NFL sideline since New Year's Eve 2006, Nick Saban's final game of an unfulfilling two-year tenure with the Miami Dolphins, a stretch during which he compiled a 15-17 record.
That's the only time, in Saban's 18 seasons as a college or NFL head coach, that he exited a football program with a losing mark.
So when it comes time, probably over the weekend, for all the NFL Draft pundits and self-proclaimed experts to assign those prerequisite, but maddening, grades to 253 selections exercised by 32 franchises over three days, they might want to start by putting the Alabama coach at or near the top of their report cards.
The Crimson Tide had four players chosen in the first round Thursday -- tailback Trent Richardson (Cleveland, No. 3), safety Mark Barron (Tampa Bay, No. 7), cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (Cincinnati, No. 17) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (New England, No. 25) -- and no other school had more than two. And the quartet of new Alabama millionaires was unanimous in its sentiments for the man most responsible for expanding their respective bank accounts to seven figures.
"He prepares you for this, both as a player and a person, and you're better off in both those areas because of it," acknowledged Richardson, the second successive Alabama player chosen as the top running back in the draft, to The Sports Xchange.
Said Barron: "He's the man."
Yeah, play for Saban and, if you merit draft consideration, chances are that the NFL birddogs will find their way to Tuscaloosa. And not merely because of the bounteous talent pool there, but also because of Saban and the manner in which the Tide coach takes players and grows them into NFL prospects.
Scouts characterize as it "NFL-ready," and Alabama players generally are just that. Saban had a losing record at Miami, but league personnel people still consider him a proven winner in terms of NFL preparation.
"He still has the [NFL] mentality," said New England coach Bill Belichick, a close friend of Saban, at the annual league meetings last month. "He knows what it takes [to play in the league] and he imparts that to players."
In choosing Hightower with the 25th pick, Belichick selected the sixth Saban-coached prospect of his career as a head coach in the league.
Let's put the first-round windfall in perspective: It is one of the few times in the 46-year history of the common draft that one program produced four guys who went off the board in the opening stanza. The record is five. Coupled with the four first-rounders Alabama had in 2011, that's eight top-round selections the past two seasons.
Only one school, Miami (twice), has ever had more in a two-year period.
The haul raised to 11 the number of first-round selections Saban has churned out since 2009. It isn't quite the bonanza the University of Miami enjoyed from 2001-04, with 18 first-round choices in four years -- the Hurricanes are the only program to have produced nine first-round picks over two years, and they actually did it twice, 2001-02 and 2003-04 -- but it's still pretty impressive.
Beyond Miami, the only schools to ever place more than four players in the first round are Ohio State (2006) and Southern Cal (1968).
Alabama joined Ohio State (1966-67) as the only schools to have two players chosen in the top 10 in back-to-back years.
Consider this: In 2008, the first draft following Saban's debut season at Alabama, the school had zero players chosen at all for the first time since 1970. Alabama has produced at least one first-round player every season since. In Saban's tenure, Alabama has had 20 players chosen, and there are still six rounds to go this year. Before Saban arrived on campus, Alabama hadn't had a first-round choice since the 2000 draft.
There is a hackneyed football term, "coach 'em up," and Saban does just that.
"You're a so much better football player when you leave him than when you got there, so much more 'football smart' ... I mean why wouldn't you want to be with a guy like that?" said wide receiver Marquis Maze, a likely choice on Saturday, when the NFL conducts the fourth through seventh rounds. "You play for Coach [Saban] and you're ready for just about anything."
Certainly, Saban can be abrasive at times, his players concede. But he is a hands-on coach, incessantly in motion, particularly in instructing the secondary, his primary area of expertise. And he is incredibly organized. In 2005, we attended his inaugural training camp practice with the Dolphins, and came away feeling that it might have been the best-run and most efficient practice of any we had witnessed in covering the league for nearly 30 years at that point.
Veteran Miami players agreed. They might have chafed a little at Saban's methods, but they allowed they were always well calculated.
"You feel," cornerback Sam Madison said at the time, "there's really a purpose for everything he does. There's no wasted time. You're on the field, do your work, and you're off. But you also feel like he's never done thinking about football."
Appropriately, even with the Thursday bounty, neither Saban nor Alabama is done with the 2012 draft. The school might have as many as six or seven more NFL candidates chosen before the process runs its course Saturday evening. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw, projected by many as a first-round pick, is almost certain to be chosen in Friday's second go-around. And with players such as offensive linemen Barrett Jones (the Outland Trophy winner in 2011) and D.J. Fluker, linebackers C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson and safety Robert Lester, the string of Crimson Tide first-rounders is apt to continue in 2013 and probably beyond.
Saban and Alabama will soon welcome a recruiting class that was rated by many as the nation's finest this spring. Think having four first-rounders won't provide Saban instant entre when he sits down in a recruit's living room to try to close a deal?
The two-season stint in Miami might have been regarded as merely a flirtation, and Saban might never again scratch the NFL itch, but that doesn't mean professional football is wholly out of his system. And it certainly doesn't mean he is finished preparing players for the next step in their careers, as Thursday night reflected.
With three national titles on his résumé, including two at Alabama in the past three seasons, Saban is a proven champion. And while the title is hardy as significant, he should be recognized as one of the draft's biggest "winners" when those ubiquitous grades are doled out over the next few days.
Five full seasons have passed since Saban left the league, but he's still a large presence in it.