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January 3, 2010

Saban clears way to success at Alabama

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Nick Saban hates clutter. He would stamp it out and suck it up in a vacuum cleaner. But it's all around him.

"It's everywhere," said Saban at an introductory Bowl Championship Series title game press conference at the ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney on Saturday. "Players are distracted by lots of stuff. Agents, the media.

"It's all about keeping your focus. The only thing our players should focus on is what they can do to play their best game. That's it."

Ah, but the clutter impacts thoughts in the days leading up to the title game on Thursday against Texas. There's Disneyland, there's Lawry's, there's parents, friends of parents, friends of friends of parents, gawkers and autographs seekers. It's enough to make one of Saban's finely combed hairs pop out of place.

"Do I enjoy this?" Saban asked, repeating a question. "Let me just say that I appreciate all that you do for our sport. That's as diplomatic as I can be."

Saban is getting his game face on. While he may not appreciate the spotlight, the spotlight sure appreciates Alabama. The sport is better if Alabama is dominant. And there was no more dominant program than the Crimson Tide this fall.

This will be the school's first title game since the advent of the BCS in 1998. And it just feels right to have Bama here, one of football's headline acts playing on college football's biggest stage.

"It's good to get out here to California and begin our final preparations for the game," Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain said. "Everyone on this team is focused on winning a football game. We will get back to the practice field and continue to work on what we came out here to do."

Make no mistake: This is a business trip. Alabama conducted its first practice on the West Coast on Saturday and pads were popping.

"We have to stay focused," Saban said. "After the SEC title game, I drew a line all the way across the grease board in our meeting room. I told our team that on one end was the SEC title game we had just won and on the other was the BCS title game. What they did between then and now would determine if we win this game."

Classic Saban imagery as motivation. It has taken him just three seasons to get Alabama to the precipice of the college football summit. Is he ahead of schedule? Perhaps. But it's that business-like approach that's the secret to Saban's success.

Practice is when Saban is at his best, directing players with finger points and whistle tweets, teaching and leading,

"I don't stay here and study film 24-7, but I study it a lot to know what I have to do in order to be successful," Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas said. "I think I can speak for the rest of my teammates when I say that."

Yes, Saban wants his players to have balance. But that balance always will skew to football. It's that mentality that Saban dictates down to his players that helps make him the best coach in the business.

Alabama paid dearly to lure Saban from the Miami Dolphins, signing him to an eight-year, $32 million deal prior to the 2007 season. And the only way Saban would come to T-Town was if he had total control. There would be no meddling from boosters. There would no hangers-ons.

Look at the Crimson Tide - just a victory from winning their first national championship since 1992. A lot has happened to the program since that night in New Orleans when Gene Stallings led a 34-13 victory over Miami.

Who can forget the Mike DuBose horror show (1997-2000)? It was a made-for-TV train wreck that ended with him sobbing and resigning after admitting to an affair with a co-worker.

Meanwhile, Hollywood couldn't make up a story as good as the Mike Price "era"? Price was done before he even coached a game, as his contract was rescinded following reports of a salacious trip to Pensacola, Fla., in the spring of 2003 that involved booze and strippers.

And no one does scandals like Alabama.

In August 1995, the NCAA cited Bama for four violations around cornerback Antonio Langham's dealings with an agent. The school suffered scholarship limitations, a bowl ban and had to forfeit eight wins and a tie from the 1993 season.

In 2000, a Memphis high school coach claimed an Alabama booster paid him $50,000 to entice one of his players to sign with the Tide. Bama was slapped with probation, a two-year bowl ban and scholarship limitations.

This year's Tide team is doing its part to uphold this distinction. The football team was one of 16 Tide programs that became ensnared in a textbook scheme that has forced Bama to vacate 21 wins and put it on probation until June 2012. The school is appealing the NCAA verdict.

But none of this matters at this very moment - because of Saban.

Saban built a strong program at LSU, going 48-16 from 2000-2004 and winning the national title in 2003. But this Alabama team is better than any he had in Baton Rouge. And this Alabama program is equipped to accomplish much more.

Saban went 12-2 last season, losing to Florida in the SEC title game and then to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. This year's team already has gone one better, boasting a 13-0 mark that includes a victory over Florida in the SEC title game. Add it up, and Bama is 25-2 over the past two seasons.

That's a long way from the 7-6 record that Saban notched in his debut season in 2007 that included a horrendous 21-14 loss at home to Louisiana-Monroe.

"Now, can we get in this game every year?" Saban said. "That's a hard one.

"I think when you have the right stuff, the right experience, the right quarterback, you know, the right group of guys who you can have these kind of years."

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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