TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Preseason camp is heating up at Alabama, and Nick Saban has a million things on his mind as he points his Mercedes down his long, narrow driveway and heads toward campus.
Football is never far from his thoughts. But on this steamy August morning, one of his first orders of business is touching base with a former priest of his in Louisiana by phone to check on the flood victims. Saban and his wife, Terry, still have several close friends in the Baton Rouge area from his time as LSU coach, and Saban wants to know how they can help.
"It's amazing everything those people have been through in that state over the last several years, and they just keep bouncing back," says Saban, music from Michael Jackson's "This is It" softly filling the car.
It's just past 7 o'clock, and his mind is racing as he organizes his thoughts for his 7:30 staff meeting at the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility.
"I usually make a lot of notes during the day, things we can do better and things we can do differently," Saban explains. "But it seems to me that things come a lot clearer to me in the morning. I think of stuff when I'm showering, when I'm shaving, when I'm getting ready to go to work, and on the drive, I'm putting it all together of how I want to implement it into the day."
Saban agreed to open up his program to ESPN.com for a day with full access to meetings, film sessions, guest speakers and practice. It was a rare peek behind the curtain at an Alabama football machine that is showing no signs of slowing down in what's been a historic run of four of the past seven national championships.
It's to the point that Alabama is having to construct new display cases in the Hall of Champions just to house all of its trophies.
But good luck getting Saban to talk about dynasties or Alabama's chances of defending its title (no such thing in his world) or anything, for that matter, remotely associated with any of the Tide's past glory.
Nope, on this particular morning, he was more interested in talking about Marcus Aurelius, the former Roman emperor whose teachings on Stoicism were incorporated into Ryan Holiday's best-selling book, "The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph."
"Even 2,000 years ago, Marcus Aurelius was talking about 'The Process,' believe it or not, and that if you're going to have goals and achieve those goals, then you're going to have to overcome obstacles," says Saban, who's currently reading the book and has brought Holiday in to speak to the team.
"Those obstacles don't impede you. They make you better."
So as Saban kicks off his Tuesday staff meeting, the day before classes begin at Alabama, he challenges his assistants to be more involved with their players, to engage them, to communicate with them and to make sure there's not more they can be doing.
Saban admits he is still stung by the whole Maurice Smith saga, where he took a lot of criticism for not initially giving the grad transfer a full release. And, yes, it was made worse that Smith left to play for Saban's former longtime assistant, Kirby Smart, at Georgia. But the part that eats at Saban is that Smith felt it wasn't in his best interests to finish his career at Alabama.
"The thing I lose sleep over the most is not winning and losing the games. It's about players. It's about a guy who's not doing the right thing or somebody you're trying to get to see the light and buy into doing the right things," Saban says. "I've been coaching for 43 years, and to have what happened with Maurice Smith and his family, that's what I lose sleep over.
"We've got 53 players in the NFL and a whole bunch of other ones who aren't in the NFL and are very successful. But what I lay awake at night and think about is where did I fail a guy like Maurice Smith. What didn't I do, or what could I have done better?"
Saban rocks back and forth while he talks in the packed staff room. All eyes are on him as he gazes over his reading glasses as he sets the tone for the day, which are 14-hour marathons this time of year — hence all of the unshaven faces in the room.
Next comes the "fun" part, watching the previous night's practice, the last of the two-a-day sessions for the Tide. Saban has the clicker, and they meticulously go over and over every play, every bad angle a defensive back takes, every time a defensive lineman doesn't get off a block, every time the quarterback holds it too long, every time an offensive lineman gets too wide.
Sometimes, the coaches grumble under their breath. Other times, they bark out the mistakes. Saban, an old defensive backs coach, moans more than once, "The corner has to make that play."
The assistants are braced for what's coming in that staff meeting. Everything is geared toward what Saban refers to as the inner scoreboard in Alabama's program. The gaudy win totals, growing collection of championship rings and dozens of NFL players, that's the outer scoreboard.
"Hey, I hate losing, and when we lose, I'm miserable,'' says Saban. "I have a harder time over relationship-type issues than I do actual losses on the field. It's tough to lose, but I'm technical when we lose. I'm not emotional, but technical in terms of what didn't we do. But I'm that way when we win.
"I know I get criticized for that. Everybody says, 'He just won 31-3. What's he complaining about?' But it goes back to the inner scoreboard versus the outer scoreboard. Which one is more important? If you're going to accomplish your goals, it's always the inner scoreboard."
Saban has four new full-time assistants on his staff — defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, offensive line coach Brent Key, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar and defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley. It's no coincidence that all four have either worked for Saban previously or have ties to people close to him.
"I have a hard time hiring people I don't know," Saban concedes.
Once the practice tape has been dissected, the position coaches break off with their respective players in position meetings. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin jokes that the quarterback room is the celebrity room with graduate assistant Alex Mortensen, son of ESPN NFL analyst Chris Mortensen, and analyst Charlie Weis Jr., son of former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis.
The Crimson Tide are still trying to decide on their starting quarterback, who will be the third straight first-year starter Kiffin has had to get ready at Alabama. His track record says he'll be OK. Jake Coker was unbeaten as a starter a year ago on Alabama's national championship team, and Blake Sims went from an afterthought to passing for a school-record 3,487 yards and leading the Tide to an SEC championship as a senior in 2014.
Key's connection to Saban goes back to former Alabama offensive line coach Joe Pendry, who remains a consultant for the program and has been one of Saban's closest confidants for 40-plus years. Pendry, a former NFL offensive coordinator, is the kind of resource any program would love to have, and watching Key teach and work his offensive line room is reminiscent of the way Pendry went about his craft.
As lunchtime nears, the corridor outside Saban's office starts to swell with people, whether it's a player or coach needing to see him, one of the members of the sports information staff or Saban's longtime administrative assistant, Linda Leoni, who's worked under Saban, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. She's been a bit of a good luck charm for the Tide. Her first season at Alabama was 2009, meaning she's been on hand for all four national championships.
One of her many duties is playing traffic cop for Saban, whose schedule seemingly gets tighter every year.
Saban is also a notorious creature of habit, which means he doesn't stray from his lunchtime staple of a light salad. But on this day, part of his lunch is spent speaking to Alabama's Million Dollar Band, which returns the favor later in the day after practice. One of Alabama's traditions after wins is counting all of the points they scored in the locker room and then singing the school fight song. Every preseason, Saban has the band come to practice and help teach the younger players the words to the fight song.
Saban also has a soft spot for the band. Wife Terry was head drum majorette in a rival high school's band, and that's sort of how the two reconnected. They'd met a few years earlier as middle schoolers at a summer science camp.
"How the hell I ever ended up at science camp I'll never know, but I'm glad I went," Saban says.
Cedric Burns, Alabama's athletics relations coordinator, whisks Saban back to the football complex after the meeting with the band. Burns is one of the last remaining links to Bear Bryant on campus. He's been associated with Alabama football since 1979 when Bryant brought him into the program as a kid. And like Leoni, Burns has any number of duties as Saban's right-hand man.
Bryant's old coaching tower with the spiral staircase to the top remains very prominently in the center of the Alabama practice fields.
Asked if anybody had been up in that tower since Bryant retired as coach in 1982, Burns answers with an emphatic, "No."
Across the street from the Alabama practice fields are several apartment complexes, the upper units with porches high enough to provide a good view of the practice fields. Alabama has an agreement with one of the complexes that they will write into people's leases that they not stand outside and watch football practice.
Anything for the sake of privacy in college football, right?
The heat index on Tuesday climbed to 104, and the players were coming back from a night practice about 18 hours earlier. The thing that always jumps out at you about Alabama is how big, physical, explosive and deep they are up front defensively, and this team is no different.
This should also be the deepest group of receivers and tight ends that Alabama has had under Saban, and one of the highlights Tuesday was a circus catchRobert Foster made down the field on the sideline toward the end of the team period.
The quarterback battle remains undecided, and Saban said that's more a case of waiting to see who wins the team and who is most consistent in the scrimmages. True freshman Jalen Hurts is legitimately in the conversation and has the kind of ability to create that would give the Tide another dimension on offense, butBlake Barnett and Cooper Bateman also have their strengths.
In other words, just because somebody starts the opener against USC doesn't mean the quarterback competition ends at that point.
It wouldn't be an Alabama practice without strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran going 100 mph waving his arms, pumping his fists and keeping everybody at a fever pitch. Even over the blare of the nearby train whistle, Cochran can be heard exhorting the players.
Just about everywhere you go in Alabama's football complex, there are signs or sayings that have become ingrained in the program.
On the locker room door, as the players enter and exit the practice field each, there's one that reads: BEST. The B is for being ready, coming early for practice and loosening up. The E is for eating properly. The S is for getting enough sleep, and the T is for turning it off and getting in a cold tub and helping the body shut down.
Alabama, always on the cutting edge, is also using a new device out of Australia, NordBord, to help reduce hamstring injuries. It measures the strength of a player's hamstring.
One of the more underrated stories in Alabama's success under Saban has been the chemistry between Cochran and head trainer Jeff Allen. They've been with Saban all 10 years and complement each other perfectly.
"If there's something out there that can help our team win, we're going to try it," Allen says. "That's the thing about working for Coach Saban. He's going to challenge everybody in their respective areas to stay on top of their game, making sure we're doing everything for our players. That's the great thing about Alabama. We can."
Alabama ends practice with a rendition of the fight song thanks to the band. Saban, in his trademark straw hat, even plays the role of conductor as his players get a refresher on the words to the fight song.
After meeting with the local press, Saban retreats to his office to eat dinner. But the truth is he doesn't really eat his meal. It's more like he inhales it. But, then, there are very few things in his life he doesn't do fast.
He does take enough time to shower before going into the evening staff meeting to watch that day's practice. The routine never gets old.
In fact, it's the grind Saban craves, the constant push to get better and bring the team together. It takes him back to his Pop Warner days when he was playing for his father. That boyish enthusiasm is what keeps him coming back and the reason he scoffs at any retirement talk.
"I love it, man … just as much as I ever did," he says, his smile widening as he rejoined his coaches in the staff meeting room.
Saban is a huge believer in bringing in guest speakers. Earlier in the day, the players met privately with former basketball star Chris Herren, who ruined his career with drug addiction and was the subject of the "30 for 30" documentary "Unguarded." Herren prefers to meet with the players without the coaches present to get his point across about the dangers of drugs.
Later that evening, the entire team — coaches, players, staff members, everybody — filed into the team meeting room to hear former baseball star Darryl Strawberry bear his soul. Drug addiction also ruined Strawberry's career, and he wound up serving 11 months in prison.
Strawberry started and ended his powerful message with a prayer, and in between, he didn't pull any punches. He stressed everything from making the right choices, to taking advantage of opportunities, to treating women the right way and staying away from alcohol and drugs. "You can pick your sins, but you can't pick the consequences," he tells them.
The players meet one more time with their position coaches before calling it a night. They get their snack to go and spread out to their dorm rooms and apartments.
Meanwhile, Saban is already thinking about the next day.
"When I lose that feeling, I'll know then that it's time to get out," he says. "But that's something I never think about. There's always another challenge, another way to improve, another way to get through to a kid that maybe I haven't been able to.
"Those are the wins that mean the most to me."