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Joseph: Coaches display unexpected similarity (Dec. 6)

Allan Joseph | Thursday, December 6, 2012

Alabama coach Nick Saban is something of a mythic figure on the college football landscape. The best coach in the game not named after a Catholic pope, Saban has become a lightning rod for controversy – but he’s indisputably one of the most feared coaches to prowl the opposing sidelines in the nation.

With a win Jan. 7, Irish coach Brian Kelly can prove to the nation he’s a Saban-level coach. But in many ways, he already has.

It starts with the similarities in the coaches’ resumes.

After restoring a languishing Michigan State program in the late 1990s, Saban transformed a sluggish LSU program, winning the Tigers’ first national title in nearly 50 years and reshaping the program into one of the nation’s elite. After coaching in the NFL, Saban returned to Alabama to restore a once-great program into the unquestioned powerhouse of college football. At every stop he made, he took a struggling program and turned it around – not just with his brand of defensive football, but by instilling a winning mentality that demanded nothing less than excellence from his players.

Irish fans are by now well aware of Kelly’s path. From Grand Valley State to Central Michigan, from Cincinnati to Notre Dame, he’s proven he can win – and fast. And sure, until he arrived in South Bend, he won with offense. But what phrases have you heard time and time again from him? That’s right: “Finding ways to win” and “unconscious competence.”
The similarities don’t end there.

Both coaches hire the best coordinators in the country, since they know they can’t get the level of meticulous detail they need without a crack assistant coach. It’s no surprise defensive coordinators Bob Diaco and Kirby Smart are among the hottest names to fill head coaching vacancies every offseason.

One might be a former political operative and the other notoriously grumpy with the media, but both know how to control their message to the outside world while keeping their players focused on the task at hand. It’s uncanny, actually. On a media call Sunday, Kelly and Saban sounded like they were simply parroting each other. Witness:

“We’re not going to be thinking about anything but … how [our players] worked hard and dedicated themselves to and what their goals and aspirations are in what they want to accomplish and how we can help them accomplish it as coaches.”

“As coaches, we’re so focused on getting our players prepared and developing our players at the same time in making sure we’re progressing as a football program.”

The first quote was from Saban, the second from Kelly – but would you have been surprised if it had been the other way around?

Of course, the similarity extends to the recruiting trail. Both know how to recruit given their institutions’ unique identities. For the Irish, academic success and Catholic character permeate everything. In Tuscaloosa, Southern and Alabaman pride matter, especially when discussing Auburn.

This season has been Kelly’s breakout year, and he’s won using Saban’s blueprint: suffocating defense, a rushing-centric offense and a stranglehold on the turnover battle. He’s kept his squad focused on the week-to-week, and he’s kept them playing mistake-free football.

Of course, Kelly has a long way to go before he’s matched Saban’s track record. All of the characteristics are there, but he hasn’t matched Saban’s consistency yet. Until the Irish compete for the national title year in and year out, Kelly won’t have reached that plane.

But there’s one more similarity: Both Kelly and Saban win, and they win a lot – and they’ll both be at their respective programs for a long, long time.

Contact Allan Joseph at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.