University of Alabama Football Team Back On The Field After Championship Loss Clemson walloped the University of Alabama in college football's national championship last season. Now perennial powerhouse Alabama is trying to learn from the loss.
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Tide Rolls Back In: Alabama Hopes To Not Squander Last Year's Championship 'Failure'

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Tide Rolls Back In: Alabama Hopes To Not Squander Last Year's Championship 'Failure'

Tide Rolls Back In: Alabama Hopes To Not Squander Last Year's Championship 'Failure'

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Dominance in sports is a funny thing. It can elicit both admiration and total hatred - case in point, University of Alabama football. The Crimson Tide has won five national championships in the past 10 years. That is too many, say the haters, who especially love to insult Bama's head coach, Nick Saban.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

But in Alabama, and especially the team's hometown of Tuscaloosa, there's mostly devotion and a sense of mission. In last season's national title game, Clemson walloped the Crimson Tide. With a new college football season beginning tomorrow, Saban and his team are determined to, as he puts it, not waste a failure. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: On a sweltering mid-August morning in Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama campus is largely deserted. Bryant Denny Stadium is empty, but you can hear a football season approaching.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM LINE PRACTICING)

GOLDMAN: T-shirts are already stained with sweat as members of the Alabama marching band rip their way through morning practice. Hit your notes, hydrate, Roll Tide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED RESTAURANT WORKER: Do you want a copy of your receipt? OK, thank you, darling. See you later.

GOLDMAN: Same morning, and business is bustling at The Waysider. It's the city's famous Alabama-football-themed restaurant. The walls are crowded with photos and paintings of players and coaches. The menu has breakfast of champions written on the front. A woman is finishing her meal. She has a striped shirt and lipstick matching the school colors.

MARY JO MASON: Every day you need to wear a little bit of crimson.

GOLDMAN: In her 51 years in Tuscaloosa, Mary Jo Mason has cheered many national championships, first under legendary head coach Bear Bryant, and since 2007, Nick Saban. For Bama fans, heading into a season isn't a question of how will we do, it's more who are we going to play for the title. You'd think after last season's drubbing, Mason would want another shot at Clemson.

MASON: I don't care who we have. I just want to win the national championship. That should not be our focus. Our focus is us and what we have to do to get there.

GOLDMAN: Sounds like you should be playing for Coach Saban.

MASON: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: What the heck, it sounds like she is Nick Saban.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICK SABAN: I felt like I personally needed to do a better job of keeping people focused.

GOLDMAN: This was him a few hours later talking about what he learned from the 44 to 16 beat-down by Clemson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SABAN: I think one of the most difficult things is for the players to stay focused on not the outcome, but what does it take to do to get the outcome.

GOLDMAN: That is the foundation of his success, getting young men to do what's required to accomplish a goal. At Alabama, it's called the process, and it's a hallowed term here, albeit a bit vague. Ask what the process is exactly, and you get different answers. But you're not wrong if you say the process involves accountability, coachability, effort.

SABAN: We've had good players who buy into the things that we do here to help them be more successful as people, students and players, and that's worked fairly well for us.

GOLDMAN: No kidding. In his 12 years in Tuscaloosa, five national titles, 141 wins against only 21 losses, and the most players drafted to the NFL. Yeah, his recruits are among the best in the nation, but sportswriter Cecil Hurt says there's something else that links Saban's success and Bear Bryant's decades ago.

CECIL HURT: One way in which they are alike is that they had 100% confidence in what they are doing.

GOLDMAN: Hurt has covered Alabama football for the Tuscaloosa News since 1982.

HURT: But they also had the ability that very few people have to convey that confidence onto the people that they are leading.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The Tigers reclaim their crowd by crushing Alabama.

GOLDMAN: Even after the Clemson loss televised on ESPN, Alabama's players, like Shyheim Carter, share Saban's confidence in the process and talk about recommitting to its tenants of discipline and preparation.

SHYHEIM CARTER: People think just because we, you know, Alabama, you know, we just going to walk in the stadium and win. No, it doesn't work like that. You know, we had to prepare just as everybody else, just as every other game.

GOLDMAN: Saban urges his players not to dwell on losses or wins. But Carter, a senior defensive back, says the Clemson defeat has come in handy.

CARTER: When, you know, leaders on the team feel like practice is going sluggish, they always say, oh, 16 to 44, remember that. And, you know, that kind of, like, give everybody an extra boost.

GOLDMAN: Sixteen to 44. Alabama first, even in defeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR HORN BLARING)

GOLDMAN: Nothing sluggish about practice on this day. Wearing his straw hat with crimson-colored band, Saban is in the thick of it, working with his defensive backs.

SABAN: Come on. Set, go. Step, step, step. Come on. Strong, strong with the lock-out. Strong with the lock-out with the punch. Let's go. Come on.

GOLDMAN: He moves well despite recent hip replacement surgery. He was back at work within 36 hours of the operation. Saban does not like to waste time. Before our interview, an assistant advised don't meander with questions. Be direct. How will we know if it's not working? His leg will bounce, we're told, fast. Or maybe we'll get a snarl. Search Saban rant, and YouTube is filled with clips of him yelling at practice or snarling at the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SABAN: I do believe in our team, all right? And we're going to work hard to make our team better. And it's not going to be for you because if it was up to you, we're six foot under already. We're dead and buried and gone. Gone.

GOLDMAN: Sometimes after a tense moment like this, there's levity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Last one with Alex.

SABAN: You better make it a good one now because I'm about half fired up here.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: But the levity often doesn't make it onto the highlight shows. We're left with the snarl, which has earned Saban nicknames like Satan or the Nick-tator. With one eye trained on his leg - it's not moving yet - I ask Saban about his reputation as the dower leader of what's been called a joyless juggernaut.

SABAN: No, I don't think that's fair.

GOLDMAN: Saban says they have fun at Alabama, their kind of fun.

SABAN: You know, is fun cutting up and doing crazy stuff that is not going to help you sort of be successful in the future? Or is fun knowing you did your best to be the best you could be at whatever you choose to do? And that doesn't mean you don't laugh and enjoy yourself and the relationships that you develop while you're doing it.

GOLDMAN: It also doesn't mean it's not hard. Saban is a perfectionist, and he can be tough on his team. Thirteen assistant coaches have left in the past two years. They are in high demand after working for a demanding head coach. Former offensive coordinator Michael Locksley told The Wall Street Journal every day you walk in that building, you better bring your A game. My goal was to show up every day and not have Saban have to rip my butt.

There are seven new coaches this season and a renewed dedication to the process. Will it all be enough for a seventh national title, giving Saban the most of any college coach in history? A final answer won't come until January, when Alabama may be playing for another championship. But don't ask Saban about that now, eight days before Bama's opening game against Duke. It would ignore the process and for sure get that leg working overtime.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Tuscaloosa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALABAMA YEA (UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA FIGHT SONG)")

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