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Saban answers Dolphins' cry for help

WashPost: New coach takes aggressive approach to return Miami to glory
Nick Saban was charged with getting the Dolphins back on the winning track after leading LSU to two straight national titles.Steve Mitchell / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

He already has reduced one of his rookies to tears with an on-field tirade. He has not won a single game as an NFL coach, yet he has emulated the large-and-in-charge approaches of Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Marty Schottenheimer and barred his assistants--all 22 of them--from speaking regularly to reporters. Even his general manager, Randy Mueller, is off limits to the media--and Mueller, only months ago, was the media, working for ESPN.

But don't try to suggest to Nick Saban, the Miami Dolphins' new coach who has been charged with restoring the franchise's luster, that he is rigid or regimented.

"I don't even see myself as a disciplinarian," Saban said here this week, sitting with a small group of reporters in his still-mostly-undecorated office at the Dolphins' training facility. "I think I have discipline to . . . a systematic approach to try to get everybody to hopefully work together as a team so that they have the best chance to be successful. . . . But flexibility in dealing with individuals and people has always been something that I've tried to do."

Manuel Wright, a rookie defensive tackle out of USC, might beg to differ. On Tuesday, Saban sternly and animatedly lectured him just as the afternoon practice was about to begin and Wright wiped tears from his eyes as he left the field. The rookie's transgression? He had shown up for practice, which was supposed to be in full pads, in only shorts and a jersey, and the Dolphins coaches apparently felt that he had been suffering from back problems because he reported to camp out of shape. He later returned and participated in the practice, although he skipped Wednesday's practice to have his back examined.

Said veteran Dolphins defensive tackle Larry Chester earlier in the week: "When you're on that field, he expects you to play and he expects you to give your all. If you call him a taskmaster for that, so be it. . . . It's no laid-back anything. Once he says go, it's all-out or nothing."

Saban has sparred with South Florida media members over access issues virtually from the moment he left LSU by accepting Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga's five-year contract, worth approximately $22.5 million, on Christmas Day. He has a reputation for being difficult to work for, and he had trouble filling some of his key staff positions--like his defensive coordinator's job--in Miami. Saban, the son of a hard-working gas station owner in rural West Virginia, still talks about the lessons he learned then about being earnest and staying out of trouble.

Still, he is not all ogre -- at least not all the time. He patched up the organization's relationship with Ricky Williams, whose abrupt retirement just before training camp last summer led to a 4-12 season that included former coach Dave Wannstedt's resignation. The free-spirited tailback reported to training camp Sunday and said Monday that Saban has been "open" and "very trusting."

Saban has a player-friendly training-camp schedule that alternates two-practice days with one-practice days, giving players two meal times between each practice to eat, drink and refresh their bodies. He is a hands-on coach during practice, spending much of his time working with defensive backs. His coaching style isn't aloof. He talks about the need to connect with players, and gets to know them. At LSU, defensive end Marcus Spears--a first-round draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys in April--often took his girlfriend fishing at a pond on Saban's property, prompting Saban to kid Spears by asking when he was going to spring for a real date.

Saban, 53, is the first college coach to be hired for an NFL head-coaching job since Steve Spurrier's failure with the Washington Redskins in 2002 (and again in 2003). But Saban, unlike Spurrier, doesn't arrive as an NFL coaching novice. He has experience as an NFL assistant, including a stint as Belichick's defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns between 1991 and '94. With Belichick's New England Patriots winning three of the last four Super Bowls, two of the three head-coaching vacancies league-wide this past offseason were filled by Belichick disciples. The Browns hired Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

"I hear people say, 'Your practice looks like a college practice,' " Saban said. "Well, I'm going to tell you what: We practice exactly like we practiced at the Cleveland Browns. We practiced in college exactly like we practiced at the Cleveland Browns -- same kind of drills. . . . I've always kind of thought after I was in pro ball for six years that I took pro ball back to college. I'm not trying to bring college football back to the pros."

He and Belichick have remained close, but Saban said they talk less often now that they coach divisional rivals who will play twice this season.

"I just don't think we have the same kind of day-to-day talks professionally that we used to have before about, 'What are you doing about this? What are you doing about that?' " Saban said. "I remember right after we won the national championship [at LSU in the 2003 season] and they won the Super Bowl in the same year, we had an ongoing, 'How are we going to get our teams to respond and be hungry again and try to go repeat?' He obviously did it better than I did."

Saban says he is not a Belichick clone but admits there are great similarities in how they choose players. Saban, like Belichick, has the final say over football decisions. That was one of Saban's prerequisites for returning to the NFL after rejecting overtures from other teams, although he says he came relatively close to leaving Michigan State for the New York Giants' job in 1997.

Saban faces a rebuilding project, even with Williams back in the fold--perhaps only long enough to restore his trade value--and tailback Ronnie Brown, the second overall selection in the NFL draft in April, on his way once he signs a contract. Saban has a less-than-enthralling quarterback choice to make between Gus Frerotte and A.J. Feeley. But he lured an accomplished offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan, from the Minnesota Vikings, and people around the league say that few, if any, NFL coaches this side of Belichick are better defensive schemers than Saban. He makes no predictions about how quickly he'll be able to turn things around in Miami, but he leaves little doubt that he will be impatient on that front.

"Sometimes if you establish a timetable, then it also establishes an excuse for failure early in the program," Saban said. "And that's not something that we want to do."

His players already sense the change from the atmosphere overseen by Wannstedt, who wasn't exactly known for being strict.

"There's a lot of structure," Feeley said this week. "There's a high-tempo attitude in practice. It's early, but I'm excited about it. You know what needs to be done because you're told. . . . There's a great energy going around. You can pick up on it."

And the new coach even knows how to have a little bit of fun, Feeley added. "He'll come around and joke during stretching," he said.

Are the jokes funny?

"Yeah, of course they are," Feeley said.

But what about when they're not?

"If they're not," Feeley said, "you've still got to laugh."