Nick Saban hit rock bottom on a Monday in 2007.
His first season at Alabama had turned into a nightmare. A rash of off-field issues had derailed a promising start. The Crimson Tide were 6-4 when Louisiana Monroe came to sold-out Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Alabama was a 24½-point favorite. Didn’t matter. Monroe forced four turnovers, blocked a punt and stuffed ’Bama three times in Warhawk territory in the fourth quarter. The highest-paid coach in the country got beat by the lowest-paid, 21-14.
Two days later, Saban was apparently still in shock when the media gathered for a press conference that will live in infamy.
“Changes in history usually occur after some kind of catastrophic event,” Saban said during his opening remarks. “It may be 9/11, which sort of changed the spirit of America relative to catastrophic events. Pearl Harbor kind of got us ready for World War II, and that was a catastrophic event. And I don’t think anyone in this room would have bet that we could lose back-to-back games to Mississippi State or ULM, no disrespect to either one of those teams.”
Of course not.
Five days later, Alabama lost the Iron Bowl for the sixth straight season, capping a 0-4 November and a miserable autumn in Tuscaloosa.
It’s almost impossible to believe now, after four national championships and eight consecutive top-10 seasons, but Nick Saban finished his first season at Alabama in the Independence Bowl ... against Colorado.
At least he won.
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The Hail Mary against BYU. The overtime interception at Miami. The third-and-7 incompletion at Illinois. The last-second field goal against Wisconsin. The pick-six against Northwestern. The 55 points allowed at Purdue. The four interceptions against Iowa.
Mike Riley’s rookie season in Lincoln matched Saban’s headache for headache — at least until November. Entering 2016, the question is whether Riley can build on a fascinating trend in college football.
This generation’s most successful coaches, specifically those tasked with rebuilding a traditional powerhouse, have often spent the first season looking foolish. Year 2 is when the magic happens. Notice how many fit the pattern:
» Bob Stoops (Oklahoma): The first-time head coach went 7-5 in 1999, losing the Independence Bowl. His second season, OU rose from No. 19 in the preseason poll and won the national championship.
» Jim Tressel (Ohio State): The sweater vest went 7-5 in 2001. In Year 2, Ohio State rose from preseason No. 23 and won the national title.
» Urban Meyer (Florida): He followed a solid 9-3 season in 2005 with a national championship in Year 2.
» Mark Richt (Georgia): He took over after the school president axed Jim Donnan over Athletic Director Vince Dooley’s wishes. Richt went 8-4 in his first year, then surged to 13-1 and a Sugar Bowl victory.
» Nick Saban (LSU): Year 1 in Baton Rouge, Saban went 8-4. His second year, LSU went 10-3 and won the Sugar Bowl.
» Saban (Alabama): We covered this one. After a 7-6 season, Saban broke through with a 12-2 record, including a Sugar Bowl loss. The first national championship came in Year 3.
We could even include Gene Chizik, who went 8-5 his first year at Auburn, then won a national championship in Year 2.
Now, those aren’t the only coaches who rebuilt powerhouses. The first top-10 seasons for Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) and Jimbo Fisher (Florida State) came in Year 3.
But overwhelmingly, evidence points to Year 2 as the big jump. And it often happens after a dreadful first season.
There’s no better example than Pete Carroll.
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Carroll wasn’t USC’s first choice. Or second. Or third — the school wanted Mike Riley, among others. Carroll hadn’t coached college football in 18 years. Two NFL franchises had fired him.
And in October 2001, Carroll wasn’t making Trojan fans feel any better about their consolation pick.
If the Trojans hadn’t already lost four games by six points or fewer, maybe they could’ve stood their ground. But Notre Dame scored four plays later and rolled from there, 27-16.
USC, even with Carson Palmer at quarterback and Troy Polamalu at safety, was 2-5. Carroll was under fire.
“There is a choice on that play,” he said after the Notre Dame loss. “But he’s supposed to kick it unless it is wide open. He does have the option, and he has to read it. That was a pretty important point in the game. That could be seen as the turning point.”
The rest of 2001 was a mixed bag. USC won four straight Pac-10 games, including a blowout of rival UCLA. Then it lost to Utah 10-6 in front of 22,385 fans at the Las Vegas Bowl.
It’s probably not Pete Carroll’s favorite Christmas Day memory.
But in Year 2, progress came quickly. USC, preseason No. 20 in the AP poll, finished with eight straight wins, including blowouts of UCLA and Notre Dame — Carroll never again lost to the Irish. The Trojans drilled Iowa in the Orange Bowl, finished fourth in the country and laid the groundwork for back-to-back national championships.
They didn’t need a punter anymore.
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How do great coaches turn a program around so quickly? The more appropriate question is why even the best coaches look so weak in Year 1.
Former Texas coach Mack Brown, who went 9-3 his first year in Austin, said you don’t recognize all your deficiencies right away.
“The first spring, you’re trying to figure out what you’ve got,” Brown said. “The second spring, you’re trying to make it work.”
It’s a two-fold problem. As a head coach struggles to identify and fix problems, his players struggle to adjust to the new staff. One day, usually without warning, the coaches who recruited and mentored you are gone, replaced by a bunch of guys you’ve never met.
“I likened it to coming in and adopting 125 new family members that don’t even know you,” Brown said. “You haven’t been in their homes. You really have to re-recruit your entire team before you can go anywhere else. You have to sit down and watch video to figure out what you’ve got.”
Moments later, Brown offered a slightly more dramatic metaphor.
“When one coach leaves and another one comes in, it’s like divorce. It’s usually not very much fun.”
None of this is news to Nebraska fans. Nor does it mean that Mike Riley is the next Nick Saban or Pete Carroll. He’s just as likely to be the next Paul Hackett or Mike Shula.
But if Riley is the guy who resurrects Nebraska, there’s a good chance that 2016 is his breakout season, exceeding even the most optimistic expectations.
After the debacle of 2015, it’s hard to envision the Huskers winning 12 or 13 games this fall. But not nearly as difficult as picturing Nick Saban’s loss to Louisiana Monroe.
Charlie Weatherbie, who’s now an FCA director in Florida, coached the Warhawks in 2007. They had lost to Alabama 41-7 the year before. They had lost to Texas A&M and Clemson by a combined 63 points earlier that season. So the 14-14 halftime score alone was a stunner.
“We were coming into our locker room and their student body sits over the tunnel,” Weatherbie recently told me. “They’re cheering for us, telling us we can do it. ‘Hey, you can beat ’em!’ And we’re going, ‘What? What is the student body doing cheering for us?’ ”
Alabama didn’t score in the second half. After Monroe got the final fourth-down stop, the coaches met at midfield for a quick handshake. Very quick. Weatherbie, who was making $130,000 a year compared to Saban’s $4 million, remembers his adversary looking “pretty pale.”
He remembers Saban’s reference to Pearl Harbor or 9/11 — “I think the athletic director or president made him rescind that.” He also remembers the following season, when Saban and Co. plastered pictures of the game on Alabama’s bulletin boards.
“Kinda like ‘Remember the Alamo,’ ” Weatherbie said, “except it was ‘Remember the Monroe Warhawks.’ It was a loss they built off of, I know that.”
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