When Alabama athletic director Mal Moore hired Nick Saban away from the Miami Dolphins, he said he was seeking a coach with a proven record of championship success and achievement.
Two years later, Saban has resurrected a storied program that has had four coaches in a decade and hasn't been to the SEC Championship Game since 1999.
The man who won 48 games and a national championship in five seasons at LSU has Alabama one game away from playing for the 2008 national championship. According to players and former assistants, the quick turnaround has come exactly as it has at nearly every other stop Saban has made: with focus, an acute attention to detail and a drive for perfection.
"Everything, every little thing is big," quarterback John Parker Wilson said. "There's nothing that's overlooked or pushed to the side. I think every aspect of the program he pays close attention to and inputs a lot of time and effort into."
No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Florida will meet Saturday in the SEC title game, and if Alabama wins, Saban, 57, will join a list of coaches that includes Florida's Urban Meyer and Oklahoma's Bobby Stoops, who took teams to the title game in their second season. Meyer and Stoops both won.
Saban said the key to Year 2 success is changing the culture, then having players, particularly older guys, buy into what the coach is selling.
"We kind of provided a road map, a plan, a direction that we wanted the program to go into, and we didn't deviate from that plan," he said. "I think a lot of hard work, commitment, perseverance, discipline has gone into that. I think a lot of guys have made choices to change the way they've tried to develop as people and as students and develop their career. So all of those things, I think, have contributed into a positive way to helping the players here get better."
In hindsight, the players aren't surprised at the quick turnaround.
"In his first meeting, his first introduction, he demanded respect," senior offensive lineman Antoine Caldwell said. "That's what he brings with himself. He's a proven winner. His resume, where he's been, speaks for itself. He demands a lot out of us, and I think that's a big part of why we're at where we are right now."
Saban's public persona isn't often warm and cuddly, but those who know him well say that perception is way off the mark.
"It definitely is," said Jimbo Fisher, now the FSU offensive coordinator who once worked for Saban. "He's just a person who is very driven, he loves what he's doing, and he has a way that he knows he wants it to be done, and he just demands that the folks around him are as dedicated to that as he is. If people aren't, he addresses it. But I always respected that about him. You always knew where you stood. You knew what was expected of you. The man is very intelligent, and he always has a great a plan. … He's one of the most organized and structured guys I've ever been around. Probably the most."
Bucs receiver Michael Clayton grew close to Saban while a star at LSU. When Clayton's high school number was retired a few weeks ago, Saban was in Baton Rouge to play LSU and attended the high school game.
"With Coach Saban, it's all about accountability," Clayton said. "He's a players' coach. He understands that players are going to make mistakes, but they can't continue to make the same mistakes. He views that as a reflection of his coaching. So, when people see that demeanor, it's just that he holds everybody accountable, including his coaching staff. He's also a fiery guy. At times, he may get after a coach and it might look a certain way, but that's just him. A lot of people perceive it to be negative, but you can look at it in a positive way if you want. He's striving for full potential for himself and the team.
"So, he's always a guy who asks everybody to be on one accord, and if you're not, he'll stress the importance of having a weak link. His goal is to get rid of the weak link and to have a strong chain."
So far, so good.
Times staff writers Stephen F. Holder and Brian Landman contributed to this report.