One prominent backstory to today’s Southeastern Conference championship heavyweight matchup between No. 3 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama is the similarities between the combatants.
Both have stout 3-4 defenses, both rely on pro-style offenses, and both have lethal running back duos and the nation’s two most efficient passers.
Nobody has mentioned the similarities between the head coaches’ styles, and with good reason.
Alabama’s Nick Saban is the most powerful coach in sports, according to Forbes Magazine. He has three BCS national titles and is two wins away from his fourth and his pursuit has no end in sight.
Georgia’s Mark Richt is considered one of the good guys in a profession that could use some more. He’s won 10 or more games in eight seasons at Georgia, but he’s not all football. That’s obvious from the annual trips to the pool at the Ramsey Center, where he and his players go diving, his mission trips to Honduras, introducing his son David, a singer, at a Luke Bryan concert in Colbert.
Saban stalks the sideline as a picture of intensity and can dress down media members at a news conference telling them, “I’d love to see some of you do a little bit of research and figure it out.”
Different means to the same end.
“Both of them are passionate, both of them have been very successful,” said Todd Grantham, who is finishing his third year as Georgia’s defensive coordinator and spent three seasons as a defensive assistant under Saban at Michigan State from 1996-98. “They kind of both show you that there’s different ways you can go about trying to be successful. I got a lot of respect for both men. Both of them have helped me.”
Former Georgia coach Vince Dooley remembers scouting for Auburn as an assistant coach when Bobby Dodd was at Georgia Tech and Bear Bryant was at Alabama. Dodd was known for letting his players enjoy life, including playing volleyball, Dooley said. Bryant was demanding and hard-nosed.
“Totally opposites in so many ways, but both were successful,” Dooley said. “There’s no set way of doing things. You have to coach within your personality and be yourself. There are certain things you can emulate and certain truths and certain fundamentals, but you have to be yourself, and in this case, Coach Richt is himself and Nick Saban is himself.”
Is what you see what you get from Richt and Saban?
Saban isn’t actually consumed by winning games and titles every second of every day. He can have a relaxed moment or two in the offseason.
“In the summer on his boat pulling a tube,” Grantham said.
Even then, Dooley isn’t so sure that Saban is off the clock. Dooley and Saban both have homes on Lake Burton in Northeast Georgia.
“He’s very focused on what he’s doing,” said Dooley, whose son Derek, the former Tennessee coach, worked for Saban from 2000-06 at LSU and with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. “He’s that way at the lake. That’s his personality. If he’s riding one of those jet skis, he’s very focused on jet skis. He’s not out there smiling and waving at everybody. That’s just him.”
Richt has gotten criticism for being too stoic on the sideline, but he can get on players in practice and show a faster heartbeat when things get heated, like when he charged onto the field in Jacksonville last month to defend one of his players.
“I thought he was good at Florida when he thought they busted Blake Sailors there,” said Grantham, whose own emotional ways have been caught on camera on a few occasions. “I liked it. I was going to pull him back.”
A Florida player muffed a punt and Sailors dove into the bottom of a pile trying to get on the ball. During the scuffle, Sailors helmet got pulled up. His nose was bloodied and Sailors was livid, yelling at the officials.
Richt got involved.
“He grabbed me, pulled me on the field and was like, ‘Look at this,’” Sailors said. “I was yelling, he was yelling. Grantham came out of nowhere and was trying to pull him off.”
Said receiver Rhett McGowan: “His blood gets hot, too. He wants to win as bad as anybody out there. Sometimes he might not show the anger like Saban might on the sideline, but his blood’s flowing just as hot as Saban’s is, but he’s able to control it sometimes and not show it. I think that’s trying to be a leader and to keep your composure and stay calm.”
But that can be a hinderance, too.
When Richt was interviewed for the Georgia head coaching job in 2000, he was offensive coordinator at Florida State. Vince Dooley asked then-Florida State coach Bobby Bowden about Richt.
Bowden said his only flaw was that he was “too nice.”
Twelve seasons later, Dooley says Richt is “still nice, but he isn’t too nice.”
Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State team is playing in the ACC championship game tonight.
Fisher, who was offensive coordinator under Saban in LSU’s 2003 national championship, has said he took with him from working on Saban’s staff “organizational things and the infrastructure of your program away from football … a lot of the day-to-day things that affect the players.”
Saban has set a blueprint for others to follow.
He’s the only active coach with three BCS national championships on his resume and the first to do it at two different schools.
“This is a process, you know, what we do,” Saban said this week. “There’s no continuum in success. It’s an ongoing process. You have to look at the next play, the next game, the next season, the next recruiting class. If you’re going to continue to be successful, you’re going to continue to have success, that process is ongoing. When I came to Alabama, they put it on all the books and everything, ‘The process begins.’ Well, it’s still beginning every day, every game.”
That mindset has produced 59 wins since the start of the 2008 season, more than any other team in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Crimson Tide won national titles in 2009 after going 14-0 and in 2011 following a 12-1 season.
“They’re just at a time when they’re dominating college football, really,” Richt said. “So we have a lot of respect for them, obviously. Coach Saban has done a wonderful job there, no doubt.”
A Saban statue has gone up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he revived an Alabama program that won 12 national titles before he got there and is seeking his third in six seasons.
“Regardless of what you’ve accomplished in the past, this is the most important game we’re going to play this entire year for our team,” Saban said. “As a coach, you want to do the best job you can to help your team have the best chance or opportunity to be successful relative to the hard work they’ve done. I’m always looking forward to the next challenge. When I can’t do that, I probably shouldn’t do this anymore.”
Richt has Georgia in a place it hasn’t been since 1982, nearing a season’s end in control of its own destiny.
Two wins away from the national title. This can be considered Georgia’s most significant game since losing to Penn State in the Sugar Bowl that year with the national title on the line.
The success has come after his job was on the line after his first losing season in 2010 and then an 0-2 start to last season.
Four of the 14 SEC programs will have new head coaches next season, but Richt has Georgia back in the SEC title game for the second year in a row.
He’s done it with keeping perspective, that winning football games is important to him, but isn’t the end-all, be-all.
“That’s part of what helps keep my sanity sometimes because the job can consume you and the job can become everything to you, and then all of the sudden there’s nothing else,” Richt said. “We sacrifice and we work, but I’m not going to sacrifice my relationship with my wife and my children. I want to have some time with my family.”
That comes every morning with breakfast with his wife and kids and a devotional. It means he may not be the first person on the staff into the office each day, but it’s a sacrifice he said he is glad to make.
“If I got in any earlier than that, I’d miss them in the morning, I’d miss them at night, and I’d never see them,” Richt said. “I don’t want it to consume me to the point where that’s all I’ve got in life is my job because we know that our jobs can come and they can go. You can have great times or you can have bad times, and if all of your well-being is tied in to what you do, I just think it’s a dangerous place to be. I don’t think it’s a healthy place to be.”
Georgia cornerback Damian Swann, who had Alabama among his final three college choices views Richt and Saban as “two different guys. They have two different looks at everything. Saban has been doing it for so long and he’s done it so much that people just expect it from him.”
Freshman linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who had Alabama as his leader before switching to the Bulldogs, remembers Saban coming to his high school through one of the back doors to keep his visit quiet.
“It was always a little bit awkward when I talked to coach Saban,” Jenkins said. “It was just that presence about him. … I feel like coach Richt is more relaxed. … Whenever I talked to coach Richt, I wasn’t worried about what I would say. I could be myself with coach Richt.”
Swann said if Georgia can win it’s next two games, that it will show that Richt’s approach that has produced a .750 winning percentage, the fourth best among active FBS coaches with at least 100 games, can translate into national championships.
“My goal really has
been to try to on a daily basis do the best job I
can do,” Richt said. “We have a lot of people excited about the possibilities of what’s happening right now, but that’s something that I can’t really focus on right now. It’s fun for the fans, but right now I have to keep my vision on the things I can control.”
Said Swann: “A lot of people are still looking for him to have that signature win. A lot of guys are looking for us to have that signature win. A lot of people say we don’t show up against big teams. Now we have an opportunity. We’re in a great position to prove to the world that Georgia can do it.”