It only took Nick Saban a few seconds to bring it up.
He had already been talking about the “Alabama factor” during his few public appearances and events, but the start of spring practice brought about his first major press conference since the National Championship Game. It was his chance to really set the tone for the spring, summer and even the upcoming season and he wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.
“The number-one goal and objective for the spring is we have to re-establish the Alabama factor,” he said.
Those who hadn’t been around the Crimson Tide coach for long were a little surprised by the statement. They were thinking more along the lines of having new offensive and defensive coordinators, again, along with seven new coaches on the 10-person staff.
Or maybe position groups. Alabama had a whopping seven players leave early for the 2019 NFL Draft. While the Crimson Tide is poised to have double-digit selections for the third straight year, it also meant that the team had to replace roughly six defensive starters and five on offense.
Consequently, Alabama has some serious questions at interior linebacker after junior Dylan Moses, plus new starters have to be established at other key spots including at safety and along both lines.
All those things were and are important, and will remain so through fall camp and even after the season opener against Duke in Atlanta on August. 31. In terms of priorities, though, Saban considered them all secondary to adjusting Alabama’s mental makeup.
"We've always been a team that plays with a tremendous amount of discipline, had a lot of responsible and accountable guys who could go out there and do their job and be dependable —and everybody's always put the team first,” Saban said. “The result of that has been we've been able to win a lot of games. Guys have got a lot of individual accolades, got a lot of opportunities to play at the next level, and we've been able to win a few championships.
“I think it's important to re-establish that.”
Only at Alabama does the immediate question after the Crimson Tide doesn’t win the national championship become how do you bounce back and reclaim what was lost? The program boasts titles from the 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2017 seasons, and in nearly every other year during the past dozen years it’s been there at the end.
The big exception was 2010, when Alabama lost three games during the regular season, leading to the incredible statistic that the Crimson Tide has played just three regular season games since 2008 when it wasn’t in the national championship picture.
That’s 129 out of 132 regular-season games, a percentage of .977 that can’t be matched in college football history.
So how did that 2010 team react? It went back to basics and re-found its edge during the bowl practices. After embracing what had led to 2009 championship it subsequently obliterated Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, 49-7.
That’s what Saban’s talking about with the Alabama factor.
“It isn’t a slogan,” he said while bristling at the suggestion during a different spring press conference. “I didn’t come up with it. It’s been who I am for the last 27-some years. It’s been who we are ever since we’ve been here. You could ask someone who played on the first, second team here that went 12-0 and lost in the SEC Championship Game and they could recite and tell you exactly what that is. So it’s not a slogan. It’s really what the program’s built on.”
So what exactly is it?
Ask a young player and you might not get much of an answer.
Ask 50 veterans and you might get 50 different answers.
Relentless pursuit of excellence would be an oversimplification, especially when trying to pinpoint an intangible ideal as a guiding principle.
Junior right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. probably had the best answer this spring:
“Commitment, discipline, effort, toughness, pride and then developing yourself to be relentless for 60 minutes in the ballgame,” he said. “And then another big thing this year is discipline outside of football, like in the classroom, just walking around the community, things like that … Just don’t want to create any bad habits like we did last year.”
That’s pretty close to how Saban defines it, something that he didn’t see or feel enough of during the 44-16 loss to Clemson in the last national title game.
“That’s having a team that plays with a lot of discipline, a team that everybody is sort of responsible and accountable to do their job at a high level and standard, and everybody puts the team first ... and I don’t think we played in that game with the ‘Alabama Factor.’ So everybody needs to understand that and respond to it. ”
That’s everyone in the organization from the top on down:
The Alabama factor is part of the pitch to recruits about what makes playing for the Crimson Tide different from everywhere else.
It’s part of the daily commitment that separates Alabama from so many others, how it goes about everything from the weight room to the wins on the field.
It’s what Alabama goes back to whenever a season doesn’t end as hoped. Just look at the previous Crimson Tide teams.
It’s Saban talking about the process and saying things like the goal is to make the opponent want to quit.
It was players like D.J. Fluker bouncing around the locker room and sideline repeating one of Scott Cochran’s favorite sayings “Get your mind right.”
It was linebacker Reggie Ragland after the disappointing end to the 2014 season going to the subsequent SEC media days and pronouncing: “Guys aren’t scared to play us any more. Guys come in very happy, excited to play us. I used to see teams break down in the first half and just give up playing, so we've got to get that back.We have to get that back.”
It’s about doing all the little things, attention to detail and finishing.
That’s the Alabama factor. The Crimson Tide has plenty of examples of what happens when a team embraces it, and what happens when it doesn’t.
“I hear it a lot now,” safety Xavier McKinney said. “I hear it a lot. I didn’t hear it as much last year but I hear it a lot now.”
So how well did the 2019 team embrace the Alabama factor during the spring?
We’ll find out in the fall.