When you look at the prolonged success University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban has enjoyed in the collegiate ranks, you might be tempted to chalk it all up to his skillful recruiting and his mastery of Xs and Os.
And you might conclude the same thing about one of his protégés, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher, who made a winning mark last season in his first year filling the formidable shoes of Bobby Bowden.
But in each case, you’d be missing a fundamental part of the equation that has made Saban arguably the best head coach in college football today and Fisher a newcomer with a bright future of his own.
Both men have taken the lead nationwide in stressing a different and often-overlooked part of the game, but a facet that they regard as critically important as learning the playbook and executing assignments properly on the field.
Saban and Fisher are equally committed to the game of life that unfolds each day for their players off the field. They have made major priorities out of character development and creating what they view as the total athlete.
The stakes are high in this contest, especially in light of the massive cheating scandals at such flagship football programs as Ohio State and Miami. The widespread troubles those schools have encountered represent cautionary tales today on the college football landscape -- warnings of what can happen when there is no infrastructure in place to promote good behavior and decision-making.
With the 2011 NCAA season now underway, what better time to look at how two high-profile Division I coaches have worked hard to build foundations aimed at helping their players develop a spectrum of assets and life skills: from leadership to communication to ethics to mental-edge training.
Saban and Fisher spoke exclusively with FOX Sports Florida this past week about their total athlete approach, and why they contend it contributes tangibly to success on the gridiron -- and in the real world long after players leave the game behind.
The common denominator in this mission is the Athletic & Personal Development program, an entity that has pioneered new approaches to physical and mental athletic enhancement at Bradenton-based IMG Academy and is directed by Trevor Moawad.
Saban and Fisher have tapped Moawad in recent years to work directly with their football squads, giving him the leeway to create programs that educate players on how to be more effective in setting and achieving goals in their personal lives -- and how to be more rounded people, not simply good football players.
“The way I look at is, who you are is more important that what you do,” Saban said by phone recently from his office in Tuscaloosa.
“The kind of personal development that you have really affects everything else that you do. Our mission statement here is, we want to help you be successful as a person, a student and as a player, and be more successful in life for having been involved in the program. And if you don’t have the right kind of character and attitude, then probably none of that’s going to happen.”
Adds Fisher, speaking this past week from Tallahassee: “We look at all the situations out there that are occurring in college football right now. And I think constant education about who the athlete is -- dealing with the problems and circumstances he faces and how to deal with those things -- is essential. We tell them all the time to be careful, don’t do this or that. But too often, players aren’t told how to deal with those situations.
“We’re trying to educate as much as we possibly can, so our guys can make good decisions. That’s the one thing it all comes down to: Can we consistently help them make the right decision and understand what that encompasses. And it doesn’t just help them -- it helps us as coaches, too.”
To Saban, Fisher and Moawad, this is the new model -- the prototype of how college athletics can and should function at the collegiate level, implementing full-scale teaching programs that get the same priority as the football itself.
Bottom-line results for the two coaches certainly suggest there’s something to the total athlete approach.
Saban, a longtime proponent of its ultimate value in his football programs, is 36-5 with a BCS national championship in his last four years at Alabama and 129-53-1 lifetime.
Fisher, who learned under Saban’s tutelage as an assistant at Louisiana State, made his head coaching debut at FSU last season at 10-4 with an ACC Division Championship -- the most wins for the ‘Noles since 2003.
In a broad sense, Moawad -- a former teacher and son of late motivational icon Bob Moawad -- sees the initiative as an educational endeavor with short-term and long-term payoffs for athletes.
IMG certainly has experience in that arena. It has done extensive mental conditioning work with some of the world’s top athletes -- a list including the likes of Olympic sprinting great Michael Johnson, tennis superstar Maria Sharapova, LPGA standout Paula Creamer and many others.
And, Moawad applies the same principles and methodology in working with the Crimson Tide and Seminoles as he does with proven pros and the many top high school athletes enrolled at IMG Academy.
“Our role is to help develop the maximum effectiveness in the support resources for those programs, and to be directly involved in the overall character education -- the life skills, the communication, the leadership, the mental conditioning and performance-enhancing mental approach to support both the players and the coaches,” he said.
“What we do is provide an objective perspective. We have a lot of experience with a variety of different athletes who are all trying to get to the top, and really look at the common denominators that make people successful.”
Moawad’s team employs an arsenal of techniques -- ranging from lively classroom presentations and role-playing exercises devoted to character education and self-improvement; the use of high-tech, MTV-style videos that IMG specially produces interweaving pop and rap music with positive messaging; and an ongoing series that brings trained motivational speakers to address the teams, with such experts as former TV actor and nationally respected self-awareness and media-training expert Steve Shenbaum, communications and perception management leader Lisa LeMaster, former FBI and undercover agent Joe Pistone (the real-life Donnie Brasco), and recently retired NBA referee and a former undercover operative for the New Jersey State Police, Bob Delaney.
“Trevor combines all the factors that are important for players to hear -- how you affect other people, how to use positive energy to accomplish the goals, assessing whether what you’re doing is helping you get closer to your goal or getting you further away?” Saban said.
“And it’s a lot about self image and how you think -- how you think about yourself, how you think about what’s going to happen, all those things.
“In addition, the speaker series is another important component of what the program does for us. We probably have a dozen people come in here over the course of the year, and they address behavioral issues -- drugs, alcohol, agents, gambling, how to treat the opposite sex, macho man stuff like getting in fights, anything you can think of. It’s about behavior, consequences and doing the right thing so you can succeed at what you want to accomplish.”
What makes the difference, adds Fisher, is the power of hearing those important messages -- as well as how to deal with the media, and how to handle pressures and expectations -- from people other than the coaching staff.
“That way, the kids don’t get preached too by the same guy, over and over -- namely, the coach,” he said. “They get it from different perspectives, and I think that’s good for our kids.”
Hearing lessons on how to be a better, more successful individual is particularly important, Moawad underscores, because only a fraction of college football players will go on to play in the NFL.
And those who do will only play an average of three seasons. Even a long career last only about eight years. So being prepared for the remaining 50 or more is critical.
In his capacity as guest speaker, Delaney has addressed both the Crimson Tide and Seminole squads on the topic of leadership, a trait he honed as a longtime NBA crew chief and with a master’s degree in the field.
“I explained how I believe leadership is a process -- that great teams create an environment that allows for the leadership process to play out. There has to be respect for each team member’s voice to be heard, and that provides an opportunity for the best possible decisions. It comes down to respect coupled with accountability. Break that word down -- and it means your ability to count on me, and my ability to count on you.”
The varied voices are just one of the “feedback loops” the program creates for the athletes as part of the ongoing character development education. One of the main objectives is to promote a heightened self-image within each player.
“Motivational speakers can only impact willpower and willpower will always lose to self-image,” Moawad said.
“Self-image is what you truly believe about yourself. And if you’re not really affecting the core of these guys -- their family, coaching situations or personal situations -- and really giving them specific tools on how to improve, you’re doing a disservice. Because willpower alone is like a New Year’s resolution -- most of them are gone by halftime of the Rose Bowl.”
Moawad has already branched out with his total-athlete work. He recently met with top-ranking military officials in San Diego to talk about incorporating elements of the program.
IMG’s Performance Institute has also announced a partnership with the NFL Players Association and the annual Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., casting its net to whole new populations of players who can potentially benefit from the cutting-edge training.
“I think in many cases, the education is reactive, not proactive,” Moawad said.
“You can give a tremendous amount of respect to the athletic departments at Florida State and Alabama, because they’re committing dollars and time and resources to areas that quite frankly, a lot of other athletic departments don’t understand. They think they don’t need to invest in those areas unless there are real problems.”
Saban felt a need to make the investment early in his head coaching career. He earned a master’s degree with an emphasis in sports psychology. And after taking over as head coach at Michigan State in 1995, he began working with a sports psychiatrist to help his team improve its play.
“I was really interested in learning about how you think can affect your performance,” he said.
“I met this sports psychiatrist when I was at Michigan State the first time in the 1980s (as an assistant). We developed a relationship and he’s worked with us for many years now, all the times I’ve been a head coach at various places. And that kind of made me aware of the importance of this kind of thing.”
Saban hired several entities to provide additional support to his programs. As head coach at LSU from 2000-2004, he brought in a doctor who did psychological training for astronauts in the U.S. Space Program.
“I first worked with him in the aftermath of 9/11, and he helped us for a few years,” he explained.
“When he passed away, I did a national search to find somebody who was similar to him who could impact and affect people. And Trevor was head and shoulders the guy we wanted to do. He’s worked with us now for seven years.”
And he’s worked at FSU the past four. Meanwhile, Moawad and his staff have developed a “scalable curriculum” for the program so that it can be integrated at other universities. But for now they’ve opted to work solely with Alabama and FSU due to shared philosophies regarding character development for athletes.
That begs the question of whether this kind of program can be expanded on a broad scale to colleges that see the benefits, and decide to commit to embedding the program in the culture of their football teams.
“The answer is yes,” said Ben Sutton, president of IMG College, the largest collegiate sports marketing company in the country and an expert on the business development side of college football.
“I think the initiative that Trevor, Sam Zussman (managing director of IMG Academy) and the guys at the Academy have begun is really a missing link in the enhancement of the student-athletic experience on a college campus.
“I’m a strong and firm believer in it. And I love that there’s a focus on character and team development. I think what they’re doing is just beginning to scratch the surface. The up side of this, in terms of what it can mean to the schools, could be on a meteoric trajectory.”
Both Saban and Fisher rely on additional help in part because of the many NCAA restrictions that limit their contact with players throughout the year.
“There’s no question about that,” Saban said. “We do all these things to help, and then everybody is wanting to limit staff -- like you’re doing a bad thing. We’re doing things to reinvest in the players, for their future, which really is what education is all about. Forget about the football part of it. And we’re educating these guys on what their human behavior needs to be in order to be successful.”
Alabama’s standout offensive guard Barrett Jones, a key member of the 2010 national championship squad, is a believer.
“Coach Saban wanted to change the culture when he got here and Trevor’s program has been a big part of that,” Jones said. “A lot of it comes down to leadership, which is one of the most important things you can learn that translates to life.”
And it just may be that Alabama and FSU are leading college football down a new path, where character counts along with wins and losses.