Alabama-Florida State preview: Competitive spirit of Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher helped both become better coaches
TUSCALOOSA -- Even more than a decade removed, Marcus Spears remembers the "epic battles" between Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher with much the same whimsy he experienced them in person.
As a standout defensive lineman during Saban's tenure at LSU who would go on to a 9-year NFL career and is now a ESPN/SEC Network college football analyst, Spears can't help but laugh when recalling one particular back-and-forth between Saban and his then-LSU offensive coordinator.
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Saban, a four-decade veteran of the collegiate coaching ranks entering his 11th season at Alabama, is known for his emotional outbursts, be them rants from behind a podium or the occasional screaming match toward assistant coaches during games.
When the two West Virginia natives meet today at midfield in the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where Saban's top-ranked Alabama will square off against Fisher's No. 3 Florida State, it will be as longtime friends and colleagues.
But it was one specific similarity between the two that usually incited Saban's occasional mid-practice blowups.
"As two guys we are very competitive, and they'd be dominating and they'd come through on a blitz, and (Saban would) be like, 'How'd you like that?'" Fisher told CBSSports.com at ACC Media Days in July. "So we'd go back and draw something up in the dirt (like), 'Alright, they're doing this, so we do this.'
"But I tell you what it did, it made our players, coaches and everybody else around us, not only did it expand the competition, but it expanded our horizons on how you have to move the football or how you have to stop people, and I think it made us both better in a competitive nature."
Still, Fisher understood where he stood in the pecking order, no matter how much enjoyment he got from some of Saban's outbursts.
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"He was the head coach and we ultimately did (what Saban wanted), ... but at the same time they were epic battles -- they really were," Fisher recalled. "And it made me such a better coach, because you had to learn how to combat all the different blitzes, fronts and all the different things he did to attack (an offense). Because when we got into games, we always felt like our toughest competitors were in practice."
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Saban smiled recently while reminiscing on some of those battles, recalling one instance when Fisher started using run-pass option concepts that caused Saban to get a little hot under the collar.
"I'm (more) worried about can we block them, can we take on blocks, can we control blockers, and the ball comes spitting out of there," Saban said. "I can remember that's one time that I threw a 'Nick-fit,' if you want to call it that."
The respect the two veteran head coaches have for one another has been evident in the buildup to the season opener.
Fisher honors his former mentor in the best way a coach can — by incorporating many of Saban's particular principles and philosophies into re-establishing Florida State as a power player that can compete with Alabama on the biggest stage in college football.
"When I'm around his team and the personality of his team, it definitely reminds you of a top-tier SEC or Alabama-type of program just the way they recruit, the demands they put on their players," ESPN broadcaster Kirk Herbstreit said recently. "(They both have) just a relentless approach to recruiting, relentless approach to coaching, (and they're) competitive. I mean, if you put those two guys in a cornhole game together for halftime entertainment, that might be as good as the actual game itself. I mean, they want to win and compete. I think that has a lot to do with why they both enjoy so much success."
This article is written by Alex Byington from The Decatur Daily, Ala. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.