There were two opposing sides at the Georgia Dome last Saturday — the University of Alabama vs. Clemson — or at least that’s the way it appeared to those watching the football game on their televisions.
There also were two very different layers, apparent to those who were on hand for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. One was seen by everyone who had a seat in either the red or orange half of the stadium. The other occurred away from the horizontal playing field, in places like the locker rooms.
For Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, though, there was another challenge altogether, the kind that didn’t start with a kickoff or end when the clock expired. It was the mental game that each of his student-athletes played, doing all the little things that add up in a big way and trying to prove just how good they could be on each and every down.
Although many onlookers didn’t quite fully comprehend what they were witnessing, they still understood — sort of like being at a music concert that one night when everything comes together and flows.
“Alabama played with an attitude and viciousness that we did not,” Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said.
“I just saw a team that had a mentality,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who was at the game to support his son, a backup quarterback for the Tigers. “They were going to be physical, they were going to play physical and they did. Clemson didn’t have any answers on that day.”
Consequently, it was no coincidence the final score was 34-10 in Alabama’s favor.
The Tide didn’t make more big plays. It didn’t throw all over the field. All Alabama did was attack and crush No. 9 Clemson nearly every way imaginable.
“I think it’s the identity that we’ve always tried to create,” Saban said. “Be aggressive, physical, play with a lot of toughness. Strike them, knock them back. Be aggressive and relentless in your style of how you play and how you compete.
“I think we did a little better in this game and made some progress in that area, but it goes back to the players kind of buying in and believing, leadership.”
That, in turn, goes back to the offseason, when a lot more occurred than 7-on-7 drills and conditioning. In short, the Crimson Tide also played head games, because Saban believes that what goes on in his players’ minds can have just as much of an impact as anything else, and maybe more.
Long before the start of the fall semester, that meant an extensive self-actualization course, a multitude of speakers, and a theme: finish.
“That’s what we trained for and worked for, to be that dominant,” junior linebacker Corey Reamer said while Tide fans celebrated above him in the Georgia Dome stands.
“Everybody got something out of it and got a little more mentally tough. Last year we struggled with the second half of games. We knew this was ours for the taking, let’s go out there and finish it off like we’re supposed to.”
The Pacific Institute
In addition to physical training and time in the weight room, the summer months included a lot of mental conditioning for a team coming off a 7-6 season and featuring only nine scholarship seniors.
Enter the Pacific Institute, an international company headquartered in Seattle, which developed a 10-week course university officials conducted with assistance from program administrators and speakers like Nesby Glasgow and Antowaine Richardson, former athletes themselves.
The life skills classes actually had nothing to do with football directly, but the lessons could be applied to parts of anyone’s life.
“It wasn’t just us: There were several other training organizations that were invited, competing to be part of the Alabama football program,” said Ron Medved, vice-president of business development for the Pacific Institute.
“We teach applied psychology. We’re educators primarily, and consultants, but education is what we do. We take research from places like Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania and Michigan, that are researching psychology, and we translate into street language, for lack of a better word, or language that we can all understand.”
The program the Crimson Tide participated in is called PX2, designed for those between the ages of 15 and 25, what its developers describe as a sort of MTV style of learning. It includes use of videos, music and class interaction to improve self-esteem, self-motivation, and self-image.
Specifically, how one thinks of him or her self is reflected in how he or she handles tasks and goes through life. The idea is that more positive thoughts, and challenging one’s own negative thinking, leads to better responsibility, accountability and decisions.
“The place where we work is in an area called cognitive psychology, or social-cognitive theory, which is just basically how we think, and how we think does affect our beliefs and our behavior,” Medved said. “A lot of people talk about us, not in psychological terms, but say this is just good fundamental thinking skills, good common sense.”
Saban leaned of the program through Trevor Moawad, the director of mental conditioning at IMG Academy. Although the Pacific Institute’s primary customers are business and governments, its client list includes the Texas Rangers, the Southern Cal and Washington football teams, and USA Swimming.
Speakers in the house
When the team reported for fall camp at the end of July, players had nightly meetings that almost always featured a guest lecturer of some sort, beginning with Miami-based media relations expert Lisa LeMaster.
Sometimes it was simply someone from the university like Mike Ward from the compliance department, the training staff about nutrition and hydration, or Jon Dever regarding academic review.
Other times, they were addressed by Tuscaloosa police chief Ken Swindle along with other law enforcement authorities, agent Jimmy Sexton or National Football League executive Gene Washington.
“I don’t come back with the same speech,” said former NFL standout Chuck Smith, who had previously addressed the Crimson Tide. “I’ve grown up with these guys.
“My message this year was about passion, to play physical and viciously. You don’t have to be a Ray Lewis. You don’t have to be a team of superstars. You have to be the best team.”
About a month ago, motivational speaker Kevin Elko addressed the Tide. Many players said he was just as good as, if not better than, organized crime expert Michael Francese, the former Mafia crime captain who was a popular speaker last year.
“He was the best speaker I’ve ever heard,” sophomore tight end Preston Dial said of Elko. “We’ve had great guys come through there, too. He just had everybody on the edge of their seats.”
Elko’s presentation centered on a chair. Every time he expressed a negative thought, he would sit. Once he channeled it out and had a positive thought, he stood.
At the end of the presentation, Elko held up the chair so the legs were facing out toward the players.
“Then he says, ‘The lion doesn’t attack the lion-trainer because there are four prongs on that chair, and (the lion) backs up. It doesn’t know which one to focus on,’” Saban said. “It’s interesting, but it’s the way it’s presented.
“Those things affect players in a positive way. If they just remember two or three things that he talked that affects them, then I think it’s worth it.”
Elko got a standing ovation, something Saban rarely sees for a speaker.
“He was awesome,” junior cornerback Javier Arenas said.
Elko, a Pennsylvania-based sports psychologist, has written numerous books. He has addressed Saban-coached teams before, as well as the Miami Hurricanes, Nebraska Cornhuskers and Pittsburgh Panthers college teams and several NFL teams.
The sum total
The tricky part about having such programs is that it’s almost impossible to assess results in terms of cost management and success. While Elko’s normal fee ranges from $7,500 to $10,000, the price tag for the Pacific Institute was closer to $40,000.
Naturally, players picked up different things at different times.
“One of the things he said is, ‘Worry is praying for the worst,’ Dial said about Elko. “That’s one thing I’ve really tried to hook on to. You can’t fret about practice and all that because it’s going to come. You’ve just got to make sure you execute. I think that really stuck with a lot of guys on the team.”
Arenas was inspired by a lesson regarding confidence. If senior safety and co-captain Rashad Johnson calls the wrong coverage by accident, but he and his teammates execute it as well as they can, is it really wrong?
“I don’t think the message is that different,” Saban said. “I think the things that it takes to be successful are the same regardless, whether it’s passion, commitment, hard work, investing your time in the right things, perseverance, pride in performance, how you think in a positive and negative way, the discipline you have personally -- you have to make choices in your decisions.
“I don’t think that what makes you successful changes. It’s just another way to get your kids, to get your children, to do right.”
Sophomore linebacker Rolando McClain said the mental conditioning sessions helped him get past his offseason motorcycle accident. Johnson made a similar statement about his February arrest for disorderly conduct.
Imagine how the program might help a player get over a football mistake and avoid making another.
“It’s like you go to church and the pastor just hits you right on the spot whether you want to listen to it or not,” junior cornerback Marquis Johnson said. “That’s exactly how it was.
“To me, I thought it helped us out as a team. It made us realize that we have to focus night and day.”
That’s a far cry from last season, when, as senior center Antoine Caldwell recently noted, the team was made up of a lot of cliques, with groups of players going in different directions. The Tide lost its last four games of the regular season.
“Last year I felt like we had the right attitude, but there wasn’t a lot of emphasis in the area of toughness, not finishing in the fourth quarter and things like that,” junior running back Glen Coffee said. “I feel like we got that under control.
“Honestly, you have to look inside yourself. The coach can only tell you and say so much. To play as a man, you have to look inside yourself.”
Go back to Saturday’s game against Clemson, and the big picture starts to become a little clearer. Alabama was physical. It was aggressive. It was a team.
“As a defense, we had the mind-set that we were going to be dominant, and we did,” McClain said.
Granted, that all can’t be attributed to any specific speaker or message, and it was only one game. What is obvious, however, is that mental conditioning was a key component, especially for a collection of players who didn’t know how to win. First, though, they had to learn how to go about it.
“I think it helps immensely,” Smith said about the numerous speakers. “Honestly, most coaches are intimidated by bringing in someone who might have a different message and different things to say, but Saban and I have the same message: winning.
“It’s getting through to them in some sort of way.”
Perhaps the best example of that came on the opening kickoff of the second half, which Clemson’s C.J. Spiller returned 96 yards for a touchdown that threatened to get the Tigers back in the game. The play brought back memories of the Tide blowing leads last year like 31-10 to Arkansas and 27-17 to LSU, not to mention the loss to Louisiana Monroe.
“A year or two ago, that might have changed the whole point of the game,” Rashad Johnson said. “As a defense, we talked to each other on the sideline and were, ‘We’re going to stop them,’ and that’s what we did.”
In short, they finished.