The mind games of Nick Saban and Brian Kelly
Web linksBoxscore: Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Now it can be told. After much thought and consideration, Alabama coach Nick Saban arranged a screening of the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" for his players on the eve of Monday night's BCS Championship Game against No. 1 Notre Dame at Sun Life Stadium.
As of Sunday morning, Saban told the media he still was undecided about that night's movie, but having been in this situation three previous times, he knew the message would revolve around "the honor of being all you can be." Undoubtedly, "Zero Dark Thirty," about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, conveyed a sense of mission and single-minded focus to Saban's players.
Although Saban and Irish coach Brian Kelly both said the outcome would depend on which team's offensive and defensive lines controlled the game, they agreed the key to winning those battles was the mental approach.
"In bowl games in general, psychological disposition is really, really important," Saban said. "It's difficult to bring the momentum of the season to this game, regardless of where you were when the season ended, because there's such a separation. So you've got to look at it as a one-game season. In these bowl games, you can tell the way the team approaches it, the passion they have for it, sometimes is a little bit different, and it does affect the outcome of the game."
For Kelly, the task of putting his team in the right frame of mind was relatively straightforward. Although the Irish came in undefeated, they played with a chip on their shoulder all year as a result of their unranked status entering the season. Even as the top-ranked, 12-0 team, they were installed as 9 1/2-point underdogs against the defending national champs.
Asked to describe his team's attitude, Kelly was succinct, saying, "Fighting Irish. Fighting Irish. That's who we are. That's how we've constructed how we want our guys to play. We're going to battle you. That's why we're here. We tried to play the game this way [my] first couple years; we just couldn't quite get there. Now they play the game like Fighting Irish."
The leadership of inspirational senior linebacker Manti Te'o exemplifies the spirit of a Notre Dame defense that led the country in scoring defense and made critical goal-line stands to preserve a shot at the school's first national title since 1988.
If Kelly had a worry, it was about how his team might handle pregame nerves. But he downplayed that, saying, "Once the game starts, they'll be fine. They enjoy the attention. That's why they go to Notre Dame. They know they're going to play on national television and in front of large crowds."
For Saban, the mental issue is slightly more complex. Alabama (12-1) was going for its third BCS title in four seasons. Talk of dynasties and legacies is a distraction to Saban, whose players typically use the word "brainwashing" to describe the process their coach uses to convince them to forget the past and focus only on what they can control in the moment in front of them.
On the one hand, Saban wants his players to understand "the magnitude of the opportunity and how long-lasting the effect of that outcome and opportunity can be." On the other hand, focusing on the mechanics of the situation is the surest route to success.
"We just watched video of [Yankees closer] Mariano Rivera," Saban said, "and he talked about how he struggled at times in his career because he's trying to be a perfectionist and he sees the crowd, hears the crowd and knows that sometimes he's getting positive [feedback] and sometimes getting a lot of negative [feedback].
"But when he runs out and they hand him the ball, he's got one focus. He's not worried about the crowd, not worried about any of the external factors. One focus: three outs. How am I going to get three outs?
"I think a team's ability to stay focused [is] critical in games like this. Believe me, being around young people in games like this, that's something, and it's something big. And it certainly affects your ability to perform."
One day before kickoff, Saban said: "We have 24 more hours as a team. Can you finish that?"