When Nick Saban was the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns in the early '90s, the team was in the midst of changing the way they evaluated players.
Head coach Bill Belichick didn't have the title of general manager for the team but made the decisions on players.
In the 1960s, Gil Brandt — the Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel — had developed a system of grading college football players using measurables and with the help of a computer.
Thirty years later, Belichick and his staff went to work modernizing the scheme.
The Browns started on a path to do to football what Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane tried to do to baseball with what has become known as “Moneyball.”
The football version isn't quite as black and white as Beane's system of projecting future stats.
Instead, it grades players (by positions) using height, weight, speed, athletic ability, strength and explosion, speed with pads, competitiveness, arm length and character.
Players who fit the criteria are pursued while others are discarded.
When Saban left the Browns in 1994 to take the head coaching job at Michigan State, he took the system with him. He then moved it on to LSU in 1999, the Miami Dolphins in 2004 and then Alabama.
While it didn't work in Miami — the organization wasn't solid on its effectiveness — it has brought Saban much success in college.
“He brought an NFL mindset to the operation of college football within the athletic department,” said CBS college football analyst Tim Brando. “He operates as a general manager, head football coach and owner would operate. It's just that players are leaving every four years and he's gotta go out and get new ones.”
Phil Savage was on that Browns staff with Saban and went on to become general manager of the reformed Browns. He's now an executive with the Eagles.
“I think Nick took his Browns' system and applied his own thoughts and his own philosophies to it once he got to Michigan State,” Savage said in Ray Glier's book How the SEC became Goliath. “I think he has modified it and improved it, and now he has been to two places, LSU and Alabama, where it all makes sense and it is a perfect marriage of being able to recruit the top players and those top players fitting the bill of what he is trying to get on that team.”
The result of the system has been fewer recruiting misses for Saban's teams. If a player doesn't fit into the system, he isn't pursued.
“Nick's vision translated into the grading system, and that translated into players,” Glier wrote. “You scout inside out, not outside in. You scout for players that fit what you do inside your building as opposed to looking for players here and there. You define what you want, and when the player fits the criteria, you're interested.”
Some SEC coaches say Saban's success isn't due to the system but the place where he coaches.
“He's got a nice little gig going, a little bit like (John) Calipari,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier told ESPN.com last year. “He tells guys, ‘Hey, three years from now, you're going to be a first-round pick and go.' If he wants to be one of the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they've always won there at Alabama.”
But the Crimson Tide didn't win much in the decade before Saban's arrival. From 1997-2006 under Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula, Alabama went 51-55. Shula was 10-23 in the four years before Saban's arrival.
Some programs, in the SEC and elsewhere, have tried to use similar systems but no program has yet taken it to the level of Saban's teams at LSU and Alabama.
“If you don't have an anchor system, you can get caught up in the fog of confusion in scouting college players and recruiting high school players,” Savage said.