TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The moment came late. The session, near the end of a long day – the first of many long days – was almost over. The speaker had raced through a presentation entitled "Avoiding Distractions and Dangerous Decisions," illustrated with photos and videos, accompanied by music and even a dance-off.
But then came something no one expected. On the big screen at the front of the theater-style meeting room at the University of Alabama, a young man in an orange jumpsuit stood in court and listened to a judge's sentence, then slumped to the ground. In the next clip, he was on his feet again, but obviously distressed. As he looked back over his shoulder, the video froze.
"Who do you think he's looking at?" the speaker asked, and then Tyrone White repeated himself: "Who do you think he's looking at?"
And as the song played – "A mother's love," the lyrics went, "I'm talking 'bout a mother's love" – every head in the room turned, too. As players and coaches from college football's current dynasty looked toward the back of the room, a woman, softly crying, made her way down an aisle.
"Pretty powerful," Alabama coach Nick Saban said a few minutes later.
This was Friday night, inside the Crimson Tide's newly renovated and expanded football facility. The woman was Michele Farmer, mother of Tony Farmer, the young man in the video. He was a budding high-school basketball star before going to prison for assaulting his ex-girlfriend in April 2012. It is unlikely any of the assembled Alabama players knew his story, or hers. But on the first day of practice – and with the freshmen yet to go through their first session – the hope was that in that moment, perhaps, the message might have gotten through.
"Sometimes," Saban continued, "these guys don't realize how what they do affects their family. I thought that was really good."
As the Alabama players got a brief glimpse into the detoured life of a peer and his family, USA TODAY Sports got a glimpse into the inner workings of one facet of Saban's all-encompassing philosophy known as "the Process."
The presentation, part of what the coach describes as "peer intervention program," was only the first in a long string of similar sessions the Crimson Tide players are scheduled to hear each night during training camp. Also on the schedule in the next few days and weeks: Joe Girardi, Herm Edwards and Ray Lewis.
In addition to motivational talks, the lecture topics, according to Saban, include "drugs and alcohol, agents, gambling, how to treat the opposite sex, macho man stuff, getting in fights, academics, respecting other people."
They aren't new topics, and Alabama is not unique in bringing in speakers, celebrity or otherwise, to motivate and educate players. Other college programs have similar processes and emphasis.
"We try to create a structure of guys understanding the consequences of good and bad behavior," Saban said, adding: "When they understand the consequences, it gives them a better chance to do the right thing."
And although the goals are certainly altruistic, they're also pragmatic. Though in recent years Alabama hasn't had some of the high-profile issues that have popped up elsewhere, Saban did dismiss four players last winter, a few weeks after the BCS national championship game, after they were charged with crimes – two for second-degree robbery, two for credit-card fraud.
Saban calls problem players "blinking lights," because they stand out from the rest of the team like malfunctioning bulbs on a Christmas tree. Ultimately, as constant irritants, they also reduce the efficiency of the operation.
"We don't want to have the blinking light," Saban said. "We don't want them to be a blinking light – but we try to do our part to keep them from blinking."
That's where speakers like White come in, or rather, are brought in. White, who played briefly at West Virginia (during the presentation, he pointed out that he was a freshman linebacker when Saban was the Mountaineers' defensive backs coach), is a high school coach from the Cleveland area who speaks regularly to groups in that region. Calling himself "Coach Ty," his presentations cover wide-ranging topics, though he said he tailors them to fit the audience.
For Alabama, White opened with a short, video interview of former Alabama running back Trent Richardson, who told the players: "Listen to Coach Ty." The half-hour talk – an Alabama staff member stood to the side and occasionally flashed a countdown with her fingers – touched on a variety of topics. As illustrations, White used recent, well-known examples of athletes who found trouble.
Among them: The 911 calls in the aftermath of the car crash last year involving former Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Josh Brent, who was charged with intoxication manslaughter when his friend and teammate Jerry Brown died in the crash. Video of teenagers from Steubenville, Ohio, joking about the rape of a unconscious high-school student (as the video played on, many players shifted in their seats, apparently uncomfortable with the topic). Video of LSU running back Jeremy Hill in a fight outside a bar, and then a clip of Hill leaving the courthouse.
And then White got closer to home. To start the presentation, he had asked for an offensive player to face off with a defensive player. Everyone laughed as two freshmen, offensive lineman Brandon Hill and defensive lineman Dee Liner, showed off their best dance moves, with coaches voting (Hill won). "That was a first," senior linebacker C.J. Mosley said later, noting they'd never had a dance-off before.
But a few minutes later, Liner was referenced again, sort of, in a more unflattering light.
A few days ago, an Instagram photo of Liner posing with a couple of buddies with wads of cash went viral. Suddenly, the photo was on the big screen in the meeting room. Or part of it was. During a dry run of his presentation, Alabama staff members asked White to remove Liner's photograph. When his buddies were shown, it was obvious from the chuckles and knowing glances that players were familiar with the situation. White asked: "If I'm a predator out there, guess what I'm gonna entice you with? Material stuff."
White also brought levity. He closed the session by asking junior wide receiver Christion Jones to do his impression of Saban while announcing the winner (Hill). Jones had everyone laughing, including Saban, who later noted wryly: "He does a really good impression of me. I've seen better, but he really can do a good one."
Of White's presentation, Saban added: "I thought he did a great job. We're looking for guys that can move the needle with (the players)."
Until April 2012, Tony Farmer was a rising basketball star at Garfield Heights (Ohio) High School, ranked in the top 100 byRivals.com, with scholarship offers from several Big Ten schools. He was looking forward to summer ball and his senior season and from there, well, who really knows? The possibilities seemed endless for an 18-year-old with size and abundant skills. But today, Farmer is serving three years in prison for felonious assault, kidnapping, robbery and intimidating a victim after an argument with his ex-girlfriend turned violent.
White did not describe the details to the Crimson Tide, but the message was clear, and it came with this advisory: "This call is originating from an Ohio correctional institution and may be recorded or monitored."
And then: "I'm Tony Farmer. Hey Alabama, I just want to wish you good luck in the season, and I hope you learn from my mistakes. Don't let your parents down."
At one point, White had planned to have Farmer speak briefly to the players by phone from prison. Technical issues prevented it. The Crimson Tide's tight schedule prevented him from going deeper into the story, but as he sketched the outline, Farmer's mother stood watching in the back of the room. Hands clasped and covering her mouth, she waited.
As White asked the question – "Who do you think he's looking at?" – an Alabama staffer gently nudged her, pointing toward the front of the room. As she slowly descended the stairs, heads turned in unconscious mimicry of the scene that had just played on the screen.
White helped her to a seat. "Ms. Farmer," he asked, "when your child made this destructive decision, how did it impact you?" When she didn't answer – she was crying – White continued: "And it still troubles you."
After a pause, he resumed: "Tell me about how it impacted you."
She said, "To go from visiting colleges to visiting your son in jail, there's no words to describe it. In a matter of months. I wouldn't wish it on any parent."
Farmer said her son had promised her as a boy he "wouldn't hit a female … he wouldn't go to jail … and he would go to college." And when asked what advice she would give to the Tide, she said: "Just understand, just think about who you're hurting. (Tony) has younger brothers who looked up to him, as well. Think about it's not only you."
The segment lasted less than two minutes. And yet, when the meeting ended a few minutes later, a couple of assistant coaches embraced Farmer. Saban spoke briefly with her, then suggested they pose together for one photograph, and then another. And as players filed out of the room a few minutes later, several stopped to talk with her.
In one moment, White might have moved the needle.
"You can have a whole bunch of slides and you can tell guys what not to do," senior quarterback A.J. McCarron said, "but when you bring in a real-life situation, when you bring somebody that's a part of it to relay that message, it takes it to a whole 'nother level. I think it really grabbed the attention of the guys in the room."