Charting Saban's climb in coaching


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The statue rests nearest to the football stadium here on Alabama's campus. Bent at the knees, hands frozen mid-clap, the image of Nick Saban stands 9 feet tall, a towering tribute to the man who returned the Crimson Tide to glory with a national championship in 2009.

A new eight-year, $55.2 million deal agreed to in December ensures that Saban belongs to Alabama. But his legacy isn't Alabama's alone. His career has been a methodical process that in a few months will enter its third decade as a head coach and its 40th season as a coach overall. During that span, he's developed into college football's most successful head coach, a man with four national championships who is closing in quickly on the top 25 of the sport's all-time win list despite spending eight years away in the NFL.

He did it without taking shortcuts. There were stops in Morgantown, West Virginia; Annapolis, Maryland; East Lansing, Michigan; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He worked in four cities in Ohio alone: Kent, Toledo, Columbus and Cleveland. Each was a step toward what he has built in Tuscaloosa.

Time and experience have carved subtle differences into Saban's appearance, but like a statue, what's on the inside has remained the same.

It was a strange comparison, but Al Bohl was going to make it anyway.

The former athletic director at Toledo recalled how he chose Nick Saban as his head coach in 1990. He didn't have the resources or the tradition there to draw an established coach, he said, so he had to go searching for "the signs."

"When Robert E. Lee was 25 years old there were a whole bunch of people that could look at him and tell that he was special," Bohl said. "You didn't know what he'd end up doing, but the signs were there."

Saban, then 38 years old, already had spent 15 years as a coach since his playing days at Kent State and the subsequent three years he served as the team's graduate assistant. He'd bounced around, from Syracuse to West Virginia to Ohio State to Navy to Michigan State and on to Houston. He'd been a defensive coordinator for all of four years before landing on Bohl's desk among a list of candidates that included Joe Tiller, who would go on to win 87 games in 12 seasons as head coach at Purdue.

It had been a steady climb for Saban, one Bohl could appreciate. His time spent in Ohio was a huge draw. As Bohl explained, "He understood what we needed to do at Toledo." But when the two began talking, it became clear that there was more to him than a thick résumé.

"If you play chess, he was the master," Bohl said. "Someone else could have three or four offensive things they'd do differently and he would checkmate all of them, and he'd have maybe 10 more great moves he'd never have to use."

The same things you hear about Saban's practices and his defensive schemes today were apparent from day one at Toledo. Bohl's son, a safety on the team, told him, "Dad, it's unbelievable. ... What we were doing before wasn't even close to being this sophisticated."

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