Charting Saban's climb in coaching

"He brought a brand-new energy to the practices," Bohl said. "His organizational skills were off the charts. You aren't jacking around at a Nick Saban practice. Everyone has a schedule. You don't have the No. 1s going against the No. 2s and there are 50 guys on the sidelines watching; everybody is in an activity doing something with a purpose."

Focus, attention to detail, a singular purpose; those were the things that Saban had in spades. Toledo went from a .500 team to 9-2 in his first season. Even today Bohl thinks they should have gone undefeated, noting fourth-quarter losses to Navy and Central Michigan.

Then Saban left. It was a risk Bohl understood he was taking from the moment he hired him. "I knew the potential was there," Bohl said, before kicking himself decades later for including a buyout for taking another college job but not for one in the NFL.

"I was learning too," he said.

Thankfully for Bohl, Saban had an eye for talent that went beyond recruiting. One of the last things he said before he left Bohl's office that day was, "You better go look at Gary Pinkel."

"Nick was a young person when he became the head coach at Toledo," Bohl said. "But when he left he just took his strengths and had them grow. Whatever he did at Toledo was easier at Michigan State. Whatever he did at Michigan State was easier at LSU. Whatever he was doing at LSU is easier at Alabama."


Dean Pees was 40 years old when Saban first hired him to become his defensive coordinator at Toledo. It would be five more years before the two hooked up again at Michigan State, where they'd go to three bowl games in their first three seasons in East Lansing.

"I noticed a difference from when I went with him at Toledo and then at Michigan State," said Pees, now the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. "I even notice a difference now. But it's just gotten better and better and better. You didn't really feel like this guy was unsure of what he was going.

"Things only changed slightly."

The difference wasn't the process, it was the results. The conference was better, the talent was better and the facilities were better. As Bohl explained, "His ability to be organized is probably only enhanced by all the stops he's been."

Is he demanding? Of course.

"People think he's really hard to work for," Pees said. "Well, yeah, any good boss is. But he's not hard to work for, you're going to work hard."

It's that sense of focus that got Pees where he is today.

"I always had the work ethic," he said, "but Nick showed me how to use it in football."


The thing is, you can't let your ego get in the way if you're going to work for Saban, said former assistant Kirk Doll, who joined up with Saban at LSU in 2002.

"I understand people express their emotions and thoughts and all that," Doll said. "I've been fortunate to work for a lot of the top head coaches in college and they all had a different way of doing things. I worked for John Cooper, Jackie Sherrill, R.C. Slocum and Lou Holtz; they all had a different way of doing things. As an assistant coach it's your job to understand the process of how he wants things done and not let your feelings interfere."

Not that there weren't growing pains.

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