Charting Saban's climb in coaching

Doll remembers well his first summer with Saban. During a camp with high schoolers, Doll went with the younger kids to run them through some drills, sweating through the Louisiana heat and humidity. And in that haze, he went on autopilot and ran the pursuit drill he was accustomed to and not the one tailored specifically to LSU.

"I was only a few minutes into it," Doll said, "when a manager came running down to me and tapped me on the shoulder, 'Coach Saban would like you to do the LSU pursuit drill.'"

Later at a staff meeting, Doll sat beside Saban, whose knee was bouncing up and down "going 100 miles per hour."

"I heard the part about this being at LSU and 'you're not at Notre Dame,' and, 'By the way, we beat your ass five times in a row, just so you remember that,'" Doll said. "And I said, 'Coach, I remember it very well.' I told him I know I screwed up.

"But my point being: That's how important it is for him in everything he does to have it done the way the program dictates. It's not so much that he's a jerk about it, but it's what he believes in. It's how he wants it done. He doesn't want any diversion from that."

Michigan State was the big break in Saban's career. His time as an assistant, a coordinator and even his one year as a head coach in Toledo all led to that first brush with coaching major college football in East Lansing.

If he had stayed there, a statue might be standing outside Spartan Stadium in his honor today.

This is what George Perles believes, at least. He was the man who first glimpsed greatness in Saban. He was the man who hired him as an assistant, quickly made him his defensive coordinator and then did all he could to ensure that he'd become his successor as head coach at Michigan State. He believes that if Saban hadn't gone on to LSU, he would have won championships with the Spartans.

"He's done everything he's ever set his mind to do," Perles said.

From the minute Perles saw a 26-year-old Saban scouring film at the Pittsburgh Steelers' offices, he was impressed.

"First of all, he's very intelligent," he said. "Secondly, he works very hard. And that's a good combination. He was always early and always stayed late. It was obvious he wanted to be a head coach very badly."

Perles, then the defensive coordinator for the Steelers, saw Saban's work ethic when he'd drive all the way to Pittsburgh from West Virginia to watch film on his down time. He saw Saban's intelligence when he would stop Perles and other coaches to pick their brains with all sorts of questions about schemes and coverages.

"He became not only a coach to us, but he became a good friend," Perles said.

Saban was a kindred spirit, someone who shared the same affinity for hard work and strict determination. Where did he pick it up? Probably the very beginning, Perles said.

"He's had it probably his whole life. He had a great family and they brought him up right."

Saban finished with a record of 34-24-1 in five years as Michigan State's head coach. In his final season he won nine games, reaching the Citrus Bowl. But it was then that he hit the wall, realizing that as long as he was there his program would be little brother to Michigan, telling reporters, "It's always U-M this or that."

LSU had better resources and no in-state rival to look up to, so he simply left for Baton Rouge.

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