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."

"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.

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.

Such has been the story of Saban's career as whole, stopping on one rung of the ladder before ascending to the next highest step. From Toledo to Michigan State to LSU to Alabama, the opportunity to succeed improved.

But in terms of Saban's style of coaching -- his attention to detail, his demanding nature, his organization -- it's the same as it's always been.

When asked whether Saban is still the same guy who walked into the Steelers film room more than three decades ago, Perles didn't hesitate to answer.

"He hasn't changed much."

Gary Tranquill has seen Saban from all sides. But unlike some, Tranquill doesn't profess to have known right away that Saban would become such a successful head coach. He wasn't thinking about the man's destiny, he said.

Looking back, though, he could see the pieces adding up.

When he was hired as West Virginia's defensive coordinator in 1979, he inherited Saban as his secondary coach. When he then became head coach at Navy in 1982, he brought Saban on as an assistant. Nine years later he joined Bill Belichick's staff in Cleveland where Saban was the defensive coordinator. And then when Saban became the head coach at Michigan State in 1995, he took a job as his offensive coordinator.

Tranquill described Saban as "intelligent," "astute," and "a bulldog when it comes to recruiting." The X's and O's, he said, speak for themselves.

Having skipped no steps from assistant to coordinator to head coach, Saban can speak with a clear understanding of exactly how each job functions.

"He followed that process," Tranquill said. "As he made those various moves up the ladder, you accumulate knowledge and you find out a lot about what you can do and a lot about what you can't do. I think you put all those ducks in a row and you do it the right way, then you're going to become a successful head coach."

Said Pees: "I have a lot of respect for him doing it that way. It didn't come easy. Nick didn't have anything handed to him. He wasn't this tremendous athlete coming out of Kent State. He was out of West Virginia and worked his butt off and did what he had to do to work his way up."