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Excerpted chapter from Part Six: College Football in Playing Piano in a Brothel (2010)

FIRST-YEAR COACHING STUDY: 

NICK SABAN

NICK SABAN HAS BEEN THE HEAD COACH of two national

championship teams at two different schools—Louisiana State in the

2003 season and Alabama in 2009. Those were his third and fourth

stops as a collegiate head coach, following a one-season stint at Toledo and

then a five-year stay at Michigan State.

     I hadn’t expected him to move around that much.

     In the months I spent visiting him off and on, chronicling his first year at

MSU, he seemed sincere that he wanted to be with the Spartans program for

many years to come . . . or as long as MSU officials and fans would have him.

     On an early visit to East Lansing, we walked across the campus together. He

waved his hand for emphasis and brought up his initial impressions of the

place after joining George Perles’s MSU staff as a young assistant coach in

the early 1980s.

     “I thought, ‘Now this is what a college campus should be like,’” Saban

told me. “The trees. The river. It’s like a national park with a college in it.”

     Even fifteen years later when his tendency to become restless seems

indisputable, I’m convinced I read him correctly at the time. I’m also convinced

that his approaches and principles haven’t much changed if at all since that

season at MSU, and they have served him well in his odyssey.

     I had targeted the MSU coach even before we knew whom the MSU

coach was going to be, because I wanted to write about the challenges that

head coaches face in their transition years after taking over programs. It

turned out to be Saban, who had been the Cleveland Browns’ defensive

coordinator under Bill Belichick.

     Perles’s firing was announced as the 1994 season was winding down. He

did a good job early in his tenure, but the program had deteriorated, both on

and off the field. The players’ reputation for academic underachievement and

general indifference was an embarrassment. That wouldn’t have mattered if

the Spartans went to the Rose Bowl every season. But this genuinely was

a case where the overall impression of a program in decay involved more

than the record. Perles and the administration agreed he would coach the

Spartans through the rest of the season, which ended with a November 26

game at Penn State.

     Saban was a natural candidate, meaning his name was mentioned from

the start. He was Perles’s defensive coordinator for MSU’s 1987 Big Ten and

Rose Bowl championship team, was the Oilers’ defensive backs coach for the

next two seasons, and then spent the one year at Toledo, going 9–2 before

moving on to the Browns.

     Five days before the MSU–Penn State game, Saban met the MSU

selection committee at a Detroit hotel. The committee had six other members,

but MSU President Peter McPherson was in charge. Saban had two strikes

against him: the perception that he might be an NFL coach at heart because

he had left both Michigan State and Toledo to go to the pro game and that he

was closely tied to Perles and wouldn’t represent a completely fresh start.

Saban told the committee he didn’t want just any head-coaching job; he

wanted this one.

     The coach and his wife, Terry, met at a junior high science camp, and

their relationship overcame a rough start when Nick stood up Terry on

their first date—bird watching at 5 a.m. They were married for more than a

decade before Nick Jr. and Kristen arrived, and by the mid-1990s, Terry and

Nick were concerned about where their children would be raised. A college

town would be nice; the Lansing area would be ideal. The Perles issue? Saban

argued that his extensive resume spoke for itself: he was his own man and not

Perles’s or anyone else’s. It was safe to assume, too, that Saban implied that he

had diff erences of philosophy with Perles that contributed to his decision to

leave East Lansing for the Oilers and the NFL.

     One problem was that McPherson was impressed with Fran Ganter,

Penn State’s off ensive coordinator.

     I went to University Park and saw Penn State steamroll MSU 59–31 in

Perles’s final game. Afterward, Perles conducted a rambling filibuster before

anyone could even ask a question, but his bottom-line point resonated with

me. “I worry about the young coaches because there’s so much pressure on

them to win because the dollar is so tight nowadays with gender equity,”

Perles said.

     Saban was the runner-up in the search, but as often happens—whether

it comes out publicly or not—the runner-up got the job. Five days after the

final game, Gantner told McPherson thanks, but no thanks; he was staying at

Penn State. That was a Friday night, and shortly before midnight, McPherson

called Saban and offered him the job.

     This time, the answer was yes.

     Saban’s five-year contract called for a starting base salary of $135,000,

plus a $150,000 bonus in the year 2000 if:

            ■ The team’s grade-point average improved from 2.3 during Perles’s last

year, to at least 2.55 during the 1999–2000 academic year.

            ■ The Spartans stayed clean in the eyes of the NCAA.

            ■ Saban’s teams won two-thirds of their games.

     Of course, if he accomplished the first two points but not the third,

chances were Saban would be fired before 2000. He knew the rules of the

game. Hell, we all did. And they’re still the same rules, including the most

important one of all: win.

     The week after the announcement, Cleveland beat the Dallas Cowboys

in Texas Stadium. Saban traveled that night to East Lansing and met with

the MSU players. The room was silent. Players were afraid to exhale too

loudly lest they get marked as troublemakers, and it was said that Saban

didn’t smile once.

     “This is the way we’re going to do things around here—my way,” Saban

told the players. Saban told them that he still was coaching two starting

Browns linebackers who played at MSU, and he held them up as examples.

     “I love Michigan State,” Saban said, “Carl Banks loves Michigan State, Bill

Johnson loves Michigan State, and I sit in a room with them every day. If one

of you guys does something to embarrass yourself and this program, it hurts

every one of us. But you hurt yourself worse, and you’re responsible for your

actions.”

     He brought up the classroom, asking, “So what happens if you aren’t

interested in getting a legitimate education?” Then he answered it. “We

probably will have some problems down the road.”

     That was the start. Over the next year, I periodically returned to East

Lansing. I never meant it to be about just Nick Saban and Michigan State.

They would serve as a case study, representing all first-year head coaches and

programs in transition.

     Like all new head coaches, Saban sifted through the mixed messages about

what we want out of college football. He did it in the style of a man who neatly

orders his life as if it were divided into periods, announced by an equipment

manager with a blowhorn. Or by a coal mine’s end-of-the-shift whistle.

     In 1968, Saban’s senior year at Monongah High School in West

Virginia, seventy-eight men died in an accident at the nearby mine. Saban

had run across some of the coal miners during his hitchhiking travels around

the sparsely populated region where an upturned thumb turned any spot

into a bus stop. Saban, the son of a service station owner, was Monongah

High’s quarterback. He was a defensive back and shortstop at Kent State,

and he was a horrified freshman on May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio

National Guard shot and killed four students.

     Reflecting the calendar’s relentlessness, the generation of men of the

1960s and 1970s who questioned authority later became authority, telling

college students: you will do this. When they happened to be major college

football coaches who had just gotten their reputation-defi ning opportunities,

they faced the challenges about honor. Specifically, when taking over a

program in a down cycle, can you afford to have honor?

     I wasn’t so sure. I looked around a college football landscape in which

it seemed as if known renegades were getting ahead and even landing NFL

coaching jobs. Th e truth was—and still is—that if a coach wins—even

with players who barely pass the registrar’s muster, then take money from

boosters and steal stereos from dorm rooms, and manage to remain eligible

only through sleight of professors’ grading hands they will be stamped a

“winner.” I’ve always wondered whether we are telling coaches that honor

didn’t really matter.

     Saban was insistent that it did.

     “It’s almost like I have a lot of money but I stole it all, so do I feel good

about being rich?” Saban told me at the Browns’ offices in Berea, Ohio, after

he had accepted the MSU job but still was working as Belichick’s defensive

coordinator. “Or is it better if I worked hard, earned every cent, and developed

fi nancial security for myself because of my work ethic and willingness to do

things correctly? I’d rather do it the second way.”

     Every new coach, then and now, says something like that, doesn’t he? All

but the most deceitful probably believe it. But then comes the test. Knowing

that we ultimately judge by the scoreboard standard, do coaches begin to

rationalize the dilution of their ideals?

     When I met with Saban the first time, Cleveland had two games

remaining, the first a Central Division showdown at Pittsburgh. On

Wednesday morning of that week, Saban drove to the Browns’ headquarters

in the dark. He dialed area code 517 on his car phone. The ringing awakened

Gary Van Dam, one of the holdovers from the Perles staff. Before he could

wipe the sleep from his eyes, Van Dam heard his new boss rattle off what he

wanted done in East Lansing that day.

     It was 6:15.

     “I’m basically the head coach at Michigan State when I’m in my car,”

Saban said.

     Saban coordinated the academic program during his stint under Perles,

and he was unapologetic about his belief in giving academically questionable

players chances to prove themselves in school—but also not letting them

skate through. His fi rst financial request of the Downtown Coaches Club,

MSU’s football booster club, was for the club to buy five desktop computers

for the players. Th at request was ahead of the curve; in the upcoming years,

computer labs would become important elements in recruiting. “I’ve recruited

too many guys who have been willing to make the commitment to improve

the quality of their life,” Saban said, “and they got the education. Right now

we’re saying in the NCAA that those guys shouldn’t get the opportunity, and

I don’t necessarily agree with that.”

     In early January 1995, the Steelers ran over Saban’s Cleveland defense in

a Saturday playoff blowout. Saban was in East Lansing that night, eating with

fifteen high school prospects. On Monday, he returned to Cleveland, cleaned

out his locker at the Browns’ offices, and spoke frankly with Belichick about

the defense. He was in East Lansing the next day. He finally was Michigan

State’s head coach, full time.

     For the next few weeks, or until the February 1 letter of intent signing

date, Saban felt like a “hot potato” tossed around by his staff. One day, he

visited six prospects in their homes—five in Detroit and one in Toledo.

     The new staff’s first twenty-player freshman recruiting class included nine

linemen, where the Spartans needed the most help.

     During the next few months, Saban learned that an alarming number

of Spartans were having academic problems. He also discovered that the

conditioning program had slipped in the seven years since he left Perles’s

staff. “George gave me a great opportunity professionally in 1983,” Saban

said. “We took over a 2–9 situation and in five years built it to a top-ten

team, a Big Ten championship, and a Rose Bowl victory. I think George did

an outstanding job. What has happened since that time, I really don’t know. I

wasn’t here, but we certainly don’t have the quality of players.”

     Saban met with every holdover scholarship player. As the new staff

established its authority, there were some grumbles, but the players seemed

to gradually come around. “He kind of shocked us because the strength

and conditioning programs were so intense,” Tony Banks, the holdover

quarterback, told me. “A lot of us weren’t in very good shape. We were a lot

bigger. Guys were rebelling, talking about transferring, about not playing.

But then we started seeing a diff erence in the way we looked. A lot of the

linemen dropped a lot of weight.”

     The Sabans commissioned a builder to construct their dream home.

While waiting, they lived in the home off ered to them by MSU faculty

member Jim Cash—a screenwriter who cowrote Top Gun. Cash’s mother-inlaw

usually lived in the home, but she visited Florida in the winter.

     Mindful of the post–NFL season family routine, young Kristen Saban

kept asking, “Daddy, when are we going to see Mickey and Minnie?” Nick

had to say there would be no Disney vacation for the Sabans that spring.

     In late February, Saban strayed from his normally cautious character by

announcing on the public-address system at a Michigan State–Michigan

basketball game that the Spartans need the help of the home crowd in the

second half “to kick Michigan’s ass.” It both drew a lot of attention and sent

a message. He would pick his spots, but he would ignore protocol when it

served his purpose.

     I returned to East Lansing during the Spartans’ spring practices. One of

the most interesting aspects was to walk through packs of fans and eavesdrop.

Generally, it seemed to be: This guy means business! I also was struck by the

fact that he had been Perles’s defensive coordinator only a few years earlier,

but it had been at a time when assistant coaches—even coordinators—could

stay somewhat under the radar.

     At the first Saturday open practice, Saban wore khaki pants and a

green windbreaker, and during the stretching and calisthenics, he seemed

nondescript—so nondescript that I heard some fans trying to make sure

they were looking at the right coach.

     “The little guy.”

     “Without the hat.”

     “Yeah, he’s not a big man.”

     Fifteen minutes into practice, Saban was actively coaching the defensive

backs, but he also made points to the whole team. He caught fullback Robert

Dozier trash-talking and hollered at him: “I don’t want to have that out here,

understand?” Then he turned to the entire team. “Understand?” he yelled.

     At the end of the practice, Saban made a surprisingly soft-spoken speech

to the players about how much more they have to accomplish during the

remainder of spring practice. Dozier approached Saban, then walked toward

the locker room with his new coach. Dozier tried to explain the trash-talking

incident. Saban quietly listened, and said something along the lines of:
 
It’s all right, no big deal, don’t worry. Just don’t let it happen again.

     I left East Lansing thinking that the cupboard was bare, that recruiting had

slipped significantly in Perles’s final seasons, and that Saban was going to take his

lumps in his first season. I guessed the Spartans would win three or four games,

max, but the important thing would be creating the impression that Saban was

the right man in the right place to ultimately get the program turned around.

     As spring practice wound down, Jim Cash’s mother-in-law returned

from Florida, and the Sabans moved into an apartment near campus. But

Saban still wasn’t around much. He was involved in early spring recruiting

and met—or reacquainted himself—with Midwest high school coaches.

     May 4, shortly after spring practice ended, was the twenty-fifth anniversary

of the Kent State massacre.

     The school’s ROTC building had been burned down on that Saturday

night in 1970, and Governor James Rhodes dispatched the Ohio National

Guard to Kent. “Martial law was declared,” Saban recalled. “It was a war zone.

I mean, the place looked like Saigon, with all the damage that had been done

and the choppers circling overhead.”

     Demonstrators planned a protest of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia for

that Monday. Saban had an 11 a.m. class in the education building. His friend

and teammate, Phil Witherspoon, wanted to watch the protest on Blanket

Hill; Saban lobbied for lunch. They went to the cafeteria. At 12:24 p.m.,

thirteen young people were shot. At about 12:30, as Saban and Witherspoon

approached Blanket Hill, they heard sirens. “It was shocking to see the people

hurt and the large pools of blood,” Saban said. Four of the wounded died;

one, Allison Krause, was in Saban’s English class.

     On June 1, linebacker Ike Reese, the Spartans’ leading tackler as a freshman

in 1994, was involved in a fight outside an East Lansing club. He eventually

pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct in August and spent two days in

jail. Saban allowed him to remain in the program. “People make mistakes in

this world,” Saban said. “The question is, do I think he’d do it again? But you

can’t change your value judgment based on how good any player is.”

     Over the summer, Dozier (the former trash-talker) and guard Jason

Strayhom—both backups—were charged with conspiracy to distribute

marijuana. After reading the police reports and talking to the players and

their parents, Saban indefinitely suspended both players. Neither was on the

roster for the 1995 season.

     “The most frustrating thing for me as a college coach is if a guy does

something wrong socially, however minimal it is, it’s almost like it’s your

responsibility, because he’s a part of your team,” Saban told me. “I don’t think

you can control anyone’s behavior to that degree. I mean, I don’t know what

my four-year-old is going to do when she goes down the street on her bicycle,

and she’s done a few embarrassing things. I don’t think you should tolerate

those things either, but at the same time you have to have compassion for the

people involved.”

     In the summer, the Sabans moved into their quickly constructed new

home and made their annual trip with friends to Myrtle Beach, South

Carolina. Saban also appeared in Chicago for three days at the Big Ten

Conference kickoff. “No offense,” he said, ruffling some feathers, but the day

of golf and two days of media sessions were keeping him away from football

preparation, and he looked very much like an impatient man. By then, Saban

was working under a new athletic director. Merrily Dean Baker was out,

replaced by Merritt Norvell Jr., who played for Wisconsin’s 1963 Rose Bowl

team. In Chicago at the Big Ten kickoff , Norvell told reporters that he was

“comfortable” with Saban. But the mandate was familiar.

     “It’s important to win,” Norvell said. “It’s also important to make sure

your kids graduate, important you get leadership within the department

from the coaches, and important that people conduct themselves properly.

But if winning wasn’t important, we wouldn’t have a stadium that seats

72,000 people.”

     The Spartans got off to a 2–2–1 start under Saban, recovering from

a 50–10 season-opening loss to Nebraska. Game six was on the road at

Illinois. On the plane ride to Champaign, Saban played checkers with little

Nick. Little Nick won. Big Nick insisted he didn’t throw the match. And he

wondered, could this be an omen?

     In Champaign, Saban made his weekly pregame speech to the team.

     “When I was a kid in West Virginia, I went fishin’ a lot,” Saban said.

“One time, there was this old man fishin’ nearby. He was catching them right

and left. Big ones, little ones. But I noticed he was throwing all the big ones

back and keeping only the little ones. Drove me nuts. So finally I went over

and asked him, ‘Why do you throw back all the big ones?’ He looked at me

and says, ‘I only have a ten-inch frying pan.’”

     The players laughed.

     Saban waited.

     “That’s the way you guys think sometimes,” he said.

     He challenged them to set their sights higher.

     The players made that story their tongue-in-cheek rallying cry the next

afternoon: “Win one for the small frying pan.” And they knocked off the Illini

27–21.

     Big Nick won the checkers match on the way home.

     The next week, the Spartans faced Minnesota at home. During the week,

Saban said he was enjoying his return to college football—and MSU—

almost as much as anticipated. “Here, you try and instill a positive attitude,

get them some goals and objectives,” he told me. “Most pro guys, regardless

of what the motivation is, you don’t have to instill that. They might want

to do it for the wrong reason, but they still want to do it. If they don’t? You

fi nd another player. Here, you have to develop the player you have, all the

way around—physically, mentally, emotionally. But I think that’s the fun of

college coaching.”

     Perles, still living in the Lansing area, called his own news conference and

announced he had dropped his lawsuit against MSU, one he filed because

the university was dragging its feet on finalizing a settlement on his contract.

The speculation was that MSU was stalling because after Saban took the job,

the news broke that the NCAA was investigating the football program for

more than sixty possible violations during the Perles tenure. If the NCAA

imposed sanctions, then MSU could try to say that Perles—who was being

paid in the interim—wasn’t owed another dime.

     Could the NCAA investigation hurt the Saban program? “I think it

could,” Saban told me. “I don’t know how to say this without . . .” He paused.

“I don’t really know of anything [against NCAA rules] of a significant nature

that had happened here. Of course, I wasn’t here for part of the time, and I

know there’s nothing that has happened since I have been here. . . . The only

thing I feel bad about is if there’s some punishment for the university and the

program now, it’s not really justified for the people who are here now who

would be punished.”

     On Friday, Saban slipped into his seat next to the podium at the

Downtown Coaches Club meeting at 12:15 p.m., moments before the

program began. Downtown Coaches President Gary Thomas, a retired

fi reman and a Saban fan, told me that Saban was “so businesslike. From week

to week, I don’t even know if he’s going to make it here. He’s got the most

disciplined schedule I’ve ever seen. Some guys are hour to hour; he’s minute

to minute.”

     The room at an East Lansing restaurant was packed: 239 paying

customers at $11 a head for lunch and a raffle ticket. (I didn’t win.) When

Ike Reese, the linebacker, nervously accepted his defensive player of the week

plaque and mentioned that the Spartans had “another good game plan” for

Minnesota, Saban leaned over, smiled, and said something to Reese. In his

turn at the microphone, Saban said, “It’s very encouraging to me that Ike

has approved the game plan for the week.” The audience laughed. “Better get

laughs now,” Saban said, looking at Reese, “because when we watch the fi lm

on Monday, I’ll either approve or disapprove of the execution of that game

plan.”

     On Saturday, the Spartans trailed Minnesota, 31–21, after three quarters,

but rallied for the 34–31 victory. Banks returned to the lineup after missing

time with an ankle injury, throwing for 309 yards and two touchdowns.

     Saban had to caution his players not to look ahead to bowl possibilities. “I

guess the attitude of the players has progressed to the point where we really

believe we can win,” Saban said. “I don’t think we had that kind of character

as a team earlier in the year.”

     They came back to earth on week eight, falling 45–14 to Wisconsin.

That didn’t instill a lot of confidence heading into the rivalry game at home

with Michigan. All week long, Saban reminded his players: You know, there

aren’t going to be very many days in your life when you don’t run across somebody

from the University of Michigan. Wouldn’t you like to be able to talk about the

year you beat their asses? It was the kicker to his message at the Michigan–

MSU basketball game.

     Michigan scored with 3:38 left to take a 25–21 lead. MSU drove 88

yards, and Banks threw the game-winning, 25 yard touchdown pass to Nigea

Carter with 1:24 remaining.

     The raucous celebration lasted into the wee hours in East Lansing.

Saban was the eightieth head coach in MSU history; he was the first to

beat the hated Wolverines in his first season.

     A 35–14 victory over Indiana in week ten made the Spartans bowl

eligible, at 6–3–1. Some seemed concerned that Michigan and Penn State

might get more coveted bowl slots despite sub par seasons because of their

programs’ reputations. But the important thing in East Lansing was that the

Spartans were going to go to a bowl, period.

     At the regular-season finale against Penn State, one Spartan Stadium

end-zone sign proclaimed to ESPN viewers: Saban is God. I was thinking:

a year ago, when these teams met, the Michigan State coach already had

been told he wasn’t wanted any longer and the top candidate for his job was

coaching the Penn State off ense. Now, much to my own surprise, given my

preseason expectations for the Spartans, the second choice for the MSU job

was within reach of a seven-victory season, a third-place Big Ten finish, and

a mid-rung bowl berth.

     Trailing 20–17, Penn State started on its 27 with 1:45 to play. Finally,

on a third-and-goal from the 4, quarterback Wally Richardson dumped an

inside screen to Bobby Engram, who stretched the ball across the goal line

with eight seconds remaining.

     “It’s just like the guy who had a gold mine and worked it for two years,”

Saban said. “He stopped one foot short of the vein. And the next guy came in

and struck it rich. They struck it rich. And we didn’t.”

     Still, Saban said that he was proud of a team that was favored just twice

all season and came so far since that opening-week embarrassment against

Nebraska. The Spartans lost to Louisiana State in the Independence Bowl

and finished 6–5–1. That kind of season most likely wouldn’t be good

enough for a fi fth-year coach, but it was praiseworthy under the fi rst-year

circumstances at Michigan State. It was the best first season for a Spartan

coach since Biggie Munn (7–2) in 1947.

     Saban seemed to have won over the Spartan constituency. He managed to

overcome NCAA sanctions levied for the Perles regime’s transgressions, but

he stayed only fi ve seasons. It was his choice, though. After the Spartans went

9–2 in the 1999 regular season, giving MSU a 34–24–1 record under him,

he let Louisiana State know through the grapevine that he would listen to an

offer. He subsequently accepted the job and didn’t even coach the Spartans

in the Citrus Bowl against Florida. His reasons? A huge contract and his

disillusionment with what he viewed as MSU’s half-hearted commitment

to the football program. He won that 2003 national championship at LSU,

spent two seasons as the coach of the Dolphins, and then bailed out again

to go to Alabama. He took considerable criticism for denying interest in the

Alabama job during the Dolphins’ season, then taking it, and he deserved it,

especially given his previous emphasis on integrity.

     But as we’ve seen after an instant turnaround in the Alabama program

and a national championship, the guy can coach. Albeit with better facilities,

resources, and support than he had at Michigan State. I’m still convinced

that he has struck that delicate balance between doing everything he can to

win and trying to do it with a program that both takes chances on young men

of marginal academic qualification and maintains integrity.