|Excerpted chapter from Part Six: College Football in Playing Piano in a Brothel (2010)
FIRST-YEAR COACHING STUDY:
NICK SABAN HAS BEEN THE HEAD COACH of two national
championship teams at two different schools—Louisiana State in the
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
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.
‘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.”
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.
turned out to be Saban, who had been the Cleveland Browns’ defensive
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
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
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
Rose Bowl championship team, was the Oilers’ defensive backs coach for the
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
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.
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
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
to win because the dollar is so tight nowadays with gender equity,”
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
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
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
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
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
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
students: you will do this.
When they happened to be major college
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
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 coordinated the
academic program during his stint under Perles,
and he was unapologetic about his belief in giving academically
players chances to prove themselves in school—but also not letting them
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
Jim Cash—a screenwriter who cowrote Top Gun. Cash’s mother-inlaw
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
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
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
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
stay somewhat under the radar.
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.”
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,
Then he turned to the entire team. “Understand?” he yelled.
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
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
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.”
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
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.
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
world,” Saban said. “The question is, do I think he’d do it again? But you
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
marijuana. After reading the police reports and talking to the players and
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
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
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
In the summer, the Sabans moved into their quickly constructed new
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
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
team. In Chicago at the Big Ten kickoff , Norvell told reporters that he was
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.
if winning wasn’t important, we wouldn’t have a stadium that seats
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.
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
and asked him, ‘Why do you throw back all the big ones?’ He looked at me
says, ‘I only have a ten-inch frying pan.’”
The players laughed.
“That’s the way
you guys think sometimes,” he said.
He challenged them to set their sights
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
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
almost as much as anticipated. “Here, you try and instill a positive attitude,
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
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.
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
could,” Saban told me. “I don’t know how to say this without . . .” He
“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
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
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
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
plaque and mentioned that the Spartans had “another good game plan”
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
Monday, I’ll either approve or disapprove of the execution of that game
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
Saban had to caution his players not to look ahead to bowl possibilities.
guess the attitude of the players has progressed to the point where we really
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
That didn’t instill a lot of confidence heading into the rivalry game at home
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
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
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
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,”
“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
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,
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
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
Alabama job during the Dolphins’ season, then taking it, and he deserved it,
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
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.