Dan Daly: Saban just kept on keepin’ on
Compared to Lou Saban, Larry Brown is a homebody, a stick in the mud. The Charlotte Bobcats are, what, Larry’s 13th coaching job, college and pro? Suitcase Saban, according to most counts, did twice that much bouncing around - from assistant football coach to head coach to general manager to athletic director to president of the New York Yankees. (In the interest of brevity, I’ve left a few out.)
If you ever want to stump the Schwab, just ask him to name all of Saban’s employers. I’ll bet he doesn’t make it past Tampa Downs, the racetrack owned by George Steinbrenner, who was Lou’s ends coach at Northwestern in 1955. The Wildcats finished 0-8-1 that season, the whole staff got fired and the two men set to conquering the world elsewhere - Saban with the Buffalo Bills in the ‘60s, George… well, you know the story.
Louis Henry Saban, who died Sunday at 87, even made a pit stop at the University of Maryland. In 1966, after leading the Bills to back-to-back American Football League titles, he stunned the sports world by taking over the Terps program, which had struggled mightily in the post-Jim Tatum years. (Indeed, not long before, the school had denied admission to a high school quarterback from Beaver Falls, Pa., named Joe Namath because he didn’t have good enough grades.)
The New York Times, in its preview of the ‘66 Maryland team, assessed that Saban’s main problem was the “need for about 20 excellent football players.” Without those players, the Terps went 4-6, losing their last four - and Lou, sensing he had made a mistake, up and signed a 10-year contract with Denver Broncos to be their coach and general manager.
He did have one Historical Moment at Maryland, though. His debut with the Terps, a 15-7 loss to Penn State, turned out to be the first of Joe Paterno’s 383 victories. So perturbed was Lou by his club’s performance that afternoon that he left the field without shaking the rookie coach’s hand.
A few days later, his blood no longer boiling, he called Paterno and apologized. “We were both so lousy,” he said (as Joe Pa once recalled), “I didn’t have the heart to congratulate anybody.”
After that, there was no telling where Saban would pop up. He spent not quite five years in Denver, a little more than four in a second hitch with the Bills (where he helped turn O.J. Simpson, an underutilized asset early in his career, into O.J. Simpson), then it was back to the colleges - Cincinnati (19 ill-considered days as the AD), Miami (two seasons as coach), Army (one and done).
I caught up with Saban in 1991 - after the racetrack gig, various positions with the Yankees, a stint at Central Florida, several high school jobs and (pant, pant) a season coaching a minor league team. At 69, he had somehow gotten himself hired at Peru (Neb.) State College, the defending NAIA Division II football champs at the time.
The old coach sounded enthused about his latest undertaking. “All my life I’ve been rebuilding ballclubs,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve taken over a club that was better than .500.”
By then, his wanderlust was part of his stand-up act. A college president would introduce him as the new coach, and he would step to the podium and say, “I have been known as a peripatetic coach. The first time I was called that, I thought it was a dirty word. I looked it up in the dictionary and found it meant I moved around a lot.”
(This is funny on two levels - the second being the idea he would ever need a dictionary to define “peripatetic.” Saban’s eternal restlessness might have made him unpopular in some places, but there’s no denying he was a very smart guy. Why, in the Army during World War II, he mastered Mandarin - which ain’t exactly Pig Latin - and served as a translator in the Pacific theater.)
By the time I talked to him, though, Lou could look back on his many comings and goings and concede that while he “always had a pretty solid reason for doing what I had to do… I must honestly say I was a little impatient sometimes. I moved a little quick. I probably could have backed off a little bit and said, ‘Now wait a minute. Give this another thought.’ ”
The column resulting from our conversation suggested - insanely, in retrospect - that the Peru State job was Saban’s “latest - and probably last.” In fact, there were FIVE more jobs after that, two in the Arena League and three at small colleges. He finally called it a career after going winless at Chowan State in North Carolina in 2002 at the age of 81 (just a year younger than Paterno is now).
Saban would have made a great patient on “In Treatment.” What would possess a man to pack up and leave as often as he did? Abandonment issues? Or was he just spooked forevermore after getting hustled out the door at Northwestern?
Then again, maybe he was afflicted with the coaching equivalent of ADD. I’m sure Gabriel Byrne’s character, Dr. Paul Weston, could have sorted it out for us, untangled the mysteries of Travelin’ Lou, who passed through these parts 43 years ago on the Train to Wherever.