Sports is not the only place where the father-son dynamic ignites a spark of ambition that grows and grows until it becomes a consuming flame. And there are men like Saban atop every profession. They clamber up the ladder without regard for consequences, treating each job like an audition for the next one. His story is instructive that way.
Saban played defensive back at Kent State, despite standing only 5-foot-6, and the determination he showed won him a job as a graduate assistant there in 1972. Next came a half-dozen more stops as an assistant _ including a season with the NFL’s Houston Oilers _ before Saban landed his first head-coaching job at Toledo in 1990. He brought the school a Mid-American Conference title in his only season there, bailing out to become defensive coordinator with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns under then-coach Bill Belichick.
In the ensuing 15 years, Saban burned through three more jobs, each one good enough to be considered a “destination” among his peers _ first Michigan State, then LSU, where he won his first national title, and finally with the Miami Dolphins. Instead of feeling like he’d arrived, Saban remained restless in a way the rest of us are not. After two years, including his first losing season as a head coach, he flat-out denied he was leaving for the vacant job at Alabama _ and then lit out for Tuscaloosa three weeks later.
That was 2007, and Saban is still there six seasons later, longer than his tenure lasted anywhere else. He’s been so successful he not only owns the town and the state; he’s even won over the fans and alumni who used to insist no coach deserved the Crimson Tide job without a connection to Bryant. Some of the most stubborn have made that connection themselves now, mentioning Saban in the same sentence with Bryant, and adding the “D-word (dynasty)” at the end that was once reserved for Bryant as well.
Saban’s counterpart, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, said his colleague’s success made quibbling over descriptions irrelevant.
“I measure success as a head coach with consistency. Some people use the word `dynasty.’ (It) starts at the top and filters its way through the entire program,” he said. “And what Coach Saban has been able to do has really put an exclamation point on consistently putting elite programs and football teams together at the University of Alabama.”
For his part, Saban has sunk deep roots in Tuscaloosa, even relocating the “Nick’s Kids Fund” charity he and wife Terry set up more than a decade ago. It’s actually named for “Big Nick,” the blue-collar taskmaster and former Pop Warner League coach who taught his son never to take on a job unless he intended to do it right.
Judged by winning percentage, he’s certainly done right by nearly every team that hired him. The only remorse he feels is not having figured out what “Big Nick” gave him in time to say thanks.
“Probably when I was a senior in college, that’s probably when I realized it. And my first year of graduate school was when he passed away. I never really ever told him,” Saban said, “which I regret.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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