Nick Saban: A Great College Football Coach Who Might Bring Alabama Back to Greatness

Copyright © 2007 Ed Bagley

Nick Saban recently became the University of Alabama football coach by signing the richest contract ever awarded to a college football coach.

His 8-year, $32 million deal with the Crimson Tide has a base salary of $225,000 that will be supplemented by a personal services fee of $3.275 to $3.975 million per year. College football supporters are awash with money for winners who they believe can put their team on top.

Saban’s deal does not include a buyout clause if he leaves, but it does cap public appearances at 15 per year (for alumni and booster clubs) that are unrelated to endorsements.

The contract also has incentives that could generate another $650,000 for on-field and academic success with his players. One biggie is $200,000 if he reaches the BCS championship game and escalates to $400,000 if Alabama wins.

Saban also gets a country club membership, two cars, a luxury box at Bryant-Denny Stadium and up to 25 hours of yearly flight time for personal travel in a non-commercial plane.

Ah, it is good to be Nick Saban in Alabama today. Now he must win and win big, something he has been able to do at other college coaching positions.

In his only year as head coach at Toledo he took the Rockets from 6-5 to 9-2 and the Mid-American Conference co-championship.

Saban then went to Michigan State and in five seasons turned the Spartans from a mediocre, continual late-season failure into a 9-2 season that included wins over Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State before he resigned in 1999.

A season earlier, MSU knocked off then No. 1 ranked Ohio State 28-24 at Ohio Stadium and routed highly-ranked Notre Dame before folding later in the season.

If the Big 10 was not tough enough, Saban’s next stop was another five seasons with the LSU Tigers in the even tougher, nastier Southeastern Conference.

He chalked up a 10-3 mark and an SEC championship in his second year and topped things off with a 13-1 record in his fourth season (2003) that earned the Tigers a second SEC championship with Saban as well as the BCS national championship title after a 21-14 win over the Oklahoma Sooners.

After two average years trying to get the Miami Dolphins of the NFL in gear, he left to become Alabama’s new hope. Saban was able to build a defense with the Dolphins but never really got the offense going, suffering his first losing record as a head coach.

Saban’s extended family has football connections. His cousin Lou Saban was a two-time All-Big Ten player at Indiana University and later was head coach for the NFL Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots.

Saban played as a defensive back for Don James when James was head coach at Kent State University. James also coached NFL great Jack Lambert and led the Golden Flashes (it may be true) to their only Mid-American Conference title in 1972.

Like Saban, James was a winner. James went on to coach 18 seasons at the University of Washington. He was twice named National College Coach of the Year (1984 and 1991), guided Washington to the National Championship in 1991, took the Huskies to 6 Rose Bowls (winning 4), won the Orange Bowl title in 1985, had a 10-5 bowl game record, and won 22 straight games from 1990 to 1992.

James was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997; Saban will likely be inducted into the same Hall of Fame at some point in the future.

Here is what Saban had to say about James: “Don James was my college coach at Kent State. I guess he had as much of an impact on me as anyone in terms of organization, quality of work, (and) being the best you can be. He’s the person that got me (into) coaching.”

Saban was a graduate assistant and then defensive assistant for the Kent State University football team.

I have distant connections to Saban and James.

I graduated from Michigan State in 1966 and saw two great years of football before graduating. I remember the 1966 “Game of the Century” between then No. 2 ranked Michigan State and No. 1 ranked Notre dame that ended in a 10-10 tie when Norte Dame decided to settle for a tie rather than go for the victory.

There were 5 All Americans on MSU’s 1966 team: fullback Bob Apisa, halfback Clinton Jones, defensive end Charles “Bubba” Smith, wide receiver Gene Washington and rover (linebacker) George Webster.

I remember a game in 1965 when All-American running back Jim Grabowski from Illinois and George Webster were running full steam toward each other and Webster flattened Grabowski. It was one of the greatest tackles I ever witnessed. Grobowski went on the play for the NFL Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.

Football at MSU then turned to crap until Nick Saban arrived and took the Spartans back to prominence. It was one long drought that lasted from 1967 to 1999.

I relocated to Washington State in 1973 and followed the University of Washington Huskies—and Don James—closer than I did Michigan State during those years. Here in Washington Don James is affectionately known as the “Dawgfather” and treated with as much respect as was Don Corleone in The Godfather movie.

You will not meet a better college football coach or person than Don James, he is always about honesty, integrity and doing the right thing.

My expectation is that Nick Saban will bring Alabama football back to its rightful place. I have been a Crimson Tide fan since the day “Joe Willie” Namath walked onto the Alabama campus.

I am also fired up for the football season to start as Michigan State has a new head coach, a guy named Mark Dantonio who is serious about defense and will instill the kind of discipline and winning attitude MSU needs.

The days of the country club atmosphere are over at Michigan State. Players will either get with it or get gone. Dantonio will not accept losing and neither will Saban. Look out SEC, here comes Nick Saban.