The Two Sides of Nick Saban

Most people are lauding Alabama’s Nick Saban as a turnaround expert and a brilliant football coach.  Both of those complimentary phrases are beyond argument.  Saban is both and I defy anyone to challenge them.

As a person, there have been several other descriptions.  Most of these are true as well.  Here’s my first hand account of dealing with Nick Saban, man of many adjectives, each of them carefully designed by Nick himself (both the complimentary and not-so).

When Saban was introduced as the University of Toledo’s new football coach (coming to TU from the Houston Oilers’ staff), I was serving as the associate head basketball coach for the Rockets.  The occasion for his introduction was at the Rocket’s golf tournament, its major annual fundraiser.  The head of the Rocket Club, assistant athletics director, Bob Fountain, had asked me to emcee the dinner which was to follow the tourney.

Bob told me that since (most of) the participants had been drinking while playing (normal behavior for such an event), that he’d appreciate it if I could inject some humor into the dinner.  This role was nothing new for me.  I’m pretty quick-witted and understand that people tend to donate more when they’re happy, so I knew to throw in some self-deprecating humor (not difficult at the time because I didn’t play golf) and make some cracks at the expense of the “heavy hitters,” all of whom I knew well as this was 1990 and I was entering my fourth year at TU.  I’d served as emcee for dinners for years, so I prepared as I always did with some “golf humor” and was ready to give the folks a good time.

Throughout the dinner, I’d joke that Mike Cicak (one of the most astute businessmen and most generous people I’d ever met, as well as best friend of my mentor, John Savage) sliced his first tee shot into someone’s backyard, then hit his next attempt into the water, then finally hooked his ball so deep into the woods he’d have met Bambi if he tried to find it.  When his playing partner said to him, “Mike why don’t you use an old ball,” Mike snapped, “Because I’ve never had an old ball.”  Old joke, but well-received and it worked to set the tone for an enjoyable evening.

Keep in mind that Mike Cicak was a guy who, following the birth of our first child, less than two years after we’d gotten to Toledo and I barely knew him, sent me a note of congratulations – accompanied by a check for $1,000 – because John Savage assured him I was a good guy and “one of us.”  This good natured ribbing went on, laughter permeated the room and, after looking over at Bob Fountain, I got a thumbs up.  It was at this time that I turned over the program to our director of athletics, who introduced our new football coach.

Nick Saban, whom I had yet to meet, got up and began saying that, to him, running a football program was a serious matter.  That, although some coaches thought it appropriate to joke around, that coaching was no joking matter to him.  When it became that way, losing would be a certain result ( a cheap shot at the fact our record the previous season was 12-16).  No matter that I wasn’t the head coach, or that I had been asked to “keep the dinner light” with banter and comraderie.  While Saban was ranting – and wowing the boosters with his motivational talk (they were loving this new no- nonsense leader) – Bob Fountain leaned back from is seat at the head table and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.” 

To this day, I know he had no idea that Nick Saban was going to go into an “alpha dog” rage to make his point.  He got a rousing ovation from the well-lit crowd, hungry for a winning football season.  When I retook the podium, there was a hush, the crowd waiting for my response to this direct personal assault and an intentional, but completely undeserved, beat down.  I have to admit it crossed my mind to let it be known that “You in the audience have just been entertained and worked into a lather by a truly exceptional motivational expert – who also happens to be the biggest self-serving, ‘It’s all about me & I have no problem stepping on whomever is in my way, even if he is just doing what he has been told to do and, by the way, is a person I have never met‘ dirty pool playing scumbag.”  When it comes to a verbal joust, I’m usually prepared for battle.

I also knew that this wasn’t the time nor the place & how foolish would it be to turn a department fundraiser into a civil war.  So, I got up, paused, looke dout over the crowd and said, . . . “YEAH!” like I was as geeked as those in the crowd.  These were my friends and many came up later to ask what I had done to upset our new football coach.  But he backed up his bold words by going 9-2 that season and was beloved by the same fans.

His mantra was that the college game was where he belonged and he envisioned a long career at Toledo.  At the end of that first year, he left to become the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, saying, in a tear-filled press conference, he never would have left TU – except for the Cleveland Browns.  Maybe this is why ESPN’s Pat Forde subsequently referred to him as a “liar” and Don Shula (someone who also is recognized as a decent coach – and human being – proving the two do not have to be mutually exclusive) couldn’t refute the description of Saban as “a raging fraud.”

This alpha dog mentality carried into that first year.  The offices were situated in a strange way at Toledo’s Savage Hall (named after one of the greatest individuals I’ve ever had the honor of knowing – and someone who, while he wasn’t present at the golf dinner, let me know the following day I should pay no attention to Saban’s ambush because he’s obviously “cut from a different cloth” than others John knew – and respected).  The only entrance to each of our offices were off of a long hallway.  Therefore, when leaving, a visitor would have to walk down the hallway to exit the building.

One of Nick’s favorite ploys was to bring in a football player and read him the riot act in his paper-thin wall office.  When he was through berating the player, the kid would have to make the “walk of shame” down the hall, in front of the secretaries and other coaches’ offices, exacting the very effect Coach Napoleon had desired.

One day, I was summoned to the Big Kahuna’s office, where he informed me he’d heard the basketball staff was breaking NCAA rules and he was not about to be part of a university that was in any way shady.  I leaned forward in the chair opposite his desk and said, “Look, Nick, I don’t know where you heard this – or even if you heard this (making it known that he orchestrated scenarios to enhance his position), but before you make any more statements about cheating, you might want to get (and I brought up the top high school running back prospect in Toledo, a kid who was getting attention from Big Ten and SEC schools) out of Glasstech’s skybox where he’s being fed before your games.  You and I both know that’s a major NCAA violation.  So why don’t you take care of the football program and let us run basketball?” 

I never did find out why he selected me as the person to occur his wrath, but I was anxious to let him know that I saw through him and his self-serving bluster.  Having been at Tennessee, Western Carolina and Washington State before Toledo, I had sensational realtionships with each school’s well-known football coach – Johnny Majors, Bob Waters (maybe the finest coach/person I’ve encountered, whose life was tragically cut short by ALS) and Jim Sweeney, respectively.  I’ve always considered myself a team player as far as being a member of an athletics department staff was concerned, but if he wanted to take off the gloves, so be it.

Later in the day, when he was in that narrow hallway, talking to at a couple of secretaries (who, to his delight, were in complete fear of him), I yelled out, “Hey, Nick, how do you spell your name, with an N or a PR?”  Since it was so unexpected, the secretaries burst out laughing, then quickly tried to stifle their outburst.  Saban stalked back to his office.

Once more before I end this piece, let me say that Nick Saban has been called, arguably the greatest college football coach ever – and I find it extremely difficult to refute that.  He won his one year at Toledo, won at Michigan State, won it all at LSU and is favored to do the same in only his third year at Alabama.  Too bad his personal skills (and I’m not talking about those he has with boosters and fans he cultivates and who fawn all over him) are diametrically opposed to his coaching prowess.

To me, the line that sums up Nick Saban the best comes from Abagail Van Buren:

“The best index to a person’s character is (a) how he treats people who can’t do him any good and (b) how he treats people who can’t fight back.”                

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