It is 1991 and Nick Saban is the head coach at Toledo and has just gone 9-2. Bill Belichick is the head coach of the Browns, Ernie Accorsi is his general manager and Belichick is looking for a defensive coordinator. He asks Accorsi to interview Saban, whom Belichick says is a guy he really likes.
So Accorsi calls Toledo and gets permission to talk to Saban and eventually has a two-hour interview with him.
Afterward, Belichick asks Accorsi, “What did you think?”
Accorsi said, “Don’t let him out of town.”
Saban became Belichick’s defensive coordinator. Before long, and even though nobody knew at the time that the Browns would be on their way to Baltimore before long, the Browns were in the playoffs. They even got a playoff game off Bill Parcells’ Patriots, with whom Belichick would later make a bit of football history, maybe you’ve heard.
But at that time, in the early 1990s, before the world knew that Nick Saban would become one of the great football coaches in history — Accorsi: “A Mount Rushmore guy” — you had him and Belichick, the greatest NFL coach of them all, on the same staff in Cleveland, at least before things went all to hell and back in Cleveland.
“He is,” Ernie Accorsi was saying Thursday, “the only one like Belichick.”
Now Belichick is trying to win his sixth Super Bowl with the Patriots. Next Monday night, in the fancy new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Saban will try to win his sixth national championship, and fifth at Alabama. If he does, it will only solidify that there has never been a better coach in college football than he is, as far back as you want to go. That includes Paul (Bear) Bryant, who brought the football glory to Tuscaloosa that Saban has restored over the past 11 seasons.
Whatever happens on Monday night as Saban goes up against Georgia and a gifted coaching protégée of his named Kirby Smart, there is Nick Saban in college football and everybody else the way there is Belichick, his old boss, and everybody else in the pros.
Not only did Accorsi hire Saban in Cleveland, he was thinking about hiring Saban for the Giants after Saban had won a national championship at LSU, before the Giants went with Tom Coughlin instead.
“First of all, he’s smart as hell,” Accorsi said. “You start there. But it’s more than that, because a lot of coaches are smart as hell. He has a way of stripping away the things that don’t matter. And he makes you take responsibility, whether you play for him or coach for him. I remember interviewing a guy as a possible head coach one time and asked him what kind of offense he planned to run. He said, ‘Well, I’ll want to see what my offensive coordinator wants to run.’ I thought, ‘Forget it,’ and went right to the next guy on the list. That’s not Nick Saban, trust me.”
There is the thought sometimes that somehow what has happened since Saban showed up in Tuscaloosa for the 2007 season is just Alabama football being Alabama football. Only it’s not the program. It’s him, the way it was Bryant once.
Bear Bryant won his last national championship at Alabama in 1979, his second in a row, the Crimson Tide finishing off a perfect season by beating Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.
And over the next 30 years, Alabama won exactly one national championship, under Gene Stallings, in 1992. Now they have won the way they’ve won under Saban, and have a chance to win again on Monday night. In every season that Saban has been in Tuscaloosa except his first one, there has been a point where they were ranked No. 1 in the country. The only reason he isn’t going for a seventh national title and sixth at Alabama is because in last year’s championship game against Clemson the Tide ran into one of the best college quarterbacks of them all — Deshaun Watson — not just having the game of his life, but having two minutes of clock left after Alabama had gone ahead.
So you can get a Nick Saban team sometimes. But more often than not, Saban will get you. After he went 7-6 after coming to Alabama straight from the one coaching failure of his life, with the Dolphins, the most games one of his teams has lost in a season is three. Since 2007, the lowest Alabama has been ranked at the end of a season is 10th. He has done this at a time when the SEC has become the kind of meat-grinder powerhouse it’s become, and at a time when college football is bigger and more competitive than it has ever been. Yeah, a Mount Rushmore guy.
Here, by the way, are all the other Alabama coaches between Bryant and Saban: Ray Perkins, Bill Curry, Stallings, Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Shula. Shula’s lifetime record at Alabama was 26-23. DuBose was 24-23. In 11 seasons, with one more very big game to play in the 2017-18 season, Nick Saban’s record at Alabama is 131-20. And six of those losses came in his first season.
Urban Meyer had some run at Florida, and won two titles, and then went to Ohio State and won another. Pete Carroll won the way he did at USC, just not completely with players you’d call completely eligible. Meyer left Florida, and somebody will have to convince me that the presence of Saban in the same conference didn’t have a lot to do with it. Carroll ended up leaving USC for the pros, where he won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks and nearly won another one, before he and his offensive coordinator got too cute at the very end with Belichick’s team.
Saban just keeps on keeping on in Tuscaloosa, with new running backs every couple of years and a new quarterback and a new Saban defense that ends up looking a whole lot like all the other ones. He’s not the life of the party any more than Belichick is. How many of the best football coaches of all time have ever been? He’s just turned into the GOAT in his sport the way Belichick has done the same in New England.
“He does things his way,” Accorsi says. “His teams play the way they play. Knock the hell out of you on defense. Run those big guys at you. And win.”
Saban come a long way since the Toledo Rockets. He gets the players and then they play the way he wants them to play. And win. It’s not the program at Alabama. Not the tradition, or the history. It’s him. Once they got him to Tuscaloosa they were smart enough not to let him out of town.