By Alex Scarborough
Nick Saban was a nobody then. His players’ first impression was that the ex-Houston Oilers assistant was kind of short. Truth be told, they got a Tony Danza vibe because of his deep tan, well-coiffed hair and wide-open shirt collar. But when Saban spoke in that first meeting — when he screamed about financial aid checks and threatened to kick players off the team — he had their attention. Soon, his training program would have them doubled over and dropping like flies.
“It reminded me of the Junction Boys,” said former tight end Vince Marrow. “I watched at least six or seven guys quit. They just couldn’t take it.”
Looking back 30 years on, Saban said he learned two important lessons during his one season at Toledo in 1990: motivation and game management. The latter was the hardest pill to swallow, though, as a mistake cost his team a win and the outright conference title. It’s something he carries with him today — one of those myriad details he pores over during every pregame meeting, before or after receiving scouting reports on the referees.
He learned, quite literally, which way the wind blows.
“We got the ball and went ‘two-minute’ down the field at the end,” Saban recalled of that game against Central Michigan, a 13-12 result on Oct. 20, 1990 — and his first career loss. “It was a one-point game and we lined up to kick a field goal of like 25 yards or something. We had a pretty good kicker, and the ball just got about 5 yards from the crossbar and just stopped in midair.”
He took a deep breath, reliving a loss that still haunts him, and continued.
“A lot of people remember the Bluegrass Miracle when I was at LSU. Well, we had the wind in the fourth quarter, and it was a significant 30 mph wind probably. And when we threw the Hail Mary, they couldn’t judge the ball because it just kept going and going and going, and that’s how we won.
“That’s something I learned in that game [at Toledo]: that the conditions do affect the strategy of how you play.”
Saban shouted as he entered the auditorium.
“Sit up! Anybody who has a soft neck, you won’t play here!”
Saban was neither terribly long-winded nor inspirational as he addressed the team for the first time. You could barely call it a speech, in fact. But Dan Vargo, a defensive back, said the feeling of respect Saban demanded was immediate. Vargo looked around the room and mouthed to his teammates, “Wow.”
It wasn’t the kind of introduction that left it open for questions at the end, but that didn’t stop one well-fed offensive lineman from piping up.
“Hey, Coach,” the lineman asked, “when are we going to get our [financial aid] checks?”
“What the hell are you asking about these checks?!” he said. “You need to worry about your ass getting in shape!”
Not long after, the offseason conditioning program began. And three decades later, every player and coach who was there remembers one thing above all else: the trash cans.
Conditioning expanded from two to five days a week under Saban, beginning bright and early at 6 a.m. Since the football team didn’t have a dedicated space, players had to go to the second level of the basketball gym, where they found trash cans strategically placed around the floor.
“What the hell are these for?” Marrow said.
No one knew until the circuit training got going. The program of 16 stations, created by Saban and strength coach Ken Mannie, included agility drills, speed drills, mat drills and 30-yard sprints. They climbed steps, going up and down the bleachers over and over and over again. Matt Eberflus, a linebacker, got shin splints so bad that he had to use the handrail to pull himself up and went backward going down to stifle the pain.
“When that horn blew,” Eberflus said, “you move and you move fast. You’re moving at Coach’s pace, and no one else’s.”
In the past, players might have gotten away with partying the night before and suffering nothing worse than a hangover. Under Saban, you drank at your own peril. Thus, the trash cans.
“You better not throw up on my floor,” Saban told them that first day. “You got to throw up, you go throw up in one of these trash cans.”
Safety Tim Caffey said that was the last time you saw players partying on the riverfront the night before conditioning.
The program pushed everyone to the brink. Caffey remembers Mark Melfi, who threw for 1,632 yards the season before, griping one morning a couple of weeks in, “This is a bunch of bullcrap!”
“And Coach Saban kicked him off the team,” Caffey said. “Done. And that was our starting quarterback.”
Mannie, the strength coach, said the program wasn’t necessarily designed to make anyone quit, but it certainly had that effect. More than the physical toll it took, it was a mental test to see how far you were willing push yourself.
Ted Newsome, an offensive lineman, was cooling off in the gym after one of those workouts when Saban sat down beside him on a bench. A couple of seniors had quit that day, and Saban seemed upset and maybe even a little bit down.
“This shocks me,” Newsome remembers Saban saying. “These are fifth-year seniors who are walking away. I’ve never experienced something like that before.”
It was as if it had never entered Saban’s mind that you could just give up.
“I would throw up almost every day for the first two weeks,” said receiver Joe Windover. “It was intense. Some pretty key guys who had been with me since freshman year quit. They didn’t want to put in the time and effort.
“And it made us stronger.”
Whereas the previous staff under coach Dan Simrell took more of a laissez-faire approach during practice, Saban was the opposite. He was involved in everything and demanded toughness in all things. The number of contact periods multiplied. Everyone participated in the Oklahoma drill under Saban’s watch, even the skinny receivers.
Quarterback Kevin Meger remembered a minor scuffle breaking out early on during two-a-days and a frustrated Saban telling the receiver and defensive back peacocking at each other, “Do it with excellence. If you’re going to go, go. If not, get back in the huddle and get your job done.”
A few weeks later, Meger saw defensive tackle and future NFL first-round pick Dan Williams body-slam an offensive lineman. Meger thought it was a cheap shot, so he threw a forearm shiver at Williams’ throat, dropping him and inciting an all-out brawl.
When the fight finally ended, Meger asked Saban of his forearm on Williams, “That wasn’t chickens—, was it?”
“No,” Saban answered. “No, it wasn’t.”
No one was punished, and in the end there were a couple of times Saban wound up going toe-to-toe with Williams, threatening to kick him off the team.
That’s the thing, players said: Saban wasn’t scared.
Marrow compared it to the movie “Friday.” Here’s Saban, maybe 5-foot-8, getting right in the face of Williams, who was 6-4, 290.
“Deebo’s walking around there and beating everyone up,” Marrow said, alluding to the movie characters. “Saban was Craig.”
For large portions of practice, Saban was quiet. During individual and position drills, he’d walk the field with a small notebook and a pen in his hand.
Players thought it was strange how he would stop, look at them and scribble something down. Then, without saying a word, he’d leave.
“Then you’d get in your group meetings, he’d come in the door, and boom!” Caffey said. “He would go through everything. ‘Darren, here’s what you did wrong.’ Coach had a list.
“That was the method of the madness. You didn’t know if he was writing about you or the buddy next to you. You wanted to be on point all day long.”
Saban didn’t miss a thing. He’d catch the difference between a 6-inch and a 4-inch drop and correct it on the spot. It didn’t matter if you made a great play; if you were executing the play in the wrong way, you were in trouble.
And there was nothing worse than incurring Saban’s wrath. Newsome kept it PG-rated when he said, “There were some eye-opening demonstrations of intensity. He’s very colorful, that’s all I’ll say, very colorful in his instruction.”
Rick Isaiah was a star receiver, a mature veteran with a wife and two kids, and even he wasn’t immune to Saban’s fury.
“He let me have it and in no uncertain terms let me know that there’s no prima donnas,” Isaiah said. “And it got everybody’s attention that if Rick Isaiah has no grace, no leash, then nobody does.”
During one practice, Caffey was supposed to either cover the tight end or rush the passer depending on how the play unfolded. But when the tight end split out, Caffey didn’t adjust and gave up a touchdown on a wheel route. Saban had them run the same defense again, and Caffey got beat on a corner route for another six points.
Saban threw his hat down.
“God damn it, Caffey!” he said. “If you get beat one more time, I’m going to give you a one-way bus ticket back to Youngstown!”
“To get ripped by Coach Saban,” Caffey said, “that’s the worst feeling in the world.”
What earned the respect of players, though, was that Saban would just as easily tear into coaches. And sometimes they got it worse than the players did.
“He required perfection from everyone, even the trainers,” Caffey said. “You talk about attention to detail, he used to kill Dave [Huffstetler] all the time. Dave was our trainer, and Saban would rip him a new one every day.”
Not every dressing-down was done publicly, though. Cornerback Darren Anderson was coasting through practice one day when Saban called him into his office. He thought everything was going all right until Saban started yelling.
“If I coached you like I did in Houston, I would have fined you $100,000 for the way you practiced this week,” Saban told him. “You’re not playing up to your potential.”
Strangely, Anderson didn’t lick his wounds as he left the office that day. Rather, he came away confident that he could do more and determined to listen closely.
Getting tips from Saban was like the skies parting. Anderson, who would go on to play seven years in the NFL, said Saban taught him how to jam a receiver to the point that he couldn’t move off the line. Then Saban would turn around and teach a receiver how to combat the same technique.
Windover, a big-bodied receiver, was struggling against press coverage one day when Saban pulled him aside after practice and showed him how to use his size to create leverage. “Drive off, jam them in the throat, break contact,” Saban told him. It was five minutes of pure frustration trying to get it right, Windover said, followed by the sweet relief of success.
“We finished up those drills,” Windover said, “and we were walking off and I said, ‘Hey, Coach, thank you so much for that. I appreciate it. You just lifted a stress off my shoulders.’
“And he said, ‘Just remember this: A thank-you always comes with an IOU. From this day forward, I want to see you working on that technique and improving.'”
By the time Toledo kicked off the season on Sept. 8, the Rockets were a well-oiled machine. Williams and Saban got on the same page, and the defensive lineman became a force. Meger took over at quarterback and gave the team a toughness it had been lacking on both sides of the ball.
It wasn’t pretty, but Toledo went on the road and beat Miami (Ohio) 20-14 for Saban’s first collegiate win.
Saban called Meger into his office the following Wednesday with a question that surprised him: Why hadn’t he taken his ticket allotment for the home opener? Meger had no idea why something like tickets would be on Saban’s radar or how he knew that Meger almost always used all four tickets available to him, but the coach did. And not just that, Saban had called Meger’s parents and invited them to the game himself.
Meger was upset and let Saban know it. He was going through a rough patch with his family and didn’t think it was any of Saban’s business to get involved.
Saban proceeded to tell Meger about his own family and his relationship with his father, which was complicated in its own way. Big Nick was a strict disciplinarian and a hard man to please.
“Coach said, ‘I honestly thought it was the right thing to do, so I made the phone call,'” Meger recalled. “And once he said that, it was hard to argue.”
Toledo beat Northern Illinois 23-14, and Meger’s parents were outside the locker room afterward, forcing a conversation they’d been avoiding.
“It helped repair the relationship problems in the house,” Meger said. “The distance would have grown much more quickly.
“You don’t see that. You don’t sense that. But he cares very deeply about his players.”
Throughout the season, there would be small, private moments like that.
Newsome, whose father had been sick with cancer, got the call one week that it was time to come home and say his final goodbye. He’d never missed practice before and was anxious about begging off. Then Saban called him into the office and told him that his father had died of a heart attack during his first season coaching at Kent State.
“He understood it,” Newsome said. “And he said my job now is to go take care of and look after my mother.”
Newsome returned to the team, and the Rockets kept rolling, beating Ball State, Ohio, Eastern Michigan and Bowling Green to improve to 6-0, matching their win total from the previous season with five games left.
Vargo remembered how the buzz kept building each week. Friends would call him up just to ask what Saban was like.
“This guy is unbelievable,” he’d tell them. “He knows football like I didn’t know you could know football. He knows every position and can tell you every scheme and what opponents were doing.”
Nothing changed about Saban’s demeanor during the six-game winning streak. If anything, he was tougher on the practice field and even more demanding in the film room afterward.
He’s the same way today. Success makes Saban agitated. It smells of rat poison.
Phil Parker, who coached defensive backs, remembers that after the victory over Northern Illinois in Week 2, the first words from Saban during the staff meeting the following day were, “This is terrible.”
The fact that they gave up 200 yards rushing had Saban fuming. And when he left the room, the staff was incredulous, turning to Parker, who had been a player and graduate assistant at Michigan State when Saban was a Spartans assistant coach, to interpret the head coach’s mood.
“Explain this,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said to Parker. “We won the game, right?”
Parker’s response: “That’s just the way Nick is.”
Tom Amstutz, an assistant coach on defense, recalled another game Toledo won in dominant fashion — either Ball State or Eastern Michigan, he couldn’t be sure — and how he was feeling good in the locker room afterward, relaxed and cutting up. Then Saban came in with a full head of steam, seeing red, and without having looked at a single frame of film rattled off five plays that could have been executed better.
“Nick is a guy that’s not gonna, you know, really pat you on the back,” Amstutz said. “He’s not really ever gonna let you know that [he’s] satisfied with anything. It’s always a constant press forward. The job is never done.”
“He was not going to sacrifice the right way of doing things for what he could accomplish as a winner,” offensive coordinator Greg Meyer said. “That’s what struck me the most, is that he stood by what he felt was most important. … It was about what do you believe.”
The players felt that sense of determination, too.
Eberflus, who would go into coaching himself and is currently the defensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts, said he was watching the Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” recently when something stood out to him. In one episode, Jordan gets emotional as he talks about why he was so hard on everyone around him.
“When people see this, they’re going to say, ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy, he may have been a tyrant,'” Jordan says. “Well that’s you, because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well.”
Eberflus thought of Saban.
“That hit home with me because it’s not about being nice,” he said. “It’s about being respected. I respect Coach Saban as a man and I respect him as a teacher and a coach. And the coaches that I have been around hold you accountable. Sometimes it’s difficult as a player-coach relationship because they’re pushing you to places that you can’t take yourself. And that’s so important in a coach. He’s not here to be your friend.”
There was a brief moment of celebration in the locker room after Toledo beat Western Michigan 37-9, locking up a share of the MAC title at 7-1. Players swear they must have seen Saban crack a smile. They would finish the 1990 season with a close loss to Navy and a win over Arkansas State for a 9-2 record. But even so, all these years later, the thing Saban remembers most is how that shouldn’t have been the end of the Rockets’ season.
If only they’d beaten Central Michigan, if only he’d accounted for the wind in the fourth quarter, they would’ve been sole champs with the opportunity to play in a bowl game.
“I don’t know if I’m crazy or what,” Saban said, “but I can’t remember any of the games that we won. But I really remember the two games that we lost.”
The next few weeks were calm as coaches put the season to bed and focused on recruiting.
They were probably too busy to notice, but on the eve of signing day, Bill Belichick was introduced as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and their worlds were about to change.
Saban invited the coaches and their wives over to the house for a post-signing day dinner, and Parker got there early. He was sitting in the living room and peeked around the corner to see Saban on the telephone. Saban seemed anxious, Parker thought, pacing back and forth with the receiver pressed to his ear, his head down, listening closely.
It seemed like an intense conversation, so Parker asked, “Is everything OK?” and Saban brushed it off.
“I’d been around him long enough as a player and GA, I knew something was going on,” Parker said. “I think he was on with Belichick.”
Players showed up for the first day of winter conditioning and Saban wasn’t there; Pees led the workout instead. Saban was gone the next day, came back and was gone again.
Fed up, Meger asked, “Is something going on?” and didn’t get an answer.
“The whole team was chirping,” he said.
Then the reports started trickling out. Saban and Belichick had become close when Saban was at Navy, where Belichick’s father, Steve, was on the staff. All signs were pointing to a reunion.
Players were called in for a meeting on Feb. 13, not wanting to believe the rumors. Athletic director Al Bohl introduced Saban, and you could hear a pin drop.
Saban was struggling, it was obvious. His eyes were glassy as he told them how tough this was. He said this wasn’t how he wanted any of this to go. And after about five minutes, he told them he loved them, shoved his hands in his pockets, lowered his head and walked out the door.
No one got up. Nothing was said. Some players were too surprised to speak.
“He’s normally in their ass and now there’s this soft side,” Marrow said. “That might have been the first time of my teammates seeing him act like that.”
Others were too upset for words.
“We were all pissed,” Meger said. “I mean, we’ve just come off a winning season, we’ve got a program that we’re building. … You were just used.”
It took a while, but they eventually accepted it. Every former player ESPN spoke to said they understood why Saban did what he did — even Meger, who acknowledged that it was a “pretty smart move.”
But Saban struggled with what he’d done. This was the beginning of his nomadic existence, building up and then leaving programs in relatively short order, and it felt awful. It felt like “bailing out,” he said, and it took him a year to really get over it.
“You develop these relationships and you’re all working hard to achieve a goal, and you appreciate everybody’s buying into the principles and values of the team,” he said. “And then all of the sudden you leave. That’s never easy.”
It’s been 30 years, yet Saban still felt compelled to defend his actions.
“I was at a point in my career where I was really young, OK?” he said. “And Belichick was really, really persistent. I told him no three or four times that I wasn’t going to the Browns as a defensive coordinator. And then I kind of tried to analyze, ‘OK, is this a step forward or is this a lateral move?'”
It came down to two things: How much could he learn under Belichick? And how much would it improve his chances of getting the next head-coaching job in college or the NFL?
“That’s what Bill sold me on,” Saban said. “That it would be a positive move.”
He was right. Saban’s relationship with Belichick grew into perhaps the most meaningful relationship of his career. And after a few seasons with the Browns, Saban was a hot commodity. He accepted the Michigan State job but said if he’d waited a little longer, he would have had the opportunity to be a head coach in the NFL.
That chance with the Miami Dolphins would come later, of course, between stints at LSU and Alabama.
College: Auburn University
Background: Born in Savannah, Ga., but quickly relocated thanks to his father’s career in the Air Force, Alex grew up in Southern California where he watched the Atlanta Braves on TBS and screamed at the television whenever they ultimately blew it in the playoffs. A poster from the 1995 World Series hangs in his office as a reminder of the one time things didn’t go horribly and predictably wrong. He often wonders what Mark Lemke is doing these days and what Bobby Cox is up to if he’s not getting thrown out of games.
Going to college at Auburn was a happy accident — as simple as understanding what sports meant to the SEC and then picking a school at random. He hasn’t left the conference’s footprint since. After an internship in Anniston, Ala., and odd jobs at newspapers in Rome and Savannah, Ga., he began his writing career at the Tuscaloosa News where he covered high school football as well as Alabama baseball and gymnastics. A short time later, he joined ESPN, where he continues to cover college sports alongside a staff of talented and thoughtful reporters and editors.
Alex lives in Birmingham with his wife, Ashlie, who is a saint for putting up with her husband’s nonsensical job, and their three dogs, who make working from home much more tolerable.