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THURSDAY, JANUARY 4, 2007
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Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville and then-LSU head coach Nick Saban during a chat before Auburn's 10-9 win Sept. 18, 2004. After Saban was named Alabama head football coach Wednesday, the two will meet on the field again in the 2007 Iron Bowl.
Daily file photo by Dan Henry
Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville and then-LSU head coach Nick Saban during a chat before Auburn's 10-9 win Sept. 18, 2004. After Saban was named Alabama head football coach Wednesday, the two will meet on the field again in the 2007 Iron Bowl.

Family and football
New Tide coach shows
his intensity for both

By Mark Edwards
medwards@decaturdaily.com · 340-2461

New Alabama football coach Nick Saban clearly prefers football to fashion.

If he wears a tie to his 10 a.m. news conference Thursday in Tuscaloosa, it will mark one of the few times you'll see him so dressed like that.

"I don't have a philosophy that I need to wear a tie," Saban told The Advocate of Baton Rouge, La., in 1999.

"But if it helps us win, I'll wear one every day."

Perhaps that sums up Saban best as a coach. In digging through Saban's background and published reports about him through the past 10 years, it seems clear that Saban keeps his focus on family and football and little else.

Nick Lou Saban, 55, named for his father Nick Saban Sr. and cousin Lou Saban, a former coach for the Buffalo Bills, grew up in Fairmont, W.Va., with family and sports foremost on his mind, and that never changed.

"One thing you get with Nick Saban is he's football all the way," then-Michigan State offensive coordinator Morris Watts told The Advocate in 1999. "He's a very smart football coach, and a very, very intense person. He gets up every day and tries to figure out a way to beat you.

"He's not a guy who's interested in a lot of other things, but he's got more than he shows personality-wise. In that way, he's misunderstood. He's so involved with things that interest him a lot of times he gives the appearance he's not very interested in talking."

He made that impression at Michigan State, where he coached during 1995-99 before heading to LSU.

In an interview with The Associated Press in 1999, then-Michigan State senior soccer player Brady Demling of St. Louis said, "I've heard bad things about him. That he's not a very nice guy."

Demling added that Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo seems more in touch with students.

"When I see Izzo, he says, 'Hi.' I've seen Saban — cold shoulder," he said.

But his friends and his wife of 35 years, Terry Saban, have told reporters that when Saban seems a little too much in his own world, others shouldn't take it personally.

Terry Saban, who grew up near Nick in West Virginia, said that her husband takes after his father in that regard.

Nick Saban Sr., owned Saban's Dairy King, a restaurant, and Saban's Service, a gas station. Growing up, Nick Jr. pumped gas at the service station, which was down a hill from the family home.

Nick Sr. also used to coach Nick Jr.'s Pop Warner football teams, which always were called the Black Diamonds. Nick Sr. helped start the program in the 1960s, and it still survives.

At one point, the team won 27 straight games during three seasons.

"People think Nick is to tough, even to the point that they think he doesn't have social skills and can't tell a joke," Terry Saban told the Miami Herald in 2005. "Well, multiply that times 100, and you'll understand his dad."

His father died of a heart attack in 1973 shortly after Saban had secured a graduate assistant coach's job at Kent State, his alma mater. He said that he quit his job and headed home to help his mother, Mary Saban, run the family businesses. However, his mother sent him back to Kent State.

"She told me, 'Your father and I didn't work this hard and demand that you go away to school just so you could run the gas station if he died,' " Saban told the Herald.

His dedication to football hasn't wavered since.

Former Michigan State coach George Perles hired Saban as defensive coordinator in 1983, and Saban stayed through the 1987 season before heading to the NFL.

"I remember seeing him in his office, in a dark room, looking at the same film over and over and over again," Perles told The Advocate in 2004. "He'd stay in there all night. I couldn't get him out. Hours meant nothing to him. And that's because he loves coaching."

When Saban coached the Miami Dolphins during 2005-06, he sometimes appeared angry with reporters during news conferences. Sometimes they would ask him about that, and according to the Herald in 2005, he often would reply, "I'm not angry, I'm just intense."

But family remains on par with football. According to a 2006 NFL.com story, when Saban received an $8,000 bonus from the Cleveland Browns when the team made the 1995 playoffs, he sent the money home to his mother, who paid off the mortgage on the family's home.

According to the Herald, Saban often mixes football and family.

Nick and Terry have two children — 18-year-old Nicholas and 14-year-old Kristen. And if Saban's tenure at the Dolphins is an indication, Alabama's players will hear plenty about his family.

When asked questions about the team, he often replies with a story about his wife or children.

"I don't use these analogies to tell people about my family," Saban told the Herald. "I'm not really opening the front door and saying, 'This is our business. These are our problems. How can you relate to them?'

"I kind of use them more as generalizations to relate lessons. I try to do it in a general way."

The stories deal with good times as well as bad.

"Nick is pulling from his frame of reference," Terry Saban said. "We are very simple people. We don't travel; we come from very grass-roots, hard-working people.

"We can't tell stories that go very much beyond our home. The examples he's trying to get people to understand how he feels come from dinner. They come from bringing home bad grades and how to deal with that, from your dog licking your face at night when nobody else wants to."

His family background also has influenced how he deals with his players and assistant coaches.

"One thing about Nick is that he's a very demanding individual," Gil Brandt, a former NFL player personnel chief, told The Advocate. "You know, his dad had a filling station, and I think when people come from that strong work ethic, they demand more of people.

"You may hear some of his former assistants say they didn't like working for him, but the reason is he works hard and he asks his people to work hard."

But as rock solid as his family life, his work ethic and his dedication to family appear to be, why does he switch jobs so often?

Alabama marks his 12th coaching job since finishing his playing career at Kent State in 1972. He hasn't stayed anywhere longer than five years. He always left on his own — never did anyone fire him.

In looking through past comments about Saban, it doesn't seem so easy to nail him down as a college or pro coach.

He left an NFL assistant coach's job for Michigan State in 1995. Then before MSU played its bowl game in 1999, he left for LSU.

"He loves the college game," Rick Venturi, who was on the same Cleveland Browns staff with Saban in 1994, told The Advocate. "He really does. The college game really motivates him."

But when Saban left LSU for the Dolphins after the 2004 season, Perles and former Washington coach Don James told the Advocate that they thought he prefered the NFL.

"With him winning the national championship (in 2004), he has accomplished a lot on the collegiate level," said James, who coached Saban at Kent State. "Everyone has a goal in their career regardless of what they're doing. I'm sure coach's goal is to be an NFL coach and win a Super Bowl."

Said Perles: "All he cares about is coaching. He's bound and determined to be an NFL coach. He has had many opportunities in the past, but (the Dolphins) would be a great spot for him."

However, in a 1999 interview with the Detroit Free Press, Perles gave additional insight into why Saban often listens to the siren's call of other coaching jobs.

"Remember, all us coaches, we're all phys-ed majors. There's a lot of people who can do what we do, and we know it, so it makes us insecure.

"When you get an opportunity, you take it."

Also, maybe the insecurity comes from the nature of the business, where Alabama can fire Mike Shula on Nov. 26 — less than 11 months after he led his team to a 10-2 season and received a contract extension.

"It's not just the money, but security," Terry Saban told The Advocate in 2000 after LSU made her husband one of the top-five paid coaches in the country at $1.2 million a year.

"It's about not having to look over your shoulder."

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