A few of you have forwarded to me today this story from SI.com (and apparently SI the magazine itself, as well) on Nick Saban.
The story includes some good detail on the influence that Don James had on Saban, who played and coached for James at Kent State. Worth reading on every level.
The relationship of James and Saban, though, is hardly new news.
In fact, I tried to write about in in 1997, my first year covering the Huskies for the Tacoma News Tribune. And what the heck? I don’t usually do a lot of personal digressions on here, but I’ve got a few quick minutes to kill while waiting for practice today and maybe some of this will interest some of you.
That season, if you recall, was the year the Huskies played Michigan State and a young head coach named Nick Saban in the Aloha Bowl on Christmas Day in Honolulu in front of mostly family and friends. That was also the same year Washington State played Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
In the kind of thing newspapers used to do, it was suggested shortly after the matchups were set that I go to Michigan for a few days and come up with some stories on both the Spartans and Wolverines to preview both of those bowl games. So I did some research and came up with a few ideas, one of which was on the relationship of Saban and James.
And as far as I knew, I’d arranged with the Michigan State sports info people to get a few minutes alone with Saban following what was to be a group press conference to preview the game. So during that press conference, I didn’t ask any of my carefully prepared questions. When the press conference ended, I noticed Saban turning quickly to leave — this was just Saban’s third year as a head coach, and I didn’t know much about his reputation for enjoying talking to reporters about as much as he might like drinking milk that had been left out in the sun for a month.
So I ran up to Saban and quickly introduced myself and explained what I wanted to ask and if he had a few minutes. He responded that “this is when I usually leave.” But when I asked again, he folded his arms, sighed, and agreed to a couple quick questions.
He mostly just gave boilerplate answers about respecting and admiring James, etc., but no real detail or insight, and after about a minute hustled on out of there. My story ended up being mostly James (and former Michigan State coach George Perles, who couldn’t have been more gracious) talking about Saban. It wasn’t the story I’d intended, and thankfully isn’t available on-line anywhere (in fact, the best article of the whole trip came from an hour-long one-on-one I got in Ann Arbor with Bo Schembechler, who like Perles, couldn’t have been nicer — something that’s not uncommon with retired coaches. He even, if I recall right, made me coffee).
Of course, at that moment, no one anywhere had any indication that Nick Saban would one day go on to become known as one of the greatest coaches in college football history.
One of the subplots to the 1997 Aloha Bowl was the relative disappointment that had been Michigan State’s season — they’d gotten into the Aloha Bowl mostly by virtue of an unexpected rout of Penn State in their final regular season game.
And to that point, Saban was a mere 19-15-1 as a head coach, and had a reputation for flopping in bowl games — his Michigan State team had been beaten 38-0 by Stanford and a coach named Tyrone Willingham in the Sun Bowl the year before.
MSU flopped again against the Huskies, and if anyone anywhere guessed on that day that Jim Lambright would be out of coaching forever one year later while Saban would eventually go on to a Hall of Fame career, they are lying.
The Huskies dominated from start-to-finish in beating the Spartans 51-23 in what was the only bowl win in four tries for Lambright as UW’s head coach.
That win, though, also helps make that 1997 UW team a great what-might-have-been? I’ve always thought it hasn’t been accurately remembered the level of injury that team suffered, especially at the end of the season — the 2004 and 2008 seasons, which were doomed all along anyway, are probably the only other ones I remember during the time I’ve covered the team where so many key players suffered so many significant injuries.
I’ve always thought had simply Rashaan Shehee been healthy UW would have beaten Oregon that year (when UW was 7-1 and undefeated in Pac-10 play) which would have set up a likely winner-take-all Apple Cup. Instead, the injuries precipitated a three-game free fall that began with that Oregon game that also helped set the stage for the disastrous (by the standards of the time, anyway) that cost Lambright his job.
Saban would go on to eventually turn Michigan State around in 1999, get hired at LSU by Mark Emmert, and go on to become what he has.
But on Christmas Day 1997, the Sabainzation of college football seemed far, far away. What he might have had to say about it, though, I have no idea.