Nick Saban: How Michigan State helped create one of college football's greatest icons
On Monday night, Nick Saban will be coaching for his 7th national championship.
If the Alabama front man was a school, he’d have enough title banners to place himself among the top 10 programs in college football history.
Yeah, he’s got some rings, hardware and accolades to go along with those 6 championships. Have you seen his office?! It’s been featured on ESPN a couple of times and it screams “this is what the peak of college football looks like, folks.”
He got his first taste of being elite in 2003 with LSU, and he’s won 5 titles at Alabama since 2009, the year Heisman-winning RB Mark Ingram helped lead the Tide to a 14-0 record and 37-21 championship victory over the Texas Longhorns at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Saban has also coached Heisman-hoisters RB Derrick Henry (2015) and WR DeVonta Adams — the first Heisman-WR since Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991.
Win or lose Monday night against Ohio State, Saban has solidified himself as a legend in the game — the man epitomizes excellence in one’s field. Tied with former ‘Bama icon Bear Bryant with 6 championships, Saban would put himself alone at the top of the list of coaches with the most titles should he beat the Buckeyes.
For comparison, Urban Meyer has 3 to his name — 2 at Florida and 1 at Ohio State — while Barry Switzer nabbed 3 at Oklahoma.
Both greats. All-time legends. Combined, they have as many national banners as Saban.
Tom Osborne got 3 at Nebraska.
Just think of what 7 would mean for Saban. He’s godlike in the ranks of coaches.
He’s at the top of his profession today, but 25-plus years ago, he was on his second stint — yes, second — at Michigan State, this time as a up-and-coming head coach. He was DB/DC from 1983-87 under MSU great George Perles. From 1995-99, Saban — who took over for his mentor — was the head coach of the Spartans. Then, before the 2000 Citrus Bowl, he abruptly bolted for bayou-life at LSU.
It was MSU’s best season in a decade and signs of things to come … most thought it was for the Spartans, but the big fortunes down the road were actually waiting for Saban, whose early years in East Lansing most certainly molded him into the coach he is in 2021.
The following is a history of pre-SEC Saban, relayed by MSU great Amp Campbell, who was recruited by Perles’ staff but ended up becoming an All-American under Saban. MSU’s influence can be seen in Saban, says Campbell. These days, the Alabama State DB coach remains close with Saban.
Very few people know as much about Saban’s rise to fame as Campbell, so consider this as must-read pre-SEC Saban material.
Enjoy the history lesson.
Hopefully it’s as fun to read as it was to write.
Amp Campbell remembers the day he met Nick Saban, who assumed control of the Spartans in the wake of George Perles’ departure. Even back in 1995, Saban was Saban — a no-nonsense, straight-to-business perfectionist.
“It’s kind of interesting, you know? Being there my freshman year with Coach Perles was totally different when Coach Saban came in January ’95,” Campbell said. “I remember our first team meeting. He pretty much set the tone on how the program was going to be ran. I remember that they took all of the TVs out of the weight room. It was very, very serious structure. The Fourth Quarter program was very tough — and it’s still the same program that (Saban) is running today. … I just remember him setting the tone for us, how it was going to be. It was not going to be a free-for-all, you know what I mean?”
It wasn’t exactly a “free-for-all” under Perles — there were rules and regulations — but the differences were clear in the eyes of the players. Perles was more laidback in his older age, while Saban was on the rampage, looking to immediately implement his style and move on to a new era in East Lansing.
“It was really tough,” Campbell said of the change.
But it was a good tough. MSU needed someone like Saban, and Saban needed a program that was ready for his personality and demeanor. It was a perfect fit.
For the past 20-plus years, Saban has churned out stars on both sides of the ball, but his defensive players have seemingly gained more notice. Saban, a former DC/DB coach at MSU, started that trend while serving as head coach of the Spartans. It’s not a coincidence that, in the early 2000s, LSU started pumping out NFL-level defenders.
And then, that cycle made its way to Alabama.
Everywhere Saban goes, defensive players become stars.
“You look at Eric Morris, he goes … I think in the 4th round. Renaldo Hill gets drafted. Ray Hill, who’s passed away, he goes to the New England Patriots. Thomas Wright goes to the Tennessee Titans. I could go on and on,” Campbell said of his former MSU teammates who were boosted by Saban’s tutelage.
“There are so many guys that played in the secondary, and also played defensively (at other positions), that played for him, gets drafted and plays in the NFL. Why? It’s because the system that you play in with him — with him being a defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick and being in the NFL for so long — (his system) installs techniques and fundamentals that you will use at the next level. He’s pretty much preparing you for that.”
To this day, Campbell uses Saban-taught techniques with his players. It’s a fail-proof system that never goes out of style.
Since Saban, MSU has gone through a laundry list of coaches. The hiring process, post-Saban, involved looking for coaches with Saban-esque traits — those with some sort of connection to college football’s top coach.
“I think (Saban’s tenure) was a huge impact why Coach (Mark) Dantonio became the head coach there. Being up under Coach Saban (as a DC) and the success we had while he was the head coach there,” Campbell said. “The kids that (Saban) brought in kind of resembled — a little bit — the kids that Coach D had brought in. I think also now, with Coach (Mel) Tucker, who was on Coach Dantonio’s staff when (Dantonio) was at Ohio State. Also, Coach Tucker was a grad assistant at LSU for Coach Saban.”
Throw it all together, stir it in the pot, and look for similar results — at least that’s how Campbell views Tucker at MSU.
Campbell holds Saban in high regard, and has for the past 20-plus years. He’s had many interactions with Saban, but the closing moments were the memories that Campbell remembers most.
“If I had to look back on it, the one that I would probably say (stuck with me most) was his last team meeting — when he came and told the team that he was leaving to go to LSU,” Campbell said. “It was kind of interesting, when we had that team meeting at 6 o’clock in the morning and he told us that he was leaving to go to LSU, which I had already known before that because I was getting phone calls from the media down in Baton Rouge saying that Mrs. Saban was there looking at homes. I remember after that team meeting — like it was yesterday — for some reason, he called me into his office — out of all the players — and we sat and talked. I had one more game left to play there, that was the (Citrus Bowl) … and I’m crying like my mom and dad was getting a divorce, you know?”
It was a lengthy and emotional conversation. However, despite Saban’s departure, Campbell felt the 4 years with Saban were a “blessing.”
“I just remember him telling me, if there was anything he could ever do for me … you know?” said Campbell, who visited with Saban in Baton Rouge after signing with the New Orleans Saints in 2000.
Why Saban wins
Every coach studies opponents. But not every coach does it like Saban, who is a meticulously detailed master of Xs and Os. He spends hours upon hours watching film and studying tendencies. He makes sure that players are well-conditioned and ready. He prides himself on being the most-prepared on game day in fall facets, and he’s always been that way.
“His team is going to be in shape, well-conditioned and they’re going to be physical,” Campbell said. “You’re going to be prepared the best way possible for your opponent when you go out there. You’re going to know your opponent in and out. Their weaknesses, their strengths. Every one (of Saban’s players) who touch that field and play are going to know who can hurt you … what they can do and what they can’t do.”
Prior to game day, Saban holds a meeting with players. It’s basically a class of sorts, where he calls upon his players to deliver reports on the player/players they’ll be facing the next day. Whether it’s LB on RB or DB on WR, each position group goes through and discusses their opponent in great detail.
“They talk about how they line up, is there anything (a particular player) gives away? Is it a run or a pass? Does his (WR) splits give away anything that tells you what type of route he’s going to run?”
All of that was common at Michigan State, the launching pad of Saban’s illustrious career. On Monday night, he’ll go for championship No. 7. If you told Campbell that this would happen, way back in the late 90s, he would have 100 percent believed in the prediction.
“Honestly, I would have said that I’d believe it. … I’d believe it. The reason why is because, just knowing his work ethic and how hard he grinds. I remember when I was down in New Orleans, when I signed a free-agent deal with the Saints. Me and Robert Newkirk (Saints teammate) drove from New Orleans down to Baton Rouge to hang out with him for the weekend. This is in the summer, and he was still trying to find out a way how to win. It’s like he’s always a step ahead of the game. I think the work that he puts in is unbelievable.”
Stories like this are probably common with those who really know Saban. Whether it was at LSU or at Alabama, those close to the legendary coach always cite his relentless preparation and work ethic. Today, he’s the man at Alabama and one of the most recognized figures in an all of sports.
Twenty years ago, though, he was an ascending young coach looking to make a mark with the Spartans. East Lansing may have been just a quick stop during the journey, but it was most certainly a catalyst that shot Saban into stardom.
Cover photo of Nick Saban courtesy of Michigan State athletics.