Before college football stardom, Nick Saban brought intense style to Syracuse

Before college football stardom, Nick Saban brought intense style to Syracuse

first_imgShortly before Nick Saban’s first game at Syracuse as a coach, Art Monk and Bill Hurley looked at each other, puzzled. Monk, the future NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver, shook his head as he stood next to Hurley while Saban instructed Syracuse defensive players to tackle one another. There was Saban, 25 years old, pacing the field at Parker Stadium in Oregon as players tried to bring down one another, just minutes prior to kickoff of the 1977 season opener.“I remember watching those guys on defense go through a few drills and me just shaking my head,” said Hurley, then-Syracuse starting quarterback and current wide receivers coach at Albany. “I was like, ‘What the hell are they doing? Why would somebody be live-tackling at pregame warmups?’ I was glad I didn’t play defense.”The drills before his first game on the job reflected Saban’s nature. They embodied the unsparing, unsmiling disposition possessed by one of the most successful figures in all of college sports. On that mid-September afternoon four decades ago, Saban illustrated the unwavering, persistent coaching style that has propelled him from defensive ends coach at Syracuse to arguably the best coach in the history of college football.Saban, who coached at Syracuse 40 years ago this fall, roamed the halls of Manley Field House and Archbold Stadium before several stops on his rise to coaching stardom, including his current role as head coach at Alabama, where the undefeated Crimson Tide appears poised for another national championship run.Saban, who turned 66 on Tuesday, brought to Syracuse meticulous micromanagement, few smiles and similar intensity to what he now shows at Alabama, where he has won three national titles since 2007.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text“All business,” said Glenn Williams, an offensive lineman on the Syracuse 1977 team. “I remember him exactly the way he is today. When I see him on TV, I think back to him at Syracuse. His stature, his demeanor was exactly the same.”Saban could not be reached for comment on this story.Nick Saban, with his whistle on the right, drilled Syracuse’s 1977 team hard, players said. Courtesy of SU ArchivesSaban grew up in West Virginia’s coal country. After Syracuse, he coached for West Virginia, Ohio State, the Cleveland Browns, LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama, among other destinations. His reputation is an excellent defensive coach, top-notch recruiter and cutting-edge leader, said former SU players.In 1999, Saban arrived at LSU and in four years rebuilt a struggling program into a national champion in 2007. After leaving the Tigers, Saban turned Alabama back into a national powerhouse. This year, he will make more than $11 million for the top-ranked Crimson Tide, according to USA Today’s salary report.But Syracuse was where Saban took a step toward that hefty payday. A whistle always hung around his neck, former players said. He wore white socks high to the mid-calf and often wore a Syracuse collared shirt. He gave impassioned locker room speeches, players said, even though he was only about 5-foot-9, 170 pounds and four years removed from college.“He was very boisterous,” Williams said. “When he spoke, he got his voice across, loud and noticeable.”Since Saban departed Syracuse, New York, he has won three national titles at Alabama, one at Louisiana State and has become one of the most recognizable college football coaches in the country. Courtesy of Alabama AthleticsWhen he arrived in central New York, Saban wasn’t a stranger to Syracuse football. He served as a graduate assistant at Kent State in 1974, when the Golden Flashes pulled out a last-minute win over SU at Archbold Stadium.Though he wasn’t much older than the players, Saban did not shy away from speaking up. One afternoon at Manley Field House, Syracuse defensive back Warren S. Harvey was walking toward his locker. He nodded as Saban walked by. That was not good enough.“What’s the haps?” Harvey recalled Saban asking.The coach thought Harvey wasn’t acknowledging him properly, and he didn’t fully pass by until Harvey said something. Harvey nodded again and asked how Saban was doing, then they continued walking in opposite directions.“He was just as demanding as he is now,” said Harvey, who added that players were disappointed when Saban left Syracuse for West Virginia after only one season.Frank Maloney, Syracuse’s head coach from 1974 to 1980, interviewed Saban for the position at SU. Dennis Fitzgerald, Kent State’s head coach, played college football with Maloney at Michigan. When a position opened at SU, Fitzgerald recommended Saban to Maloney. Saban impressed him in the interview and earned the job, Maloney said.Maloney did not recall specifics from that year, but he said he found Saban to be more forthcoming with players than most other coaches with whom he had worked. Saban spoke up in team events and practices, often giving his opinion during coaches meetings. He “didn’t have a single smile in him,” Maloney said.Syracuse finished 6-5 in 1977 under head coach Frank Maloney. Quarterback Bill Hurley attempted 201 passes and 200 rushes on the season.Courtesy of SU ArchivesOne day in the fall of 1977, on the steps of Goldstein Alumni & Faculty Center, Ron Cavanagh was chatting with Saban. Cavanagh, then a professor at SU and member of the Athletic Policy Board, assisted with Syracuse football recruiting. During an encounter with Saban, they exchanged ideas about high school players they wanted to bring to SU, as well as defensive ideas.Cavanagh recalled being impressed with Saban’s foresight. Within months on the job, he had already recruited several players for the following year, despite being only an outside linebackers coach. Based on that brief conversation near Watson Hall, Cavanagh described Saban as “unusually energetic” and a brilliant defensive coach for his age.“He appeared not only serious, but he had an energy and an intelligence about him,” Cavanagh said. “He carried himself with a sense of mission. He just had that presence about him that you knew he was going to go somewhere. It’s gratifying Syracuse had a role in shaping him.” Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on November 2, 2017 at 12:56 am Contact Matthew: mguti100@syr.edu | @MatthewGut21last_img

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