Three of the most seminal moments in Alabama coach Nick Saban’s life happened while he was in the state of Ohio – a national tragedy still unanswered, his father’s death and his only firing.
Saban’s No. 1 Crimson Tide (12-1) will play No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0), one of the few spots in Ohio where Saban has not coached, at 3:30 p.m. eastern time Friday in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, on ESPN.
On May 4, 1970, as a freshman at Kent State in Kent, Ohio, Saban was about to walk near the site where the Kent State Massacre was about to happen, but instead he and a friend went to lunch. During a student protest against the Vietnam War, the Ohio National Guard killed four students – Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Lee Scheur and William Knox Schroeder.
Krause was a classmate of Saban’s.
“To have students on your campus shot, killed, and I saw the aftermath,” Saban said to AL.com in 2016 before Alabama played Kent State.
“Nobody could ever quite figure out how that happened,” Saban said. “It was a pretty chilling experience, and something that makes you view things a little bit differently, and certainly have a much better appreciation of not taking for granted life itself.”
School closed for the semester, and Saban went home to Monongah, West Virginia. He returned and played as a sophomore defensive back at Kent State in 1970 for coach Don James. In 1972, Saban was a starting cornerback for the Golden Flashes’ only Mid-American Conference championship team at 4-1 that reached the Tangerine Bowl before losing to Tampa and finishing 6-5-1.
He began his coaching career under James at Kent State in 1973. After each game, he would call his father, Nick Saban Sr., who ran a Gulf gas station and diner back home and had coached Pop Warner football since Saban was a kid. But after a home game that September, Saban couldn’t reach his dad.
“And he was always at the gas station or at home,” Saban said.
His father had died of a heart attack at age 46. Saban later started the Nick’s Kids Foundation in 1998 while Michigan State’s head coach to honor his father’s work as a mentor to children. The foundation has distributed $8 million to various organizations and built more than a dozen Habitat for Humanity homes and playgrounds in addition to opening a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Nashville in memory of the elder Saban.
After another year as a GA at Kent State, Saban became a full-time assistant at Kent State, coaching linebackers in 1975 and ’76 before moving on to assistant jobs at Syracuse and at West Virginia.
In 1980, he got his biggest job to that point as a defensive backs coach at Ohio State under coach Earle Bruce. But on Dec. 30, 1981, Saban was fired for the first and only time in his life after a 31-28 win over Navy in the Liberty Bowl. Bruce, whose team was heavily favored, was upset at his defense’s effort and fired the whole defensive staff, even though the Buckeyes finished 9-3 and shared the Big Ten title.
Saban, who was distant cousins of former NFL coach Lou Saban, quickly bounced back and got a job coaching defensive backs at Navy. Saban was friends with New York Giants assistant coach Bill Belichick, whose father Steve Belichick was an assistant coach at Navy and helped Saban get the job.
Saban became defensive coordinator at Michigan State from 1983-87 and was a secondary coach with the Houston Oilers in 1988 and ’89 before getting his first head coaching job, and that was in back Ohio at Toledo. After a 9-2 season, he stayed in Ohio, but left for the NFL to become the a defensive coordinator under Belichick with the Cleveland Browns from 1991-94.
After that, he was head coach at Michigan State from 1995-99 and at LSU from 2000-04 with a national title in the 2003 season. He left and coached the Miami Dolphins in 2005 and ’06 before returning to the college level at Alabama from 2007 until now with six more national titles and a possible seventh on the way.
“I think you’re probably right about that,” Saban said at a press conference Thursday when asked if his time in Ohio formed the coach that he is today. “I played at Kent State. I started my coaching career at Kent State. I always recruited Ohio, mostly northeast Ohio – Akron, Canton, Youngstown, Cleveland for years and years when I was at Michigan State.”
In all, Saban spent 11 of his first 22 years as a coach in the state of Ohio.
“There was a time when we lived in Ohio and spent so much time there that we sort of felt like we were more residents of Ohio than we were of West Virginia, in terms of where we were from,” he said in reference to his wife Terry Saban, who is from Fairmont, West Virginia.
“And certainly, professionally, if not personally, a lot of things that helped me grow and develop as a coach happened in Ohio with all the experiences that we had,” Saban said.
Saban has long said he took a lot from the coaching style of James and even Bruce in addition to Belichick.
“Don James was an instrumental part in getting me started in coaching,” he said. “And certainly learned a tremendous amount from him and Earle Bruce and Bill Belichick. So the experiences that I had as a coach in Ohio really helped mold me philosophically into a lot of things that we believe in and that we try to implement in our program.”
Alabama junior starting cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis (hip) and freshman wide receiver/returner JoJo Earle (knee) are questionable for Friday’s game.
“Jalyn has practiced some,” Saban said. “We will make a game‑time decision on whether he’s able to play. He’s a mature player, and he knows whether he can go out there and do his job. And JoJo has practiced as well.”
Earle will also be a game-time decision, Saban said.
Armour-Davis has missed Alabama’s last two games. Earle has missed the last three.
QUOTES OF THE DAY
“I don’t have any patience. So anything that happens is a test of my patience, including sitting in this chair right now.”
-Nick Saban when asked at the press conference Thursday if the youth of his team tested his patience at times this season. But then moments later, he thanked the media as usual.
“Thank you all. Appreciate what you do for college athletics and creating all the interest that you do. I think it’s wonderful that we have a great sport and that you all promote it the way you do. So it’s great for the players. Thanks so much.”