Berry Tramel

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Nick Saban: Not the vagabond Lou Saban was

by Berry Tramel Published: December 11, 2013
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The college football world awaits Mack Brown’s resignation, so it can start awaiting Nick Saban’s decision. Will he or won’t he go to Texas?

One reason some think Saban will leave Alabama is his vagabond nature. Never has Nick Saban seemed all that settled, anywhere. He’s been at Alabama now for seven seasons — can you believe it? — and that’s his longest stop anywhere.

Nick Saban grew up in West Virginia and went to school at Kent State — he was there during the infamous National Guard shootings — and then stayed there to coach, three years as a graduate assistant and two years on staff full-time.

From there, one year at Syracuse, two at West Virginia, two at Ohio State, one at Navy, five at Michigan State and two with the Houston Oilers, before finally getting a head coaching job at Toledo for the 1990 season.

Saban stayed with the Rockets one year. He became the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator for four years, then became Michigan State’s head coach for five. Then to LSU for five years, the Dolphins for two and now Bama for seven.

Is that a vagabond? I don’t know. That’s 42 football seasons; pretty impressive for a 62-year-old.  Thirteen employers in 42 years. I’ve seen better stability. I’ve also seen worse.

And nobody has seen worse than the famous football coach named Saban.

Lou Saban isn’t remembered by many, except when his name gets brought up because of Nick Saban. But time was, Lou Saban was a big-time coach. And the greatest football vagabond of them. A wayfarer. A football gypsy.

If the Sabans are related, they don’t know how. Lou Saban died in 2009 at age 87, and his wife said Lou wasn’t sure if he was related to Nick. Maybe they were distant cousins. Maybe not.

But long before Nick Saban was a gleam in Harvey Updike’s eye, Lou Saban was coaching football all over America. Coaching it well and coaching it quick. He was always off to another job. “Much-Traveled Lou” was Saban’s nickname.

Saban was the president of the New York Yankees in 1981-82; George Steinbrenner had been on Saban’s staff at Northwestern in 1955.

Lou Saban coached 49 football seasons, 1950-2002, with four dark seasons during that span. In those 49 years, Saban was a head coach for 43 seasons. And never lasted longer than five years on a job.

Take a breath. Here’s his resume’, best as we can piece it together.

Case Tech 1950-52

University of Washington assistant, 1953

Northwestern assistant 1954

Northwestern 1955

Western Illinois 1957-59

Boston Patriots 1960-61

Buffalo Bills 1962-65

Maryland 1966

Denver Broncos 1967-71

Buffalo Bills 1972-76

University of Cincinnati athletic director 1976 (lasted 19 days)

University of Miami 1977-78

Army 1979

Tampa Bay Downs racetrack executive 1980

New York Yankees president 1981-82

Central Florida 1983-84

Martin County (Fla.) High School assistant 1986-87

South Fork (Fla.) High School 1988

Georgetown (S.C.) High School 1989

Middle Georgia Heat Wave 1990 (semi-pro team)

Peru State College 1991

Tampa Bay Storm assistant 1992-93 (arena league)

Milwaukee Mustang 1994 (arena)

SUNY-Canton 1995-00

Chowan University 2001-02.

Now that’s a vagabond. Lou Saban was followed at Northwestern by Ara Parseghian. He was followed at Miami U. by Howard Schnellenberger. He coached the Buffalo Bills twice, for 117 games total, a record bested in Buffalo only by Marv Levy. Saban coached O.J. Simpson in Buffalo and Floyd Little in Denver. He was the first coach ever for the Boston Patriots, who of course became New England.

Saban coached the Bills to two AFL titles. The final two AFL titles, 1964 and 1965, before the advent of the Super Bowl. He was 95-99-7 in 16 years as an NFL or AFL coach, which is not a bad record.

The man could coach. He just couldn’t stay in a job long.

Compared to distant cousin Lou, Nick Saban is a bastion of stability.

 


by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The...
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