As Alabama won three of the last four national championships and conquered college football, its coach's widespread image became that of a villain, seen by many as cold, robotic and focused solely on winning at all costs.
But a 77-year-old woman in Youngstown, Ohio, paints a starkly different picture of the man once called “the devil himself” by a former assistant, and “Nicky Satan,” by a rival head coach.
She remembers Nick Saban as a warm, genuine family friend who not only welcomed her into his home, but also made a positive impact on her sons' coaching careers.
“I'm sure his early hospitality influenced our family, our kids,” said Dee Stoops, whose sons Bob and Mike will coach Oklahoma against Saban in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
“I just admire him, and I think he's very gracious with other coaches, win or lose. He's got a great manner about him.”
‘He could relate'
The Stoops family's relationship with Saban goes back to the early 1980s, when, as a young Ohio State assistant, Saban recruited the Youngstown area and developed friendships with several local high-school coaches, including Cardinal Mooney defensive coordinator Ron Stoops.
“We got to be good friends,” said Don Bucci, the longtime Cardinal Mooney head coach who trained all the Stoops boys and still serves as the school's athletic director. “Nick was in the Youngstown area quite a bit. He was relentless.”
Ron's son Mike — now Oklahoma's defensive coordinator — was a Cardinal Mooney star and a hot recruiting prospect who Saban tried luring to Columbus.
“They were after Mike,” Bucci remembered. “He was being recruited pretty heavily. There was no doubt he was gonna go to Iowa, along with Bobby.”
Mike Stoops did indeed follow in his brother Bob's footsteps and become an Iowa defensive back, but Saban's friendship with the Stoops family continued to grow throughout the 1980s.
Saban joined the Michigan State coaching staff in 1983 and often returned to Youngstown on recruiting trips.
“He could relate to Youngstown and the kind of people there,” said Ron Jr., the eldest Stoops boy who now coaches at Youngstown State. “It was only about three-and-a-half hours from Michigan State, and there were tough, hard-nosed people in both communities. He liked what he saw in Youngstown when he came to recruit, and he had a lot of good contacts there.”
‘He was always good to my family'
Throughout most of the 1980s, at least one Stoops boy was involved with Iowa football in some capacity, whether as a player or graduate assistant coach.