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.
The Hawkeyes played at Michigan State twice — in 1983 and 1986 — while Saban was an assistant coach there, and Dee Stoops remembers her family visiting the Saban home.
“I guess we needed a break before we headed home,” Dee Stoops recalled. “That was a wonderful gesture on his part. That's just how they are.”
Saban left Michigan State after the 1987 season, and Ron Stoops died of a heart attack only months later during a Cardinal Mooney football game, but the families stayed in touch.
Bob Stoops remembers visiting Cleveland Browns practices and studying their defense with his uncle during Saban's four seasons there.
“He was always very good to my family,” Bob Stoops said.
The relationship continues today, with the Oklahoma and Alabama coaching staffs visiting one another to exchange ideas. Mike Stoops said the Sooners looked to Alabama during OU's transition last offseason to a 3-4 defensive scheme.
“There's some people in the coaching profession that you just have sort of a professional relationship with, that you always like to trade ideas and have mutual respect for, and Coach Stoops has always been one of the guys we've done that with,” Saban said.
‘You don't forget people who treat you like that'
Ten years ago, Saban and Stoops met for the first — and, until now, only — time as opposing head coaches in the Sugar Bowl, a game that determined the 2003 BCS national champion.
LSU beat the Sooners 21-14 that night, earning Saban the first of his four national titles as a collegiate head coach.
Dee Stoops never got a chance to visit with Saban or his wife, Terry, during that trip, but said she's determined to catch up with her old friends this time.
“I have to make sure I see them this trip,” she said. “My husband had a great admiration for Coach Saban. I think for sure, he would remember my Ron in a fond manner.”
There's no questioning the fondness with which the Stoops family matriarch remembers Saban and the early impact she believes he had on her boys' careers.
“You don't forget people who treat you like that,” she said. “Little did I know my kids would go on to be coaching in a prominent fashion, and the kindness and consideration he gave to our family left an impression on all of us.
“I always pride myself on my family being about more than X's and O's, and Nick Saban certainly is that.”