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Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer 344d

The evolution of Nick Saban through his milestone victories

College Football, Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU Tigers, Michigan State Spartans, Toledo Rockets

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Alabama players, assistants and staffers gathered around Nick Saban as he stood in the middle of the visitor's locker room inside Tiger Stadium late Saturday night.

They whooped and hollered for their coach who turned 65 years old a week earlier on Halloween.

But while beating No. 13-ranked LSU to remain unbeaten was thrilling, this was a different kind of celebration.

Ed Marynowitz, who was a key part of Alabama's personnel department from 2008-12 and returned to the program before the start of this season, clapped as he stood to Saban's left. Then he signaled to his coach with his hands: two-zero-zero.

"Two hundred!" Marynowitz said.

On Saturday, Saban became the third-fastest coach to reach 200 wins in major college football history. He needed only 261 games to get there.

"You have to tip your hat to Coach Saban," said sophomore running back Damien Harris. "What he's done not only for us, but for college football ... it's something we may never see again."

It took Saban 17 years as an assistant to land his first head-coaching job. And a couple of brief stints in the NFL not withstanding, he has never looked back.

Along the way, from his first win to his 200th, he has evolved into arguably the greatest coach of his generation.


Career win No. 1
Sept. 8, 1990: Toledo 20, Miami (Ohio) 14

On the road, Toledo runs the ball well, doubles Miami's time of possession and cruises to a win. Saban is happy. Well, sort of. The 28-year-old rookie head coach suffered a mess of a game on special teams. An extra point was blocked. A snap sailed over his punter's head. A kickoff was returned 92 yards for a touchdown. After gaining 224 yards in the first half, Toledo manages just 74 yards in the second. "I'm a perfectionist," Saban tells reporters, "and we certainly weren't perfect." For the first time, he invokes the "24-hour rule." After that time is up, the celebration is over and it's on to the next chore.

Al Bohl understood he didn't have the prestige of an Alabama or a Florida State to lure his next head football coach at Toledo. So the former athletic director had to sift through clues from less established coaches.

Bohl looked over Saban's résumé as an assistant at Kent State, Syracuse, West Virginia, Michigan State and Ohio State, and liked that he would already be acquainted with Toledo's recruiting footprint. And his two seasons as an assistant in the NFL helped, too.

Then he aced the interview, beating out Joe Tiller for the job.

"If you play chess, he was the master," Bohl said.

Dean Pees remembers flying into town to start his new job as Saban's assistant. He picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated, he said, and was shocked when he read coaches chastising the move to fire the previous coach and bring in Saban. He remembers thinking, "Everyone hates us."

But Saban was undeterred. Thanks to his tutelage under legendary coach Don James, he already had a detailed plan of how to run the program.

"I was so impressed from the first staff meeting we had that, 'This is how we're going to do the winter program, here's when we're going to start and finish,'" Pees said. "Everything was dated and timed and laid out. It's the same way on the football field. There's no gray area."

It paid dividends immediately.

"The talent we had at Toledo Nick's year was basically the same as the year before," Bohl said. "What Nick did was change the attitude."

Toledo finished 9-2 (after going 6-5 the previous year), but Bohl insists it could have been an undefeated season if not for a couple of fourth-quarter losses.

In the midst of all the excitement, Saban slipped out the back door and returned to the NFL to serve as an assistant under Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns.

Bohl included in Saban's contract a buyout for another college job but forgot the NFL.

"I was learning, too," Bohl said. "That's the mistake I made."


Career win No. 25
Oct. 4, 1997: Michigan State 31, Minnesota 10

Michigan State is off to the best start of Saban's tenure in his third season leading the program. After going into Notre Dame and winning 23-7 two weeks earlier, the Spartans return home 3-0. Todd Schultz lights up the Minnesota secondary for 304 yards and three touchdowns. Minnesota coach Glen Mason sees the genius of his former fellow assistant back in the '80s at Ohio State. But he sees a changed man, too, a more serious coach than he remembers sharing a beer with on the road recruiting. At Big Ten spring meetings he'll tell Saban, "Geez, you're so uptight." Mason says Saban told him, "I don't have time for that anymore."

After four years with the Browns, Michigan State came calling.

It was the perfect opportunity for Saban. Not only would he have the resources of a Power 5 job, but he already had plenty of familiarity with the program, having been an assistant from 1983-87.

But the transition to big-time college football wasn't easy. Michigan and Ohio State dominated the conference and Michigan State would win six games in each of Saban's first two seasons.

It wasn't for a lack of trying. Or, for that matter, a lack of coaching acumen.

Former assistant Mark Dantonio described Saban as "extremely determined, a tireless worker and tireless recruiter."

But it was a slow build, mining the Midwest for talent. Former assistant Gary Tranquill called Saban a "bulldog" on the recruiting trail, finding gems such as Plaxico Burress, Renaldo Hill and T.J. Duckett.

Although the quality of the roster improved the first couple of years, the product on the field wasn't making significant strides. Saban was still living and dying with every win and every loss. There was no big picture.

Michigan State would finish 7-5 and sixth in the conference in 1997. The lackluster showing was punctuated by a four-touchdown loss to Washington in a bowl game.

Two years later, Michigan State beat Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan en route to a 9-2 regular-season record. The Spartans would go on to play in the Citrus Bowl, but Saban had already left.

He was off to LSU. None of his assistants joined him.


Career win No. 50
Nov. 11, 2000: LSU 20, Ole Miss 9

To lure Saban from Michigan State, LSU made him the first million-dollar coach in the SEC West, and receivers coach Stan Hixon remembers reading the headlines in the paper questioning what they'd paid for. But he and everyone in the building knew there would be growing pains. "We lost some good players and had to kick a few off," Hixon said. But despite an inexplicable Week 4 loss to UAB, things are starting to come together. After losing 41-9 at Florida, LSU wins three straight at home before going on the road to face Ole Miss and its star running back Deuce McAlllister. But the defense holds McAllister to 48 yards on 24 carries and instead it's LSU's Domanick Davis who dominates, rushing for two touchdowns as Saban wins the first road game at LSU since September 1998.

It's hard to think of Saban without a national championship.

But as he arrived in Baton Rouge, his only trophy as a head coach was a Mid-American Conference championship Toledo shared with Central Michigan.

"He had a lot to prove," said LSU quarterback Josh Booty.

Booty said Saban's initial message to the team was straightforward: "We're going to build a championship team here, and I'm not meaning on our side of the division."

Everything Saban learned at Michigan State was amplified in Baton Rouge. He built a staff from scratch, including offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and tight ends coach Derek Dooley.

Saban called Hixon on Christmas morning to offer him the receivers coach position, and they hit the ground running.

Hixon remembers being in the staff meeting room where Dooley had set up the recruiting board. The board was big, the names were small and everything looked good to Hixon. Then Saban walked in and told Dooley, "We're not getting this done right."

The next week, the board took up the entire wall.

Whether it was X's and O's or mental conditioning, Saban wanted LSU prepared. He even had the players do karate during spring practice.

Listening to Booty talk about the lack of experience on that 2000 team, it's a wonder LSU went 8-4.

Saban was a little rougher around the edges than he is now, but Booty could see what was coming after he left that season.

"He was developing that formula," Booty said. "He knew it was going to work. He was going to stick to his guns. ... We just caught it at the beginning."


Career win No. 100
Oct. 18, 2008: Alabama 24, Ole Miss 20

While Saban's return from the NFL was expected to wake a sleeping giant at Alabama, no one knew it would happen so quickly. Year 1 was a struggle with a number of close losses, but Saban's philosophy known simply as "The Process" had taken hold and a bowl win bolstered players' belief. "We had a different mentality about us," said veteran QB John Parker Wilson. "We were fed up with mediocrity." Spring and fall camp had a sense of focus, a stellar freshman class came in ready to play and Alabama started out 2008 with guns blazing, beating No. 9 Clemson in Atlanta. The Tide won seven straight before hosting Ole Miss, where they trailed for the first time all season. The deficit lasted all of 75 seconds before Wilson threw a 26-yard touchdown pass. Alabama scored all 24 of its points in the first half, letting the defense take it from there.

It's eerie how Saban's first few years at LSU parallel that of his time at Alabama.

There were monumental upsets in the first season (UAB beats LSU, Louisiana-Monroe beats Alabama), and a quick jolt in Year 2 with double-digit wins.

It took four seasons at LSU to win a national title. At Alabama, it took three.

The emphasis, as usual, was placed on winning the line of scrimmage. The offense was powered by big running backs and the quarterback served as the game manager. A stout, dominant defense would take care of the rest.

Recruiting, as always, was priority No. 1. With his first full signing class at Alabama, Saban signed a murderers' row of future pros, including Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Marcel Dareus, Mark Barron and Courtney Upshaw.

In 2008, Alabama learned how to win, reeling off 12 straight victories to start the season. And against Florida in the SEC championship game, it also learned how to lose.

"It was still building the thing," Wilson said. "Building up the players and building the program. A lot of that had to do with discipline and making sure everyone is rowing the same direction, and not just on the field but the coaches, the staff, everybody in the same building.

"The road is paved now, but when I was there back then, it was rocky. We had a lot of changing we had to make, a lot of things."


Career win No. 200
Nov. 5, 2016: Alabama 10, LSU 0

It was an unceremonious return to Baton Rouge, as chants of "F--- you, Saban" rang throughout Tiger Stadium before kickoff. But this wasn't the Saban they adored in purple and gold. It wasn't even the Saban they got to know early on at Alabama. He has overhauled his offense and for the first time in his career is starting a true freshman at quarterback. Jalen Hurts struggled, but both QB and coach keep their cool. On fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Saban does something unimaginable five years ago and leaves his kicker on the sideline. Hurts doesn't score, but a couple of drives later he runs in the go-ahead touchdown. "It wasn't pretty," Saban says of the 10-0 win. But he's proud, especially of the way the defense held Leonard Fournette to 2.1 yards per carry and didn't allow a point.

John Parker Wilson laughs at the idea of a more mellow Nick Saban.

He agrees the facade of his former coach is a little less rough around the edges these days.

"Every now and then you see him smile now," Wilson said, "so that's changed."

After building program after program and leaving before the lease was up, it's understood now that Saban has firmly planted his roots in Tuscaloosa, where he's in the midst of his 10th season with no end in sight.

He has managed to maintain his historic success because he's married to his principals while being open to change. While he has maintained core values such as the ability to win the line of scrimmage and be physical at the point of attack, he has overhauled the means of attack.

The team that won the 2009 title is almost unrecognizable from the one that won it all last season.

Maybe the most tangible evidence of Saban's forward-thinking was his most recent choice of offensive coordinator: Lane Kiffin. Saban brought in the star-crossed coach following the 2013 season and let him run the show. Saban was OK with going all-in on the spread and even pushed Kiffin to run more no-huddle. 

And none of that has come at the cost of defense, as shown by Saturday's shutout of LSU.

But that defense has also morphed over time. Big-bodied linebackers like Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower are no longer required. The days of a 350-pound nose guard like Terrance Cody are over. Rather, it's 230-pound athletes like Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans rushing off the edge.

College football became a passing game and now Alabama is on pace this season to more than double the number of sacks it had in all of 2008.

"The biggest thing he does better than everybody is he adapts," Wilson said. "He changes."

What he does next is anyone's guess.

The only question is how much longer he's willing to do it.

"While Nick enjoys playing golf ... I don't see him being able to retire easily," said Robert Witt, the recently retired Alabama chancellor. "He's just too used to the intensity. So I think we're going to be blessed with a few more years."

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