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Washington legend Don James is the reason Nick Saban is at Bama

Had it not been for Don James, Nick Saban isn't sure what direction his life would have taken.

Maybe he would have sold cars. Maybe he would have opened his own gas station, like his dad did in West Virginia. Maybe he would have climbed the corporate ladder in the business world.

But James opened the door to the coaching world, and then nudged a resistant Saban through that door.

"I didn't really want to be a coach. I never really thought about being a coach," Saban said last week. "But Coach James had other ideas, and I'm glad he did."

Imagine that: The same guy who's closing in on coaching immortality -- if he's not already there -- with four of the past seven national championships didn't want to be a coach.

But it's true, and it took an impromptu meeting with James right after Saban's senior season at Kent State (along with a little coercing) to change the course of college football history. It's a meeting that Saban has thought about more than a few times over the years, especially as Alabama's College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with Washington approaches (3 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN and the ESPN App).

James, who died in 2013 after a bout with pancreatic cancer, coached 18 seasons at Washington while on his way to enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame. He guided the Huskies to a share of the 1991 national championship and will forever be known by U-Dub fans as "The Dawgfather."

To Saban, he was like a second father.

"He meant so much to me and so much to my career," said Saban, who is in his 10th season at Alabama. "A lot of what we do, from an organizational standpoint and practice standpoint, came directly from Coach James."

And it's a good thing for Alabama fans that Saban listened so intently to his old coach all those years ago, and ditched the idea of playing baseball that spring at Kent State.

"He called me in his office one day, and I was getting ready for baseball season because I also played baseball back then. He looks at me and says, 'I want you to be a [graduate assistant],'" Saban recalled.

At the time, the last thing Saban wanted to do was be a GA, primarily because he wanted no part of going back to school. But James was one step ahead of Saban and brought out the heavy artillery: Saban's new wife, Terry, who was a year behind him in school.

"Coach James had it all figured out," Saban recounted behind a warm smile. "Terry and I hadn't been married very long, and he said, 'Your wife's got another year of school. You can't go anywhere and take a job. She needs to finish school.'"

So Saban commiserated over what made the most sense and struck a deal with Terry that he still laughs about to this day.

"I told Terry, 'I'm sick and tired of school. I'll do all the research on the papers. You write them, and I'll type them,'" Saban joked. "That was the deal. She was the English major, and I was the secretary."

Saban worked under James for two years as a graduate assistant at Kent State in 1973 and '74, and he wasn't the only former James pupil to go that route. So did former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who was a graduate assistant under James in his final season at Kent State in 1974 and later followed James to Washington.

Pinkel and Saban played together for three seasons at Kent State. One of their teammates was Jack Lambert, who went on to become a Hall of Fame linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"It's hard to express the influence Coach James had on all of us, and not only guys who went into coaching or somebody like Jack Lambert who was a great NFL player, but guys who went on to be CEOs of corporations," Pinkel said. "I remember talking to Nick about his situation -- Coach James telling him that he had to give [coaching] a shot. That's the kind of respect people had for Coach James, and even now when I watch Nick's teams play at Alabama, I still see coach James' influence.

"That was the great thing about playing and coaching under Coach James. His stamp is with you for the rest of your life."

Pinkel plans to be in Atlanta for the Alabama-Washington game, and he will be sitting with Huskies fans -- something he hopes Saban won't hold against him.

"I didn't really want to be a coach. I never really thought about being a coach. But Coach [Don] James had other ideas, and I'm glad he did."

Alabama coach Nick Saban

"What Nick is doing now ... nobody else has done in college football," Pinkel said. "Show me somebody else who has come close, somebody who's taken it to the level that he has to win every game. That's his challenge, and miraculously, he's doing it.

"I know Coach James would be proud because it's his infrastructure. Coach James was an organizational genius, and Nick is the same way. If you're going to run any organization at the highest level, you've got to make every day important and take care of problems daily ... and not weekly or monthly. Coach James taught us that."

One of the last times Saban spoke with James before he died happened to be a Monday, which was always the day the Kent State players ran their dreaded progressives sprints on the football field. They're also a Monday staple at Alabama.

"He was in the hospital and I was talking to him on the phone and said, 'Well, it's Monday practice, Don. We're still doing progressives.' He just laughed," Saban said. "There's a lot of Don James in what we do.

"It's not just football, either. He taught us a lot of life lessons."

And provided some sage advice that is paying dividends of historical proportions for the Crimson Tide some 45 years later.