Why Kent State was the job a young Nick Saban wanted -- and couldn't get

It's a beautiful Friday in mid-September, and Dick Crum is spending some time on the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina.

A former college football coach, Crum, 82, is retired now and lives in Perry, Ohio. He travels and enjoys a second home in Canada. He lost his wife a few years back and visits his children whenever he can.

Crum says he still watches football on Saturdays. He makes note of the proliferation of spread offenses. But the game is cyclical, and it will come back around; he knows that.

But it's what Crum doesn't know, it's the circle he can't see, that will cause him to chuckle and ponder one of the lesser-known what-if stories in college football history. Believe it or not, Crum once kept Nick Saban from his first head-coaching opportunity.

"That's the first time I've heard that," Crum said. "Actually, I didn't really know who was involved in that thing."

It was late in 1987, and Crum had just been forced to resign at North Carolina after 10 seasons as head coach. The Kent State job had opened, and the athletic director and administration liked Crum's experience. In the fertile recruiting ground of Ohio, Crum thought of it as a "sleeping giant." The two agreed on a deal a couple of months later, and on Jan. 20, 1988, Crum was announced as the Golden Flashes' new head coach.

The runner-up: a 36-year-old Saban, fresh off a Rose Bowl win as defensive coordinator at Michigan State.

"It was the first time I was ever excited about thinking that I would have the chance to be a head coach someday," Saban said.

Not only did he fail to get the job, it was his alma mater that passed him over. The gut check made him rethink coaching college completely.

"I thought it would never happen," he said.

Asked whether he felt even a little guilty over the pain he caused, Crum laughed.

"Well, no, not really," he said.

And why should he? In 1990, Saban got his first crack at running a program, at Toledo. He went 9-2, won the MAC and beat Crum and Kent State by two touchdowns in late October. Crum finished seventh in the conference, was fired and never coached again.

• • •

Paul Amodio would like a do-over.

The former Kent State athletic director, Amodio, 86, still lives in Kent, Ohio, where he grew up. He still goes to Kent State football games. And he still regrets the decision he made nearly 30 years ago, passing on the man who would become the greatest college coach of his generation.

When reached by telephone earlier this month, the first words out of Amodio's mouth were: "Nick Saban was quite a person."

"What do you want me to remember?" he asked.

Amodio started, as one would, at the interview stage. It was then that he was blown away by Saban. He found him intelligent, thoughtful, personable.

"I wanted to hire him," Amodio said.

But he had his reservations.

For one, Saban was so young. And he'd never been a head coach. And Amodio wondered how long he'd stick around.

Amodio already had a sense of the coaching nomad that Saban would become. Before Alabama, he'd never stayed anywhere more than a handful of years. Before he'd turned 40, Saban had already been an assistant at Kent State, Syracuse, West Virginia, Ohio State, Navy and Michigan State.

Amodio recalled how Saban lasted five seasons at LSU before bolting for the NFL.

"He was looking for big things," Amodio said. "I found out that he was probably not going to stay any place very long."

Amodio wanted stability after the previous coach, Glen Mason, had gone 7-4 and was hired away by Kansas.

Mason wanted Saban to get the job. He knew Saban well from their time together as assistants at Ohio State. He said he recommended Saban and another former Kent State grad, Gary Pinkel, as candidates to replace him.

If Kent State liked where the program was going, Mason reasoned, then why not stick with what he called "the same blueprint?" Which was a young head coach with a background in Ohio who was known for his skills as a recruiter.

"He was even a Kent State alum," Mason said of Saban. "It just made total sense to me that they would hire Nick."

Of course, they didn't. The explanation Mason said he received from those in the administration (not Amodio) was that they were looking for a more seasoned coach to take over a team that still had a number of good players coming back.

Later during their careers, Mason and Saban would stumble onto the subject of Kent State from time to time.

Mason said Saban didn't say much about it, but when Saban went 9-2 at Toledo in 1990, Mason said he told him, "The boys at Kent State are crying in their beer."

Said Amodio: "He was a great coach. I made a mistake not hiring him."

• • •

Eight years after Saban was fired for the first and only time of his career, at Ohio State in 1981, he was finally ready to become a head coach.

Former colleagues describe the younger Saban as a methodical networker. While working under Earle Bruce in Columbus, fellow defensive assistants Steve Szabo and Bob Tucker remember Saban constantly working the phones, calling coaches in college and the NFL to talk shop.

"Nick had a relationship with Bill Belichick and someone with the Eagles," Szabo recalled.

It was the relationship with Belichick that helped Saban land on his feet at Navy after being fired by Bruce. A year later, George Perles, whom Saban knew from his time visiting with the Pittsburgh Steelers' offices in the 1970s, hired him as defensive coordinator at Michigan State.

Perles said he could tell that Saban was looking to move up following the 1989 Rose Bowl.

"I knew he wanted to be a head coach," he said.

Saban kept Perles in the loop the entire time. Perles thought Saban would get the Kent State job but saw him turn the page immediately when he didn't. Perles didn't sense any disappointment, he said. Later, Saban informed Perles that he was resigning to try his hand in the NFL with the Houston Oilers.

Maybe it's because Saban went on to such success. Maybe it's because it took him only a couple of years to become a head coach at Toledo. But whatever the case, Perles and the rest of us never stopped to think about what Saban must have felt as a young coach who was turned down for the first head-coaching job he ever wanted.

Then on a night last December as Alabama prepared to face Michigan State in the College Football Playoff, it came out. Saban was asked what his dream job was early in his career, and he went back to 1987 and Kent State.

"The job was open, and I applied for it," Saban said, "and it was the first time I was ever excited about thinking that I would have the chance to be a head coach someday. I never got hired. So that's when I got a little frustrated and said, 'Wow. You did what you did [at Michigan State] this year, and they didn't hire you at your own school. You're probably never going to be a head coach.' That's exactly what I thought.

"And that had a lot to do with me going a few months later to the Houston Oilers and coached in the NFL for two years, because I thought I was never going to get to be a head coach in college."

As it turns out, the NFL lifestyle never suited Saban. It was too much business, not enough relationships. Players came and went via free agency. Assistants didn't pop into the office throughout the day like he was used to. The college game all along was the right fit for him. But as a 36-year-old coach in search of the next opportunity, he didn't know it. He only knew that his alma mater had just rejected him.

Saban's journey would twist and turn until it reached Tuscaloosa. Now Alabama is home, and he's the head coach of the No. 1 team in the country as it prepares to welcome Kent State to town for a game Saturday afternoon.

As it turns out, if Saban had gotten the job more than 30 years ago, he would have coached a young defensive back from Columbus named Paul Haynes.

Haynes, of course, is Kent State's current head coach.

How's that for everything coming full circle?