Alabama coach Nick Saban and the mentors who helped turn him into a legend

How Saban's father influenced his pursuit of perfection (3:36)

Growing up in West Virginia, Nick Saban's most important influence was his father, "Big Nick." Big Nick had the highest of standards for his son and his lessons enforced detail, discipline and perfection. (3:36)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jerry Glanville wouldn't have liked it if he found out. Bill Parcells would not have been pleased, either.

Each head coach had given their respective staffs at the Houston Oilers and New York Giants strict orders to not speak with coaches on opposing teams, and yet Nick Saban and Bill Belichick would meet up anyways.

Two of football's most recognizable authoritarian figures -- Saban with his beloved "Process," Belichick with his "Do your job" mantra -- actively defied their bosses in the late 1980s. Ever since they first became friends while Saban was the secondary coach at Navy, where Belichick's father, Steve, was on staff, these two future legends would meet up to compare notes.

"We would sneak to West Point and stay up there for a weekend and talk football because Parcells wouldn't let him talk to anybody and Glanville wouldn't let me talk to anybody," Saban said. "So we'd sneak off."

The exact details of those weekends are lost to time and the preference of both coaches to play things close to the vest. (Belichick wasn't made available for this story.)

But the real importance of Saban's relationship with Belichick transcends the X's and O's they discussed. It transcends football, really.

"When we started this relationship in this business, I don't think anyone in the world would have bet on either one of us," Saban said. "I really don't. I'm not trying to disrespect Bill, but we both came up the hard way. He was an intern, GA, in the NFL for a long time and learned everything the hard way. I was a GA in my first job at Kent."

Saban met Belichick's father first, sharing an office with him at Navy. They became close and, naturally, Saban's wife, Terry, became close with Belichick's mother. Belichick would visit in the summer, and he and Saban got to know one another. Later, Terry and Belichick's ex-wife, Debby, became friendly.

"It was like we started out as friends and became professional colleagues," Saban said. When Saban worked for Belichick in Cleveland, the two would go see the Eagles or Ringo Starr in concert. "Different from a lot of relationships in this profession."

As they ascended the football mountaintop, their relationship evolved.

Winning championships and Super Bowls and becoming the greatest coaches of their time is fantastic, but there's an increasing sense of isolation the higher you climb.

"Some things you have a question about you can only ask certain people," Saban said.

Saban won't give away any of those exact questions other than to say he and Belichick speak once or twice a month -- "maybe more if there's something going on."

"I would say anything to Bill that I may not say to somebody else," Saban said. "And I think that he could say anything to me that he may not say to someone else -- even if it was about one of us, if that makes sense. We could be very blunt with each other without hurting each other's feelings because there's a mutual respect there."

They don't sneak off to West Point anymore, but in a lot of ways they're still those 30-something assistants leaning on one another occasionally as they navigate the world of football. They're still something like family.

Belichick is certainly the most famous of Saban's mentors and coaching influences. But he is far from the only one. As the legendary Alabama coach turns 68 today, he looks back on the football minds who shaped him into college football's best.

Saban leans back in an upholstered chair inside his Alabama office and is transported back to the fall of 1966. He is in rural West Virginia again, a sophomore quarterback for the Monongah High Lions, who are on the road at Mason Town Valley fighting for a playoff spot.

Mason Town is up in the mountains. "It's a little bit country," Saban says. And it's a little bit creepy too. The lights are bad and opponents have to walk through a graveyard to get from the locker room to the football field.

By the time Saban and his teammates pass the rows of headstones at halftime, they're trailing 18-0. But something coach Earl Keener says during the break fires them up, and they roar back to make it a one-score game late. There are roughly 25 seconds remaining, it's fourth down, and they have the ball on the 20-yard line. Saban, who has been calling the plays all night, is relieved when Keener uses a timeout.

"What do you think, Young Nicky?" Keener asks.

"I think you should call this play, is what I think," Saban says.

What happened next will be burned onto that 15-year-old's mind forever. He'll go on to learn almost all there is to learn about football, but this will be perhaps his most important -- and simple -- lesson: Get your best players the ball, period.

"You know what?" Saban recalls Keener telling him. "It's not so much about the play. You have an all-state split end out there, and you have the fastest guy in the state playing left halfback. I don't care what play you want to call, but one of those two guys needs to get the ball."

Saban still remembers what he barked in the huddle: 26 crossfire pass, X-post corner.

"So I faked the ball to Kerry Marbury and I throw the ball to Tom Hulderman on a post corner for a touchdown," Saban recalled. "A fourth-and-12, play-action pass. But he said, 'One of those two guys got to get the ball,' so I faked it to one and threw it to the other. And we won the game 19-18."

Keener taught Saban so much: toughness, work ethic, execution. Former teammate Brian Evans described Keener as "a screamer" but with obvious intelligence. "He was probably beyond his time in football," said team manager Walter Baransky.

They say the same about Saban now. On Thursday, Young Nicky turns 68 years old. He already has won six national championships and has the ninth-most wins of any coach in college football history.

Whenever he hosts a high school clinic, he tells coaches the same thing: It might take five to 10 years for your players to realize it, but one day they'll come back to let you know how much they appreciate you.

"Besides my parents," Saban said, "when I was that age growing up, nobody had a greater impact on me than my high school coach."

Saban's playing days at Kent State are over, and he is ready to get to work. Coaching has "never ever" crossed his mind. He plans to become the general manager of a car dealership, following in the footsteps of his father, who runs a service station.

Then coach Don James calls him into his office.

"I'd like for you to be a graduate assistant," James says.

"I don't want to be a coach, and I don't want to go to graduate school. So why would I do either one of those?" Saban says.

James is smart, though. He reminds Saban how his soon-to-be-wife, Terry, has another year of school and how he couldn't possibly leave her behind. So why not stick around a little longer and give coaching a try?

"He must have seen something," Saban said, laughing all these years later.

What followed was a master class in how to be a head coach in college football. To this day, Saban isn't big on pregame speeches. Instead, he borrows from James and uses the Friday before games to impart wisdom to his team.

"And they weren't just lessons for football," he said. "They were lessons for life. But they also motivated you to want to do well and have a lot of pride in what you did."

The next step was perhaps more important: witnessing the attention to detail. Future longtime Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who was a year behind Saban, remembers James walking through the weight room once during weigh-ins and barking at a graduate assistant about demanding that players remove their socks to get the most accurate reading possible.

If Saban looked hard enough today, he likely would find his old notebook from Kent State. He promises he would not have thrown it away. "It was the Bible," Saban said. "Everything was written up and put in the notebook." It included so much more than a playbook. It had everything from schemes to standards to meeting schedules throughout the year. It contained defined expectations for everyone within the organization to follow.

James' recruiting evaluation sheet is in there too. It's essentially the same one Saban uses today with breakdowns for size, character and other critical factors for each specific position. It didn't matter how in love a coach was with a recruit, if he didn't pass the evaluation then he was off the board.

Under James, this type of granular, black-and-white detail didn't have a name.

Under Saban, it would come to be known as part of the all-encompassing "process."

"It's a word that's overly used now and most people don't know what the process is," Pinkel said. "Nick knows what it is; he defines it as Coach James did. It's the daily fundamentals in your program, operations of your program every day, whether it's Jan. 8 and you just got back from winning the national championship at Alabama and you're going to start over again. That day, everything in that organization has to be meticulously run, whether it's academics, whether it's food service, whether it's recruiting, whatever has to be done."

James, as it turns out, was ahead of the time. After Kent State, he would go to Washington, where he would win six conference titles and one national championship, earning a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.

"When I went on to my next couple of jobs, I was just like ..." Saban said, his eyes widening with disbelief. "I just assumed everybody was that organized. I just assumed everything was so systematic. Because I didn't know any other way you could do it. I get to these other places and it's like helter-skelter organizationally."

Pinkel, upon hearing that, laughed. "My feelings are the exact same," he said. He remembers leaving Washington to become an assistant at Bowling Green and how it was "beyond difficult" to adjust to a more free-flowing style in which coaches drifted in and out of meetings. He lasted two years before returning to coach under James for the next 12 seasons. Upon becoming a head coach at Toledo and Missouri, Pinkel would successfully follow James' blueprint and retire with the 19th-most wins in FBS history (191).

"The book was another example of how everything was done almost," Saban paused, looking for the right word, "perfectly."

Taking what he learned at Kent State and applying it at Alabama, Pinkel said, "That's a scary thought."

"Your process is done better than anyone else in the nation and you always get the chance to recruit the best every year," Pinkel added. "That's a good one-two punch to winning a lot of games."

A 27-year-old Saban didn't know what he was getting into, having just made the winding hour-and-a-half drive from West Virginia University to the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He has come to learn all he can from the staff of coach Chuck Noll, who is in the midst of a run of four Super Bowls in six seasons. Saban sees a familiar face in former college teammate Jack Lambert, who is a linebacker on the vaunted Steel Curtain defense, but he isn't sure what to expect.

Noll isn't paranoid or standoffish. He understands he needs the cooperation and insight of college coaches when it comes to evaluating players for the draft, so he has an open-door policy to return the favor. Anyone can come and watch as much practice and dissect as much film as they'd like. They can swap ideas, and if they're lucky, they'll even get asked to the 5 O'Clock Club -- a coaches lounge stocked with ice-cold beer.

Saban became one of those lucky ones.

It didn't take long for defensive coordinator George Perles to take a liking to the young, inquisitive Mountaineers assistant. Decades later, Perles will recall how impressed he was by Saban, picking up right away how intelligent and hard-working he was.

It was a learning expedition for Saban, who would go to meetings with coaches and pore over their schemes afterward. He would talk to anyone on staff who'd make the time, but especially those on the defensive side of the ball. "He'd ask us all kinds of questions," Perles said.

Over the years, Saban would become friendly with a number of the assistant coaches, including Woody Widenhofer and Tom Moore. He would sit down with secondary coach Tony Dungy and talk shop.

However, it was his friendship with Perles that proved transformational. Perles would later hire Saban at Michigan State and promote him to defensive coordinator, which would eventually lead to him becoming head coach of the Spartans from 1995 to 1999. But before that, Perles would teach him what would prove to be the building blocks of every Nick Saban defense to come.

The system, Dungy explained, was actually fairly straightforward. It wasn't about fancy coverages or alignments no one could figure out. Instead, it was about dominating the line of scrimmage, playing fast and aggressive, and, above all, being fundamentally sound.

"It was a simplistic style of, here's what we're going to do and we're going to do it and perfect it to the max," Dungy said. "And it doesn't matter what offenses we see or what anyone else does, if we get good at what we do it doesn't matter who we play. It's that mentality George had, and I think a lot of that rubbed off on Nick."

In addition to the playbook, Saban took note of Perles' organizational skills and leadership. When he coached under him at Michigan State, Saban was impressed by how good of a recruiter he was and how he was able to form relationships with players.

Dungy could tell Saban and Perles had a lot in common, from their blue-collar attitude to the way they saw the game. Today, Alabama is regarded as one of the most accessible programs to NFL scouts in college football, which Dungy says is no accident.

"We won Super Bowls and those kinds of things, but George's dream job was to go back to Michigan State and win at the college level and do it with young men and direct people," he said. "And I think Nick has a lot of that in him too. Very tough-minded, defensive-oriented. You win with trench warfare type of thing."

Saban can't imagine where he'd be today without Keener, James, Perles and Belichick entering his life. Take just one away and his whole career arc might be different.

"I would have never ... " he says before trailing off.

He would have never won a state championship in high school and gotten a scholarship to play football at Kent State.

He would have never been talked into coaching in the first place.

He would have never gone to Michigan State, which opened the door to LSU and then Alabama.

He would have never had such a valuable sounding board to turn to in New England.

"I would have never been able to develop into this profession and amount to much of anything," Saban says.

A few years ago, Saban invited Dungy to a coaching clinic where he showed him around Alabama's facilities. Dungy marveled at the entire operation, including the cutting-edge weight room and nutrition area as well as how there had to be more than 1,500 high school coaches on campus that day.

As Dungy said, "And he's talking about, 'Hey, I've won a lot of championships here and I'm really happy. But where does it go from here? Do you stay and try to win 10? Do you try to win 15? What's it all about?'"

Dungy, who retired as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, saw someone finally looking back on all he had accomplished. He saw someone looking for perspective.

So Dungy returned to what Noll taught Perles and what Perles imparted to both he and Saban -- that you've got to enjoy what you're doing and have fun helping players get better on and off the field.

"That's what's got to keep you going more so than, 'We've got eight national championship and let's get to 10,'" Dungy said. "Because at some point, whether you finish your career with eight, nine, 10 national championships, you've done really what nobody has been able to do in this game. So what is going to be the drive?"

Dungy went back to the actual drives Saban used to make, from Morgantown to Latrobe, and what he felt like showing up at the Steelers facility eager to learn.

"And to me," Dungy said, "it's to be that Nick Saban in 1978 and just excited about helping guys get better."