NEW ORLEANS — As the new year approached in 1989, a little-known 38-year-old named Nick Saban wasn’t yet ready to dive into his new job as head coach of the University of Toledo football team. That’s because Saban, who’d officially said yes to Toledo on Dec. 22, still was doing his “old” job, coaching defensive backs for the Houston Oilers. A New Year’s Eve wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers beckoned.
“I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to what I was going to do when I was going to Toledo,” Saban said here a quarter-century later, as the first College Football Playoff drew near. “I was trying to do a good job for the players we had. We had a playoff team.”
As anyone who has observed Saban through the years fully understands, nothing commands his laser-focused attention to detail quite like the postseason.
But the Oilers lost that game — the second blown opportunity for Saban inside of a week. Saban had come home from work a few nights before and gotten a phone message from his wife, Terry, who’d taken a call from an eager 25-year-old assistant coach at Illinois State. Actually, it was a phone message and then some, as Saban recalled.
“Terry said, ‘You know, I talked to a really interesting guy today. Urban Meyer. I really do think you should talk to him when you hire your staff.’ But I was so kind of caught up and busy in what I was doing, I never really followed up on that. And obviously that was a huge mistake on my part.”
Ah, well. It seems to have worked out for both men. Saban is driving toward his fifth national championship overall and his fourth in the last six years at Alabama. In his way is Ohio State’s Meyer, who is shooting for his third title and his first with the Buckeyes. It’s certainly possible that the victor in this national semifinal won’t win it all on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, but it’s safe to say the playoff wouldn’t be the same without Saban and Meyer, the two best and most feared college football coaches of their time.
“He does a fantastic job,” Saban said of the big dog he once chased when Meyer was at Florida.
Saban has been 1 to Meyer’s 1A ever since Alabama’s 32-13 victory over the top-ranked Gators in the 2009 Southeastern Conference title game. That game was a role reversal for both teams; Florida had knocked off the No. 1 Tide by 11 a year earlier. The rubber match, such as it was, went emphatically to Saban in 2010 when the Tide rolled in a blowout. Meyer would soon be out the door at Florida, gone to figure out the rest of his life.
He quickly came back to football — and instantly resumed chasing Saban. They no longer share a conference, but Meyer’s OSU is all about Alabama. Specifically, about replacing Saban’s program at the top of the national heap. According to Meyer, the Buckeyes probably are a year away from being as dangerous as he wants them to be. Not being on their third starting quarterback of the season might help then, too. But here he is, standing in front of his stool and eagerly awaiting the bell to begin Round 4.
“The one thing that’s not allowed,” he said, “is there are no excuses.”
Meyer is just like Saban — driven, demanding, self-assured — yet very different in one sense. For Saban, football is all about what he calls “the process”: Set the standards extraordinarily high and insist everyone involved meet them. Meyer, a psychology major, is more of a shrewd thinker and master motivator.
“I think that’s maybe a strength of ours,” he said, “the motivation of a team, the motivation of an individual.”
For Meyer and Saban, motivation never is hard to find. For three-plus hours on Thursday, it’ll be in the form of a man standing directly across the field.