PHOENIX, Ariz. — Despite the myriad of short jokes that Nick Saban has endured as a head coach, the 5-foot-6 leader of men did play college football.

A high school quarterback, he was set to go to Navy, perhaps as an orchestrator of triple-option offense.

The spring before he was to report to Annapolis, he changed his mind. His remaining scholarship options included Miami (Ohio), Ohio and Kent State. The Golden Flashes were one season removed from 1-9 and had not compiled a winning MAC record in 5 years.

Saban called Kent State “the worst program of the bunch,” but with an uncle living in nearby Canton, that’s where he felt most comfortable.

So, how was Nick Saban, a four-time national champion as a head coach, as a college football player?

“I was one of those guys that tried to be an overachiever,” he said Saturday. “I was a team guy. I played quarterback in high school and one year in college and then got moved to (defensive back), which is kind of what I always coached and what I grew up in professionally.”

A reporter mentioned to Saban that his reputation as a safety for the Golden Flashes was that he sought out contact and made more than a few pad-popping hits.

“I try to promote toughness with (my players),” Saban smirked. “I tell them all the time, ‘They just don’t make them like they used to.’

“I had a lot of fun playing. I loved the competition. But when I played, you played everything. When it was baseball season, you played baseball. Basketball season, you played basketball. Football you played football. I think there’s a lot of benefit to that. I certainly enjoyed it when I was young. I think that sometimes we encourage people to specialize too early.”

Saban then was asked whether he surprised anyone with his athleticism.

“Not anything like so many of the players on our team today,” he said.

Kent State won a MAC championship in 1972. Saban’s career ended without much notice. Future Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert was the star of that defense. According to Athlon Sports, he had an English class with Allison Krause, one of the unarmed students shot to death during a protest of the Vietnam War.

The most significant football impact of his time in Kent, Ohio, was Saban’s admiration for coach Don James, who helped launch the coaching careers of Saban and teammate Gary Pinkel.

After graduating with a business degree in 1973, Saban became a graduate assistant for the Golden Flashes and eventually joined the staff.

“He was a fantastic person and class guy,” Saban said of James, according to Athlon Sports. “He was systematic about everything he did and defined what the expectations he had for everything in the organization were. He worked hard and did things the way I thought they should be done. He did a good job developing players there and a good job recruiting players.”