In the beginning ... Nick Saban's rise started at Toledo, and he's never forgotten
Nick Saban was there for only one year. But the impact he made on the people at the University of Toledo continues three decades later. And vice versa.
In 1990, Savage Hall on the campus of the University of Toledo housed the football offices where the young, 38-year-old head coach named Nick Saban worked out of a space described as just a notch above a cubbyhole. The previous winter, he had been hired by Toledo athletic director Al Bohl, who tapped Saban from a short list that included Joe Tiller, an assistant at Washington State under Mike Price, and Pete Cordelli, quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame under Lou Holtz. Writer John Berenger of the The Blade, the local newspaper, reported from the introductory press conference that Bohl considered Saban “one of the most hard-working and intense coaches in the game today.”
Being a former player at Kent State and later an assistant at Ohio State, Saban was intimately familiar with coaching in the state of Ohio, but his latest stop on circuit was in Texas, coaching DBs under Jerry Glanville for the NFL’s Houston Oilers. A lifelong assistant, Saban for years had latched on to legendary coaches like Don James at Kent State, George Perles at Michigan State and Earle Bruce at Ohio State, but now it was time to test his mettle as a head coach.
During the hiring process, Bohl put together a seven-member search committee that ultimately came up with finalists who were brought in for a final interrogation and review. While Saban was on his final round, a dinner for four was scheduled at the posh Belmont Country Club in nearby Perrysburg. At the dinner, Saban and his wife, Terry, joined Bohl and his wife, Sherry. Bohl had been impressed with Saban, but was equally impressed with Terry, whom he said was “outstanding” and a “great complement to Nick.” To top that off, Bohl remembers that on the drive to the golf course to meet the Sabans, his wife turned to him in the car and said, “you know, Nick reminds me of my dad.”
“I don’t want to say that pushed him over the top, but it sure didn’t hurt him!” Bohl said.
And who would have thunk that the axis of the coaching world would have spun on this similarity?
In addition to the quality of having a good wife, Bohl believed that Saban possessed the total package: high football acumen and the compassion for his players and coaches.
“You could just tell that Nick understood the game of football,” Bohl said, recounting the process and subsequent season in an interview with SDS. “He cared about players academically, as people personally. That just came through.”
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Not far away from the cubbyhole, Saban’s assistants labored tirelessly out of a partitioned office — “but you had your own partition,” said Greg Meyer, who was the offensive coordinator at Toledo at the time. In addition to doubling as the athletic office, Savage Hall, the basketball coliseum for the Rockets since 1976, also furnished the football locker room. That wasn’t a big deal — that is, if you could put up with the annoying trek of 300 yards to the stadium.
On Saturdays in fall, the Rockets’ stormed the field at the Glass Bowl, the 18,000-seat coliseum and one of the Mid-American Conference’s aging facilities. By the time Saban arrived, however, funds for an $18.5 million stadium upgrade had already been raised and renovations were underway. This was accomplished in large part by Bohl, who had developed a reputation for fundraising while an assistant athletic director at Ohio State, and one of the main reasons he was brought in as AD at Toledo was to expedite the stadium’s bankroll. As a result, the university’s expansion became both the scuttlebutt of the conference and, because it demonstrated the program was on the up-and-up, was a major selling point in luring coaches and recruits to campus. Literature doled out by the athletic department, including game day paraphernalia and media guides, boasted the theme “Launching into the 90s.”
In case you’re wondering, Mid-American Conference (MAC) football in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as it does today, involved a series of bus rides that criss-crossed the Rust Belt, from towns like Miami, Ohio, to Mount Pleasant, Michigan. Although most of the schools played second fiddle to the larger universities in the area like Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, third fiddle to the Cleveland Browns, it was nevertheless a respected league. And when the teams traded paint on cold and bleak fall afternoons in smog-choked Middle America, a good brand of football was produced. Finally, when the dust settled after each hard-fought season, the conference victor enjoyed the spoils: an invitation to the California Raisin Bowl, played in sunny Fresno, California.
Shortly after being hired, Saban was tasked with cobbling together his first staff. As he would soon learn, convincing coaches to come to northern Ohio was one thing, keeping a staff intact until football season was quite another. For instance, Dana Bible, whom Saban had hired as the Rockets’ new OC, promptly left that spring and took a job with the Cincinnati Bengals. Later that spring, his offensive line coach left. Due to their exodus, Saban soon had two coaching slots to fill before fall camp. At the suggestion of coach Kevin Steele, Saban called Greg Meyer, who at the time was the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Ball State, to inquire if he might have an interest in the same position 175 miles northeast of Muncie.
When Meyer arrived at the athletic facility on the day of interview, he was surprised to see a room full of coaches. Before Meyer could say “Muncie,” he was drawing up plays on the chalkboard and fielding questions from all angles, Saban leading the pleasantries.
“It was intimidating,” Meyer said.
After the interview, Saban pulled Meyer aside and in a moment of comfort told him he’d done a decent job and not to be nervous about the stuffy atmosphere of the room. He then said he’d get back with him in two or three days and let him know if he got the job. Meyer informed him of a family trip he was taking to Cincinnati and gave Saban the name of the hotel he was staying, in case he wanted to call. Meyer recalls being on “eggshells” while at the hotel in Cincinnati, but after a couple of days, he got the phone call (and the news) he wanted. “It ended up being first class,” Meyer said. “Nick called and his wife sent flowers.”
Saban filled many of the assistant coaching slots with hungry guys who would have run through a brick wall to land a job on a staff like Toledo. (It wasn’t the Big Ten, but still it was major college coaching.) One such example was Ellis Rainsberger, a journeyman in the profession who Saban eventually installed as his offensive line coach. Rainsberger was famous in Big 8 circles for his inauspicious stint as head coach at Kansas State in the mid-1970s, but had also coached in the USFL, the Canadian Football League, and was currently serving as a high school coach in Toronto before coming to Toledo. Others he inherited from the previous head coach, Dan Simrell. There was Phil Parker, who ironically had been a defensive back at Michigan State while Saban was coached defensive backs in East Lansing. There was Tom Amstutz, L.C. Cole, Dean Pees, Ken Mannie, Ron Curtis, John Obrock and Pat Perles.
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-- Nick Saban after career win No. 1
At the time, Saban, boasting a superb shock of brown hair, was ruggedly handsome but often accentuated a more mature look by donning aviator-style spectacles popular then but that harken now to the 1980s with Naugahyde-decorated lobbies of used car lots filled with velour-shirted salesmen. As he walked through the university’s corridors, he emitted a singular focus — football — and tackled his job with more than the requisite seriousness. Out of everyone, he expected excellence.
After 17 years slogging in the trenches as an assistant, Saban was, without question, ready to be a head coach. One of the things Bohl noticed as he toured Saban’s practices was that every aspect of the program was intricately choreographed. He was not learning on the fly. He had a plan and was organized in his execution of that plan. “Things were so well organized,” he said. “The kids are excited about being at practice because Nick’s got ‘em doing stuff that they’ve never even thought of before.”
Not all practices were so beloved. In the offseason, Saban instituted his labor-intensive “fourth quarter program,” held at 0600 at the gymnasium at Savage Hall. Described by Meyer as a “circuit” program, he remembers garbage receptacles strategically placed on the gym floor for players who needed it. “It was pretty intense,” Meyer said. “And he had an eye on everybody. He made sure that we were staying on task. Ultimately, it set the stage for our players being able to perform on game day for four quarters.”
Luckily for Saban, Simrell hadn’t left the cupboard bare, as 16 starters from a 6-5 team — including All-MAC performers Ricky Isaiah and Craig Kuligowski — returned for the 1990 season. Troy Parker, a redshirt freshman running back from Portsmouth, Ohio, and Matt Eberflus, a local product who smashed helmets at outside linebacker, figured to be big factors in the team’s success.
But the big question mark was at the quarterback position. Eventually Kevin Meger, a 6-1 swashbuckler who wasn’t afraid to use his fists, emerged as the team’s leader under center. As the story goes, Meger unofficially won the quarterbacks job after clocking the team’s defensive end, Dan Williams, for cheap-shotting Kuligowski in practice.
Saban’s first game as a head coach was against Miami (OH) in Oxford, a three-and-a-half hour bus ride south from Toledo. While in Miami, the greenhorn head coach stole his first win — a clumsy 20-14 affair in which 13 yellow flags were tossed against his team. Despite the errors, Saban’s defense was stifling, holding the Redskins to 207 yards and only 11 first downs. “I’m a perfectionist and we certainly weren’t perfect,” Saban told The Blade. “Still, I’ve been around this game long enough to know that you’d better enjoy the wins however and whenever they come. From that standpoint, it was a great win and I’m very happy.”
Toledo won the next five: against independent Northern Illinois and MAC opponents Ball State, Ohio University, Eastern Michigan and Bowling Green in succession, to stand at 6-0. BGU, located only 30 minutes away and historically Toledo’s biggest rival, had yet to post in the win column, but surged out to a 13-3 lead at the half after intercepting Meger three times. In the second half, Saban injected the Falcon front with large doses of Troy Parker, who rattled off his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season. The 19-13 win set up a big matchup with Central Michigan on Oct. 20.
That day, at Kelly/Shorts Stadium on the campus of Central Michigan, Toledo kicked four field goals and lost a 13-12 heartbreaker to the Chippewas. In the waning moments of the game, the Rocket placekicker Rusty Hanna missed a 51-yarder facing the wind that would have given Toledo the victory. This put Central Michigan in the driver’s seat for the MAC crown, while Toledo was on the outside looking in.
The resilient Rockets bounced back the next week against Saban’s alma mater, Kent State, and a win at Western Michigan in Kalamazoo put the team at 8-1 before a contest with the Naval Academy at the Glass Bowl on Nov. 10. During the game, Toledo jumped to a 10-0 lead, but two Jason Pace touchdowns in the fourth quarter sealed a 14-10 win for the Midshipmen.
The Rockets finished the season at 9-2 after a 43-28 home win over Arkansas State. The season lasted just over two months; there would be no postseason reward for Saban’s team, no California Raisin Bowl. That was Central Michigan’s to claim, since it held the tiebreaker over Toledo with a head-to-head victory. It was time to get back to work.
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But Saban’s fate at Toledo rested in a turn of events that were occurring two hours to the east. The Cleveland Browns, who had fired head coach Bud Carson, were now looking hard at the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, Bill Belichick, who’d been a longtime assistant under Bill Parcells and Ray Perkins. After the Giants took home the trophy in Super Bowl XXV, Belichick was hired as the Browns head coach on Feb. 5, 1991. Eight days later, Saban announced his resignation as Toledo’s head coach to become Belichick’s defensive coordinator.
Although Saban did not fulfill the terms of his 3-year contract, no one outside of Toledo blamed him. Even Bohl, his boss, understood the nature of the coaching profession and that Toledo was but a stepping stone for someone as talented as this rising star. “I’m saddened, but I realize this is a heckuva professional opportunity for Nick. It’s flattering for the Cleveland Browns of the NFL to come to the University of Toledo to select their defensive coordinator,” Bohl said in response to Saban’s leaving.
Saban admitted that even though his preference was to remain in college and he had no intentions of returning to the pro game, this was a job he simply couldn’t pass up. Growing up in West Virginia, he had witnessed the glory years of the mighty Cleveland Browns, and knowing that he was going to be a part of that staff was an emotional moment for him. “I haven’t cried in 18 years … since my dad died … I’ve been crying all afternoon,” Saban said.
Publicly, Saban recommended that Bohl hire internally, and expressed that either Rainsberger or Pees would be an adequate successor. In fact, Pees was named as the interim head coach until further notice. But Bohl was thinking more broadly. He wanted a national search, and opened up the proceedings to the best man available, not simply who Saban suggested (though what Saban said certainly had a degree of clout). Perhaps disillusioned by the turbulent coaching atmosphere, Saban privately told Bohl he ought to look at someone he’d known for as long as anyone in the coaching profession, someone who once was his riding buddy when he used to drive to Pittsburgh to have game film developed. Like him, another up-and-comer who shared the same pedigree.
Although Toledo was in a bit of flux, having to hire its second coach in as many seasons, the program was better off for having Nick Saban as its coach. Saban had the unique ability to make everyone around him better, from the players to the coaches, even to the administrators. He was as, if not more, talented at interacting with people as he was the Xs and Os of the game. Whether on the recruiting trail, talking to parents and potential athletes, or at an alumni event, Saban possessed the innate ability to establish rapport with others, operating with a magnetic ease.
“There is nobody that I’m aware of in the business who’s any better than Nick Saban after you’ve played 18 holes of golf and you’re sitting around at the golf club restaurant or men’s area at the club,” Bohl said. “He is so good at that, in a setting where he’s just telling stories or reminiscing with guys about things that happened in the past.”
Besides that, he demonstrated loyalty to his coaches, he related to his players in a way that went beyond the surface, he was sincere, genuine and real. Even in his resignation press conference, he admitted the decision to coach for the Browns was cloaked with a degree of selfishness. Of course, there were those who were hypercritical of Saban’s move, including John Gugger, who wrote a scathing opinion piece in the The Blade after Saban’s departure, but few faulted him to that degree. Indeed, Saban’s fleeting year in Toledo was akin to Bear Bryant at Maryland in 1945, only that Bryant’s team won 6, lost 2 and tied 1.
Saban still holds tender memories of that 1990 Toledo team. When he could not attend the team’s 25-year reunion in 2015, he released a heartfelt video expressing his thoughts on the team that produced his first head coaching win and shared a conference championship.
“What we accomplished means as much to me as any championship that we’ve ever been a part of,” Saban said in the video.
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-- Former Toledo AD Al Bohl, who hired Saban
Besides Saban himself, what has been truly remarkable about the 1990 Toledo team is the number of people associated with this program who have gone on to be successful in their own right. Matt Eberflus is now the defensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts. Phil Parker is the defensive coordinator at the University of Iowa. Dean Pees is the defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans. Craig Kuligowski is an associate head coach and defensive line coach under Saban at the University of Alabama. Greg Meyer is now the Assistant AD of Development at Baylor University. Pat Perles is a defensive analyst at the University of Kansas.
Others are enjoying a life of retirement. Ellis Rainsberger is now 86 and retired as an NFL scout in 2007. Al Bohl later served as the athletic director at the University of Kansas from 2001-03; he is a published author and is now retired. Tom Amstutz took over the Toledo program in 2001 and led the Rockets to a 58-41 record, 2 MAC championships, and four bowl appearances before retiring to Palm Harbor, Florida. In 2008, the year he announced his retirement, Amstutz’s little Toledo team of the MAC went out with a bang, defeating the Michigan Wolverines 13-10 in Ann Arbor.
No one who was around the Toledo program in 1990 has been surprised at Saban’s success, but to be on the verge of his sixth national championship in 10 years, with the amount of parity and competitiveness as exists in college football today, is truly astounding. Saban’s three-decade come-uppance is underscored by the vast difference in the small Toledo nook to the famous remote control door in his current office in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Admittedly, there are two sides to the Toledo facility story. There’s the cubbyhole story, and there’s the story of Saban’s working environment after the $18.5 million expansion and upgrade that was completed that fall. When crews broke ground on May 25, 1989, an effort was launched to replace the wooden press box with a triple-decker press tower chocked with 45 skyboxes. In addition, the Larimer Athletic Complex was built on the north end of the Glass Bowl, so coaches no longer had to work out of those cramped quarters at Savage Hall.
“His office was better than the president’s office,” Bohl said. “At the University of Toledo, Nick Saban, from his office, could walk out onto a deck and look into the Glass Bowl. So he could walk the parents and recruits out on a patio and say, ‘son, we’d like for you to come play here.’”
Bohl, once seeing how former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce was treated by venomous fans, also wanted to ensure that Terry Saban had her own skybox where she could entertain guests and be cloistered far away from the groans of detractors. There was a new weight room, new equipment room, a sports medicine center, and an academic resource center. Finally, players could enjoy the luxury of a locker room that was actually attached to the stadium and had fancy wooden lockers just like those at Ohio State. So, yeah, things weren’t that bad in the end.
Even though 29 years have passed since Saban took the reigns at the small MAC school crouching on the banks of Lake Erie, a consistent theme emerges from Saban’s time at Toledo. Most everyone within his orbit — from the players to the coaches to administration — had a positive experience with Saban and look back on their experience fondly.
Listen to Greg Meyer’s testimony about his year at Toledo under Saban: “Nick could not have treated me better. I don’t mean to say that he wasn’t demanding, but he was very respectful. He’d get on me, but it was all professional. The trust that he put in me was unbelievable. He didn’t know me from Joe Blow and he did not interfere unless there were a couple of things he wanted to get done. I learned a lot from him. He taught me a lot as a coach. It was a really good relationship. He treated me truly professionally.”
Dr. Bohl expresses the same sentiment, and it is clear that he maintains a high degree of respect for Saban to this day. “If you would go back to that team he had when he was there in 1990 and ask the players, they loved Nick Saban,” Bohl said. “They absolutely loved Nick Saban. It’s not just that they won football games. It’s how he treated them. How he reacted with them. How he led them.”
One thing Saban always seemed available to do was help coaches find other jobs or be a sounding board when coaches were trying to decide whether to take a job. A year after Saban left for the Cleveland Browns, Greg Meyer was thinking about taking the offensive coordinator job at Northwestern when Gary Barnett was hired in 1992. According to Meyer, Saban told him, “If you end up taking it, you’ll have to recruit Ohio heavily. And make sure if you come to Ohio, you look me up. I’ll show you around the Browns facility then we’ll go back to the house and have dinner. And I’ll give you all I know about those high school coaches and help you as much as I can with good schools.” So when Meyer got the job, who was the first person he called? That’s right. Nick Saban.
In the end, Saban did exactly what he said he was going to do. After touring the Browns facility, Nick and Greg went back to Saban’s house in Cleveland and had dinner with Mrs. Terry. After dinner, Saban mapped out recruiting in the state of Ohio for Meyer. “Just unbelievable,” Meyer recalled.
Even on his way out at Toledo, Saban had one last suggestion for athletic director Al Bohl. Remember Saban’s riding buddy to Pittsburgh? Now that old riding buddy was the offensive coordinator at the University of Washington under Don James.
“What’s his name?” Bohl asked.
“Gary Pinkel,” Saban replied.