Sixteen years and one month ago, St. Nick disappeared. Nick Saban had always been an odd kind of savior at Michigan State—reserved, even distant—but he had a reputation, even in 1999, as a brilliant football mind. For most of Michigan State's rabid and frustrated fan base, that was enough.
In his fifth year in East Lansing, Saban justified the faith in him, leading the Spartans to a 9–2 record, their best in 33 years.
And then he left for an LSU program that had just gone 3–8.
Michigan State fans were riled up, of course. Most fan bases would be. Within the program, though, there was a different kind of anger. In a team meeting shortly before he decided to leave, Saban left many players with the impression he would stay at Michigan State. He never really did say goodbye.
But then, it's weird to say goodbye when you never seemed that interested in saying hello. Saban had never been as popular in the school's football offices as he was with fans. Even now, people who liked him at Michigan State feel compelled to explain themselves.
Former Michigan State assistant Bob Casullo: "I'm probably unusual in that I'm a Nick Saban fan."
Former Spartans receiver Muhsin Muhammad: "I'm probably in the minority too: I had a good relationship with Nick."
What was the problem? Well, you hear a lot of stories about football coaches with bad tempers. The difference with Saban, summed up by former receiver Gari Scott: "He always looked like he was mad."
Former Spartans center Jason Strayhorn says, "There is no softer side to Nick. He is all business."
There is an old coaching maxim about knowing when to kick their butts and knowing when to pat their backs. Saban followed half of it. Sometimes Saban would excoriate his assistant coaches in front of the players so viciously, the players became uncomfortable.
"We would all say, 'He can't be like this at home,'" Scott says.
In film sessions, he would talk until he found a reason to be angry. Then his voice would rise. And then he would take it out on the team in practice.
Strayhorn remembers one film session when Saban erupted over a missed assignment by a player named Anthony Pleasant, which was interesting because Pleasant did not even play for Michigan State. He had played for the Cleveland Browns when Saban was their defensive coordinator. Yet somehow, Saban would make Michigan State's players pay for a mistake Anthony Pleasant had made in the NFL. To this day, Strayhorn says of Pleasant with a laugh, "I hate that guy."
When Saban left for LSU at age 49, he famously sent a plane back to Michigan to pick up any assistants who wanted to join him. Nobody got on it. They stayed in East Lansing to work under his former assistant, Bobby Williams. For many observers, there was an easy and obvious conclusion: They never wanted to work for the guy again.
And a lot of players surely thought: Good riddance.
But time passed. And every now and then, two of his former Spartan players would be chatting, and one would admit:
"I'm rooting for LSU."
And the other would say: "Me, too."
And then one of them would say: "Don't tell anybody."
We all know now what Saban did after he left East Lansing. He became one of the most successful coaches in any sport. On Dec. 31, he will lead Alabama into a College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan State, with his eyes on a fifth national title.
But in 1999, that story had not been written. Many people in the media wondered if Saban was worth the $1.2 million annual salary he got from LSU. (Compared to current coaching salaries, that looks like the minimum wage, but it was enormous at the time.) You could reasonably argue that Saban had cashed in on one great year.
So, why did some of his Michigan State players quietly pull for Saban's LSU team? Well, it was not out of affection for Saban. Affection was never an integral part of Saban's program. Sometimes it seemed like affection might just get in Saban's way.
In East Lansing, Saban would often quote one of his favorite books, the M. Scott Peck bestseller, The Road Less Traveled.
The first section of the book is called "Discipline". The first part of "Discipline" is called "Problems and Pain." The first line of "Problems and Pain" is …
Life is difficult.
Before Saban won any national championships, before anybody knew anything about his beloved "process," before he was even well-known enough to be liked or disliked nationally, that was the guiding principle of Saban's program: Life is difficult. You embraced that, or you didn't last.
"He expects the players and coaches to be perfect in what they do," Casullo says. "He knows how he wants all these things done, and when they're not done that way, it frustrates him."
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Looking back, they realize it was not personal. Saban would question a player's conditioning but not his character. He would dress down an assistant coach for how his position group played, but would not personally insult him. Still, Saban was harsh, and he was relentless.
Perfectionists do not take days off from perfectionism; if they did, they wouldn't be perfectionists.
In 1998, Saban's fourth year in East Lansing, Michigan State upset No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus. It was an enormous, signature win, the biggest piece of evidence yet that Saban would lead the program from NCAA sanctions to Big Ten contention.
Saban danced in the locker room with his team afterward. But before dawn Monday morning, he called Burke into his office and chastised him for something he did on the sideline in that game.
So no: There was not a lot of affection for Saban even before he left. Respect, sure. But for many Spartans, the transition from Saban to Bobby Williams felt like the best possible outcome. Players loved Williams. A few assistants took other jobs after Michigan State beat Florida in the Citrus Bowl, but most stayed in East Lansing. Players hoped and believed that Williams would blend Saban's success with genuine warmth. They would win and enjoy it a heck of a lot more.
In Williams' first season, the Spartans went 5–6. The next year, they went 7–5. The year after, they started 3–6. The sixth loss came to archrival Michigan by the score of 49–3, when Williams's players appeared to give up. Afterward, a reporter asked Williams if he had lost his team, and Williams said, "I don't know."
Two days later, Michigan State fired him. Life is difficult.
So: Why? Why did some Spartans cheer for Saban's after he left, even if they weren't that fond of him?
One thing you have to understand: Unlike many fans at that time, the Spartans knew it was pointless to cheer against Saban. They had seen him every day. They knew he was a football genius. Sometimes Saban could tell what play an opponent would run before it broke the huddle, just by substitution patterns. His knowledge of the game seemed boundless, his enthusiasm for it endless. There was no way Saban was going to fail.
Some Spartans wanted to see Saban triumph just to confirm what they suspected about the man. Imagine having a college roommate who played guitar in your dorm room all day. Imagine thinking, "This guy is one of the best guitar players anywhere, and nobody knows it." You might want the rest of the world to hear what you heard, and believe what you believed.
Many of Saban's former players weren't necessarily pulling for Saban. They were pulling for his team. There is a difference. Scott says, "You know the day to day with Nick Saban, what they are going through. To make it out of that, man, it's like the old bible verse, you walk through the valley of the shadow of death …"
And as they grew older, the former Spartans started to see three dimensions of Saban. They understood why Saban took a new job for a big pay raise. Most of us have done that, or would.
And some of them came to realize that Saban was not as cold and ruthless as he sometimes appeared. There were hints of this at the time. When Strayhorn's mother was dying of cancer, Saban gave him all the time he needed to be with her. Saban drove Casullo to and from church every Sunday and rarely talked football in the car.
He warmed more to some players than others. Former offensive guard Brian Mosallam, who is now a Michigan State trustee, remembers when practice would start and Saban "would come by and yell at the folks on the bike that were injured or not practicing, to get ready for practice and quit lollygagging. Then he'd wink at me and walk away."
Mosallam has maintained a relationship with Saban. He has attended Alabama bowl games and went to Saban's daughter's wedding. He says Saban is misunderstood.
"You can see he's not real good at expressing it, but he does care," Mosallam says. "I just think he doesn't do a good enough job of telling his own story, and part of it is that he doesn't care to.
Burke says, "The thing that maybe people don't understand, and I didn't even understand at the time: he cares deeply for his players. I don't think he was able to express that."
Saban did not greet them with big hugs or ask many questions about their girlfriends. But he did want them to succeed, and not just when they played for him.
Anybody who was paying attention learned from Saban. Scott applies the discipline that Saban instilled in his work as a personal trainer in North Carolina. Muhammad said being the managing director at Axum Capital Partners, a private-equity firm, has given him a better understanding of what Saban faced. "It's hard to be in charge," Muhammad says. "You can't please everybody. You make the best decision possible and then you live with it."
And Saban's defensive backs coach at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio, said two years ago: "I wouldn't be where I am without Nick Saban."
A lot of people will say that Michigan State is facing its former head coach in the semifinal. The truth is, Michigan State is facing two former head coaches.
After Williams got fired at Michigan State, Saban hired him at LSU. Then Saban hired him with the Miami Dolphins. Now Williams is Alabama's tight ends coach and special teams coordinator. So at least one guy was more than happy to work for Saban again.
The story about Saban's plane was juicy, but it was also not quite as simple as people portrayed. Coaching is a transient profession. A lot of coaches, especially those with kids, would rather stay at a school in a power conference than uproot their families.
Dantonio stayed with Williams for one year before becoming Jim Tressel's defensive coordinator at Ohio State. He returned to Michigan State a decade ago and has led the program to stunning success.
This is the second time Dantonio has faced Saban in a postseason game, and both times, you could tell: The two men are not close. Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo still refers to Saban as "my good buddy." You probably won't hear Dantonio do that.
It is hard being an assistant coach for Saban, it is really hard being a defensive coach, and it is especially hard to coach defensive backs. That was Saban's specialty, and that's what Dantonio coached. One imagines that there are some scars there.
Dantonio has a much different personality from Saban. He is more personable, more open and more inclined to tell players how much he cares. The Spartans love "Coach D," and feel like they know him well. Also, Dantonio's team usually plays like a Saban team. And that might be the best compliment in football.