Early this year, Much Traveled Lou Saban—his real name is Louis H. Saban, but Much Traveled Lou, as he was long ago rechristened in newsprint, has pretty well taken over for that—strode to the front of a big, barren lecture room at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He grabbed the front of the podium with his meaty left hand, stared at the assemblage of expectant young men before him and began speaking to them for the first time as their football coach. Suddenly, as if stricken, he asked, "Are these all the football players we got?" There were mumbles that indicated, well, yeah, Coach, this is pretty much it. And for a fleeting moment, the possibility loomed: Would Much Traveled Lou throw up his hands and hit the road? Again?
It was a genuine possibility. After all, Saban has had 18 jobs in 33 years, an average of 1.83333 years per position. Among the résumé entries, a fairly recent one at that, is the title of athletic director at the University of Cincinnati. For 19 days. Saban left that institution at halftime of an early-season game against Ohio University. Several days passed before anyone realized that Saban had left more than the game. He had left, period.
Last year Saban's title was president, New York Yankees. Sure, the Yankees are a baseball team, and Saban is all football. Still, is there any more prestigious title, save President, U.S. of A.? And Saban treats it as just another blip on his resume screen. In a switcheroo dazzling even for Much Traveled Lou, he left the Yankees to go to Central Florida, a struggling young school where nearly 13,000 of the 14,000 students are commuters.
Now obviously Saban's good buddy, George Steinbrenner, calls the shots for the Yankees, not the club's president, but there's no denying the Yanks are major league. Central Florida is something else again. It played football last year in the NCAA's Division II, where its record was 0-10. Says Saban gamely, "The relationship of talent to victories is deceiving." Well, that could be true. The Fighting Knights probably weren't as good as their record indicates. They were outscored 356-109. In four years of playing football, Central Florida has had one winning season, its first, when it was 6-2. That was with a volunteer coach. The nadir may have come last Nov. 6, when only 3,818 spectators showed up for a game against Carson-Newman. In the 50,000-seat Tangerine Bowl, they looked like the clean-up crew on a cigarette break.
Nevertheless, Central Florida aspires to big-time football: appearances in the Orange Bowl, foam fingers waving No. 1. Says Athletic Director Bill Peterson, "Florida State is already penciled in on our 1989 schedule." Thank heaven pencils have erasers. But what the heck, what better place for fantasy than in Mickey Mouse's shadow?
In fact, one of the first things Saban did after checking in at Central Florida on Jan. I was to take a gander at Walt Disney World, with Bob Allen, vice-president of the theme park, as his tour guide. Allen expressed the hope that Saban would return sometime for a more leisurely visit. Said Saban, "I will. I'm here to stay, my friend." And his fingers weren't crossed. But then, they never are. Saban has sworn at every stop on his itinerary that this is it, this is where he wants to stay. We're not talking about a guy who has had too many zip codes; we're talking about one who has had way too many. He knows it. "All these different jobs I've had do bother me," he says. "They bother the heck out of me. But everybody can't have the great resources of an Ohio State, a Penn State, an Oklahoma. The rest of us do the best we can at the job we can get."
Saban repeatedly paints himself as a victim. Steinbrenner, a man who knows something about hiring and firing and has been Saban's boss at both Tampa Downs and the Yankees (see chart, page 38, for Saban's itinerary), says the reason Saban leaves places is simple and understandable: People don't keep their word to him. If that's true, few men in history have been lied to more than Much Traveled Lou. But Steinbrenner insists, "The main point with Saban is, he has taken all this crap and kept his mouth shut. He's a man's man. If he were less of a man, he'd have gone public and said, 'These s.o.b.'s lied to me.' "
Steinbrenner's view is seconded by Bill Trout, an assistant coach at the University of Miami, who was at that school during Saban's touch-and-go tenure in 1977-78. "He's very idealistic," says Trout, "a man of high integrity who has felt, at times, that he's been betrayed. Whatever commitments they made to him at Central Florida, they'd better keep." And Allan Phipps, president of the Denver Broncos when Saban was with them, says, "It looks to me as if he's always striving for excellence and can't ever seem to find it where he is."
Maybe. Yet anyone who has taken the trouble to bring Saban's résumé home to read over a long weekend sees a mix of bad choices, bad luck, bad timing. His is a mediocre record, all in all, with two flashes of brilliance—oddly enough, with the same team. As head coach of the Buffalo Bills from 1962 to 1965, Saban built an outstanding football machine that won the old AFL championship in '64 and '65. He quit because Owner Ralph Wilson offered him only a one-year verbal contract for the '66 season and cut back his responsibilities. Wilson says today that Saban left Buffalo because "he wanted to return to college coaching."
Six years later, largely at the urging of Steinbrenner, Wilson rehired Saban, and again he was successful, restructuring a battered program and getting the Bills to the NFL playoffs in 1974. But Wilson started tampering, again taking away chunks of Saban's responsibilities, including negotiating contracts with the players. Saban left Buffalo in huff No. 2. Wilson says the reason Saban departed was that he again wanted to return to college coaching.
Of football coaching, college and otherwise, Saban says, "There's an unpredictability about this business that creates hazards." He has not been a notable success at avoiding them. In fact, he has lost more than he has won. He has been a loser at every major college head coaching job he has had—at Northwestern, Maryland, Miami and Army. His college record is 46-54-4. Despite his achievements at Buffalo, he has been a loser in the pros, too. Besides the Bills and the Broncos, he also coached the Patriots. His pro mark: 96-102-7. Heck, even as titular head of the Yankees, Saban couldn't hang on to success. In 1981, his first year, New York won the American League pennant, but in '82 they slid to fifth place in the Eastern Division.
Wherever Saban goes, the word "commitment" is soon heard. He told the Central Florida administration, for example, "I'll stay as long as the university is committed." Saban likes to give himself the option of saying, "I'm leaving because you lost your commitment," and all his employer can say is, "No we didn't." Peterson says, "Our word is good. Lou will stay forever." However, Saban's definition of "forever" might not coincide with Peterson's. Realizing this, Peterson told Much Traveled Lou that as a condition of employment, he had to buy a home in Orlando. Peterson intended it to be a joke; Saban nevertheless bought a house.
In view of his nomadic life and lackluster record, why is it that Saban always seems to have a job, is always thought of as a winner and hasn't been reduced, as so many other coaches have, to leaving the game he loves to sell life insurance? Well, he did sell insurance for a while. Explains Saban, "I did it because I was hungry, my wife was hungry and my three kids were hungry. Why did I take all these jobs? I needed a job."
Sam Rutigliano, coach of the Cleveland Browns and a former Saban assistant, says, "Lou has done a great job wherever he has been. He has the ability to simplify all things, to get right to the core of what he has to do to win." Reminded of Saban's record, Rutigliano says, "Smart coaches with bad players always get beat by the dummies with good players." At the University of Washington, Athletic Director Mike Lude, another of Saban's friends, is asked if Lou has had too many jobs. "No, I don't think so," he says. It's guys like these—and they are legion—who are responsible for sustaining Saban's reputation.
Beyond his throwaway line about hunger, Lou is reluctant to talk about his job-switching. Steinbrenner, who was receiver coach under Saban at Northwestern in 1955, remembers the time when Saban gave him a bottle opener with a fish on top of it. Explained Much Traveled Lou, "This is to remind us that the fish that doesn't open his mouth doesn't get caught." At the press conference at which Saban was introduced as the Central Florida coach, he said, "Many remarks have been made about my ah, ahhhh, movement. Most people don't quite understand why and I've never bothered to explain." At which point he took the opportunity not to explain again.
Some Saban watchers perceive explanation enough. They say he's flighty—Central Florida President Trevor Col-bourn prefaced a question to Saban in a job interview by noting that "you do have a reputation as a bit of a butterfly"—and impetuous. Underneath it all, he's just a guy who seemingly can't say no. Every time somebody talks to him about a job, he's flattered. Too flattered. And he desperately wants to be asked. He has made himself available for nearly every head coaching position that has opened up over the last 10 years. Once he flew to Texas-El Paso from his New Jersey home to ask for the job there, which isn't exactly the plum of plums as coaching positions go. He was turned down. Saban has called to suggest a friend for a job and ended up suggesting himself. Army, to which Saban had intended to recommend one of his assistants, was a classic example of that.
To Saban, no job is unworthy of consideration. That's why he's at Central Florida (salary: $43,000), facing opponents like Nicholls State and Valdosta State. "I've been up there and I've been down here," says Saban. "The question is how many people you help. The levels don't matter."
Maybe not to Saban, but that's not true of the schools that hire him. They hope to use his name and football victories to become known, to attract financial backing. When Central Florida was founded, it was called Florida Technological University. At the 1967 groundbreaking, then Governor Claude Kirk said, "There'll no longer be an ivory tower throughout the world, only the golden triangle of Cal Tech, MIT and Florida Tech." At the time of the school's creation, exciting things were happening at nearby Cape Kennedy, and the motto adopted by the university was, fittingly, Reach for the Stars.
But before the school could really get going, the nation's interest in space projects declined. And the awful truth set in. The people of Florida didn't want another engineering-oriented university. They wanted a general-purpose university—and football. Now the golden triangle of the future would be Southern California, Penn State and Central Florida.
In Colbourn's inaugural speech when he took office in 1979, he announced that the name Florida Tech would be changed to Central Florida, to reflect the school's broadened curriculum. Toward the end of the speech he casually mentioned the idea of big-time football. Jaws dropped.
"Some will worry about us running before we can walk, that our ambition is overwhelming," Colbourn says today. "But the main intent is to raise the visibility of this institution. We want to be known for the strength of our academics, but that takes time. The time lag for sports is minimal."
One big step taken at Central Florida—where $750,000 will be spent on football this year, including a $50,000 gift from Steinbrenner—was the hiring of another football "legend," Peterson, as the athletic director. Peterson, who had a "lifetime contract" with the Houston Oilers when he was sent packing in 1973 (his record as the Oilers' coach: 1-18), had in fact done well in 11 seasons at Florida State (62-42-11). With Peterson, 62, and Saban, 61, Central Florida runs the risk of becoming known as another Florida retirement community, but that would be unfair. Says Saban, "So much talent is wasted just because a guy gets to be 55 or 60. We antiques are valuable. That's why people buy us." Colbourn concurs, saying, "The number of rings around the trunk mean nothing."
If Saban's an antique, he's a tough old article, and that's part of his birthright. The son of Yugoslav immigrants, he was raised in LaGrange, Ill. His father was a common laborer who moved from job to job, too. "Everything was difficult," says Saban, "food, jobs, money." Young Lou worked as a sandhog during the building of the Chicago subways, and he slept with his two brothers in a single bed. "In winter it was great," he says. He and his father would spend nights raiding coal cars moving along tracks through his neighborhood, swiping enough of the cargo to put some heat in the home. "We did it because we had to," says Saban. "It became a family project." Football was Saban's way out, and he played it with a passion as a star quarterback and linebacker at Indiana and later as an all-league linebacker for the Cleveland Browns in the late 1940s.
He's an emotionally rugged man, too. In a 10-month span in 1976 he had his second blowup in Buffalo, his first wife committed suicide (he remarried), he had a double-bypass heart operation and he took over as coach at the University of Miami.
Trout, the Miami assistant, suggests, "If Saban had lived 200 years ago, he'd have been the guy in the covered wagon. If he'd been born in the 1400s, he'd have been an explorer. There's always a new horizon for him. He's like a master painter. You should give him the canvas and paint—and get out of the way. The problem is, someone always comes along who wants to paint by the numbers."
To create a masterpiece at Central Florida, Saban realizes, he will have to work with the rejects and never-considereds of Florida, Florida State and Miami. "We are starting from scratch," says Saban. "All we can do is look to the future."
Now Saban is on the telephone, in enthusiastic conversation with a recruiting prospect. "Hey, my friend, I just saw you on film," he says. "I'll take two. You remind me of O.J. I don't know whether it's Anderson or Simpson." But when the talk turns to grades, a pall comes over Saban: "Get those grades up because you have a lot of talent, my friend. Don't waste it." He hangs up and hangs his head at the player's 1.4 high school grade-point average. "No wonder he's not being heavily recruited," says Saban. What Saban is betting on is that Florida high school players—and the state has become an increasingly fertile source of football talent—will prefer to stay near home and play for Central Florida, and him, rather than travel to distant universities, especially those in cold-weather locales.
For certain, the players already on the Fighting Knights are impressed with Saban, at least in part because they are finding it fun to have a card-carrying celebrity in their midst now with spring practice in full swing. Central Florida's best player last year, Bill Giovanetti, a linebacker who was signed by the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits, says, "I'd have loved to play for Coach Saban." And Defensive Back Alan Gooch, a junior, adds, "I know he'll be here at least as long as I am. The man's a legend."
Hold on there, Gooch, Much Traveled Lou is legendary all right, but as for being here, or there, or anywhere for two years, it's way too soon to tell.
REASON FOR LEAVING
SABAN'S COMMENT ON LEAVING
Head coach, Case Institute (10-14-1)
School de-emphasized football
"I need a job."
Assistant coach, University of Washington
"All coaches change jobs, especially when they are young."
Assistant coach, Northwestern
Same as above
Same as above
Head coach, Northwestern (0-8-1)
"We got our heads blown off."
Sold insurance, Chicago
Hated it; loved football
"Coaches want one thing: to coach."
Head coach, Western Illinois (20-5-1)
Chance to coach in pros
"Western Illinois understands."
Head coach, Boston Patriots (7-12)
"They fired me on the practice field. I said, 'Give me five minutes to pack my gear. One more thing: You now have a fine football team.' "
Scout and then head coach, Buffalo Bills (37-19-3)
Quit in a huff
"We had a disagreement over the responsibilities of the coach."
Head coach, Maryland (4-6)
Quit in a huff
"They were slow builders. I'm a fast builder. I scared'em."
Head coach and general manager, Denver Broncos (20-42-3)
Quit in frustration
"I took over when the only thing significant about the Broncos was their vertical-striped socks. I never could find a quarterback to carry the load, and I told the owners, 'The fans aren't going to stand for this.' "
Head coach, Buffalo Bills (32-29-1)
Same as in '65.
"I told Ralph Wilson, 'You own it. You do what you want to do.' "
Athletic director, University of Cincinnati
Quit in dismay after 19 days
"I found they didn't have enough money, so they needed to cut and slash. I was one of the people I found they could do without. What I did was fire myself."
Head coach and athletic director, University of Miami (9-13)
Quit in a huff
"I wasn't fair with Miami. My judgment was bad."
Head coach, Army (2-8-1)
Quit in frustration
"If I don't have a chance to win, I'm going to get fired."
Worked for George Steinbrenner at Tampa Downs and then as Yankee president
Quit to get back to football
"I told George, 'I haven't got football out of my system.' "
Head coach, Central Florida
"You don't know how much I appreciate these people taking a shot at me. I mean with me. This is a great way for me to finish—in coaching, where I belong."