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August 18, 2012
Saban leaves lasting impression
TUSCALOOSA | It was around Christmas in 1989 when Pat Perles got the call he suspects might have been the first one Nick Saban made.
This was how it all began.
Saban had been chosen over then-Notre Dame assistant Pete Cordelli as the new coach at Toledo. It was to be Saban's first head coaching job, but he still had a job to finish as an assistant with the NFL playoff-bound Houston Oilers.
"He said, 'I want a recruiting weekend this weekend'," recalled Perles. "It was a Monday or a Tuesday, and Phil (Parker) and I had to round up as many kids to come in that weekend as we could. One of my first questions was whether he wanted to evaluate them before we brought them in. He said, 'I'll evaluate them when I get there, just get as many kids in that weekend as you can.'"
That was the first inkling Perles had that his job as a Toledo assistant - jeopardized weeks earlier by the firing of Rockets head coach Dan Simrell - was likely safe with Saban. The Oilers' first-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers set Saban's career wheels in motion on New Year's Day 1990.
Fitting, because it was new for everyone involved.
The staff Saban put together was an interesting mash-up - one from Lehigh, another from Wisconsin, one from the Canadian Football League, two from Navy. Perles and Parker, however, were guys already in place at Toledo whom Saban knew, having coached them at Michigan State in the mid 1980s. Parker, in fact, called Saban after Simrell's firing, not knowing the job would eventually draw Saban himself, needing some career advice.
"I called Nick's house in Houston and got (wife) Terry, and said, 'Hey, Nick never told me what you do when you get fired,' " Parker said. "He (called back and) gave me a little advice, and the next thing I knew, he was interested in becoming the head coach."
Perles, Parker and Toledo assistant Ron Curtis were retained. As the rest of the staff began filling out with outside hires, each new coach arrived to find a certain regimentation that seemed more like the stuff of a head coach who had been in place for years, not weeks.
"It was Nick's first year, but you could really tell he'd been thinking about this job for a long time before he showed up at Toledo. There was no trial and error," Perles said. "He got there in the middle of recruiting season, and everything was systematic from Day One."
One of the players Saban recruited that winter went on to be an assistant coach for him at LSU a decade later: Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. It was Wisconsin, however, that got Tucker's signature. But Saban left an impression as a recruiter that stuck with the Tucker family so much Tucker's father would later write Saban letters about how his son was doing.
Saban - with a hand-written touch - sent letters back.
"He was so good, my family and I knew he wouldn't be at Toledo for four years. Not this guy," Tucker said. "And we were right - he was there one season. That's not necessarily the reason I didn't go there, but he had a such a plan."
Not just any stop
In a business where moving from job to job is the norm, few coaches have moved around as much as L.C. Cole.
The Dayton, Ohio, native served as a graduate assistant under legendary Nebraska coach Tom Osborne after his playing days with the Cornhuskers were finished in 1979. And by the time Nick Saban called him about a job at Toledo 10 years later, he'd already coached at New Mexico State, Kansas State, Ball State and Wisconsin. Since leaving Toledo, he's blown the whistle at Morgan State, Cincinnati, Tennessee State, Alabama State, Stillman College and now Jeff Davis High in Montgomery.
But Cole remembers Toledo unlike any coaching stop he's ever made.
"The first team meeting, I remember a high-powered meeting. ... I had the guys jumping rope in conditioning that morning," Cole recalled. "When we came back to the staff meeting, (Saban) said, 'L.C., what the hell are you doing with those guys, jumping rope like Suzy at the park?' He really got my attention. He always was a high-intensity guy. But he made you a better coach."
Saban's offensive line coach, Ellis Rainsberger, the oldest coach on that Toledo staff and now retired at 79, described it this way: "He had a knack for pushing all the right buttons with both the coaches and the players."
Added Perles: "He was smart enough to delegate, but also in tune enough to know if something was out of whack."
Cole had always coached defense since leaving Nebraska and was Wisconsin's second-year outside linebackers coach when Saban called. At first, Cole hesitated because Saban wanted him to handle running backs, a position he'd never coached before.
"He said not to worry about that - he would help me through that," Cole said. "And he did."
For Cole, it was a year of novelty on several other fronts. From coaching running backs to conditioning, from player discipline to game-planning, he found almost every aspect of the job a learning experience. And when the year was up, Saban took a job with the Cleveland Browns and helped his Toledo staff find work. He put in a good word for them with new Rockets coach Gary Pinkel, who had been Saban's college teammate at Kent State, and most were able to stay on with Pinkel's staff. But he had another surprise for Cole - an internship with the Browns that was his first exposure to NFL coaching.
"I really branched out from the whole thing," Cole said.
The groundwork for Saban's entrance at Toledo was laid from his days as a Michigan State assistant under George Perles, who had brought much of his coaching style from the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I think I really learned the most about a college program at Michigan State with George Perles. ... We were developing everything from the ground up," Saban said. "The academic support program we would have, the offseason program, the way we practice, all that. I tried to emulate everything we did at Michigan State at Toledo. It worked. It worked well."
Curtis, who coached Toledo's wide receivers for Saban, remembers the installment of academic support for players as the most drastic and lasting change Saban made. And that it didn't just help the players - it helped the staff as well.
"Before that, academic support fell on the coaches, and there just wasn't enough daylight for that," said Curtis, now retired and still residing in Toledo. "There needed to be someone to guide the athletes in the right direction and help them academically. As coaches we didn't have the time to do that ourselves. ... That was sorely needed at Toledo at the time."
On the field, Saban never lost touch with the importance of the game's basics.
"As a kid growing up around the Steelers, the thing I always heard was fundamentals, and that was Nick," said Pat Perles, son of George. "He wants to do the common things uncommonly well. That's a Chuck Noll quote, but there was lineage in that philosophy through my dad down to Nick."
The Rockets won a share of the Mid-American Conference championship that year, opening the season 6-0 and finishing 9-2 with a 7-1 MAC record. Cole's first charge as a running backs coach, Troy Parker, ran for 879 yards and 13 touchdowns. Rick Isaiah caught 49 passes for Curtis, and Dan Williams was an All-MAC member of Perles' defensive line.
For much of that staff, the 1990 season went by too quickly.
But not too quickly to remember.
Reach Chase Goodbread at email@example.com or at 205-722-0196.