Former Saban assistants keep tight circle
TUSCALOOSA | The period from 1995 to 1997 was something of a search for Mel Tucker, but he didn't know quite what he was looking for.
He had just earned a degree from the University of Wisconsin, a triumphant finish to a college football career that had been hindered by injuries. But after a short stint in the Canadian Football League, he was sure of one thing: Playing football wasn't the long-term answer.
He tried sales.
He tried teaching.
Finally, he tried Nick Saban.
Today, Tucker is the defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars. And he's quick to credit the University of Alabama football coach.
"He and his wife, Terry, if it weren't for them, I wouldn't even have a coaching career," Tucker said.
When he decided to turn to coaching two years out of college, Tucker called Saban, whom he had known since he was recruited out of high school by Saban's Toledo team in 1990. But it was the way Tucker stayed in touch after choosing Wisconsin over the Rockets that helped him get his start in the business.
"A lot of times you recruit guys and build a great relationship with them, but as soon as they go someplace else, if they go someplace else, they don't respect that," Saban said. "Mel never did that. He always stayed in touch. ... He worked in the private sector for a while. When I was at Michigan State he said he wanted to be a coach. Well, because he had maintained that relationship, there was no doubt about hiring the guy."
The coaching business is no doubt a fraternity of sorts, and a close one at that. But Saban's former assistants talk about a level of loyalty and closeness that suggests an even tighter circle.
Like pretty much every former Saban assistant, Todd Grantham remembers plenty of hard work and regimentation. But the Georgia defensive coordinator said the bonding process among the staff was helped along by some fun times, as well. Grantham coached under Saban at Michigan State.
"Coach Saban used to have a house in Michigan, and he'd take the staff there and go tubing, and run us around on an old tube," Grantham said. "He thought it was fun to slingshot us and throw us off the tube. One time we threw Bobby Williams out of one, but we forgot he couldn't swim, so that was a little scary."
There are pick-up basketball games in the offseason - Saban has joked in the past about his commissioner status - that go back a lot of years.
"You want to make sure you're good enough to be on his team," said Mike Collins, who coached LSU linebackers in 2004. "If you're not, and you have to guard him, what do you do? You don't want to foul him too hard, but you want to play aggressive."
A number of Saban assistants spoke of the coach's loyalty to those he has worked with in the past, though none illustrated the point quite as well as retired defensive line coach Pete Jenkins. According to Jenkins, a defensive line coach under Saban at LSU, the percentage bonus Saban told his first LSU staff it would get for a bowl trip was somewhat higher than what the school eventually paid. When the 2000 LSU team took a bid to the Peach Bowl against Georgia Tech, Jenkins learned all he needed to know about the man he'd chosen to work for.
Saban on the headset
"We were playing, I think, Bowling Green in a home game. We were running the ball and the free safety kept creeping up and was getting about 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. Nick called up to the box and says, 'Hey, Greg, do you see that free safety so close the line of scrimmage?' I said, 'Yes sir.' He said, "Do you think we could throw the ball over his head with a play-action pass? Do we have that in our offense?' The next play, we threw a play-action pass for a touchdown. He gets back on the headset and says, 'Thank you very much.'"
- Offensive coordinator Greg Meyer (Toledo, 1990)
"He rarely got on the headset, but one time we were playing Oregon our first game of the year in East Lansing. He got on the headset and told me to run a particular blitz. Julian Peterson knocked the ball out, Amp Campbell scooped it and ran it back for a score. That was maybe one of two times he got that specific on the headset the whole year, but when he did, he always had something, and he'd be right."
- Defensive coordinator Bill Miller (Michigan State, 1999)
"Playing Auburn over there (in 2009), we went ahead at the end with the two-minute drill. Nick calls a timeout and says, 'Let's throw that play action,' as an example. He was excellent on game day. He's a smart guy. He's real poised on game day, as well."
- Offensive line coach Joe Pendry (Alabama, 2007-10)
"He said more on the headset when you were supposed to beat a team - a Georgia Southern, a North Texas. One time we were playing Western Illinois, and they did a couple of things to us here and there, and things got intense. Then the next week we'll play Georgia and it's an (expletive) buster, and he doesn't say a peep."
- Strength/ linebackers coach Mike Collins (LSU, 2003-04)
"The last game of the season, we played Penn State. ... On the last series, we only had 10 players on the field because we had a substitution mix-up after a kickoff. He didn't know it during the game. The next morning, on Sunday, he realized what had happened. We all knew what had happened, but nobody said anything. So on Sunday morning, after watching tape, he knew it, because he's very detailed. He came into our defensive meeting and basically threatened to fire every one of us if it ever happened again. We all knew it had happened. It was a coaching mistake we'd made on defense, and when he realized it, he came in and got after us pretty good - which he should have done as a head coach."
- Defensive line coach Brad Lawing (Michigan State, 1996-98)
Editor's note: Lawing said he was thankful Michigan State intercepted a pass on the first play of the drive with a defensive back missing from the defensive package.
"We had some problems defensively against Georgia Tech in the Peach Bowl, and we made a quarterback change at halftime, too. We weren't out of the game, but we weren't in control of the game. ... When he stepped in to do some things to win the game, you've got to take your ego out of it. He saw some things and he was right about those things, and he called the second half. It was great. It was fun to see it work."
- Defensive Coordinator Phil Elmassian (LSU, 2000)
"Coach Saban took it out of his bonus and made up the difference between what the school had planned and what he told us when we came on board," Jenkins said. "My appreciation for that was even greater than the excitement over additional money. It's been my experience, unfortunately, some I've worked for have not been as true to their word as coach Saban is."
Chain of command
The way L.C. Cole put it, assistants coach the players and Saban coaches the coaches. From Dean Pees to Greg Meyer, from Kirk Doll to Bill Miller, former Saban assistants all describe Saban as a head coach who allowed them to do their jobs without a great deal of micromanagement. Attention to detail was a must, they said, but interference came only when necessary.
"As hands-on as he was during the week, he was really good on Saturdays about letting you call the game," Pees said. "Without telling you what to call, he had catchphrases that I knew exactly what he meant. If a team got the ball down in the red zone, if he said, 'Make them drive it,' that meant don't blitz. Make them work for it and don't take a chance. If he felt like he wanted you to blitz, he'd say, 'Let's make something happen.' "
Saban indicated that maintaining a quality chain of command between the staff and the players demands that assistants maintain the proper level of authority.
"If you're the leader of an organization and you don't let the chain of command develop the respect it needs because you jump in front of them, then the next group of people that should be respecting that guy won't respect him, they'll only respect you," Saban said. "Then you have guys thinking, 'I don't have to do what this guy says, I just have to do what that guy says.' ... There is a defined chain of command, and you can't violate that. If you violate that, you make that particular person ineffective."
At times, however, a head coach has to step in and take more control.
In the 2000 Peach Bowl against Georgia Tech, which the Tigers trailed 14-3 at the half, halftime adjustments included a quarterback change and Saban being more active with defensive play calls.
The defensive coordinator on that staff was Phil Elmassian, now at Massachusetts.
"It's nothing personal, and you've got to separate it. He lives in the moment better than anyone I've been around. Game day, you'd better be on point. If you're not, he'll let you know, and that's what he's supposed to do," Elmassian said. "He stepped in to do some things to win the game, and you've got to take your ego out of it. He saw some things and he was right about those things, and he called the second half. It was great. It was fun to see it work. I had no problems with that. None. Zero."
The Yellow Jackets didn't score a point in the second half, and LSU engineered a 28-14 comeback win.
Saban himself, coaches assure, put in as much or more hard work himself as he asked of them. Example-setting from the top in that regard is well-received.
"I've never seen anyone on a staff outwork him," Jenkins said. "He'll be the hardest-working guy on his own staff. He does more than he asks of others."
Added Greg Colby, a Saban assistant at Michigan State: "That's absolutely fair - he was there every minute we were, if not more."
A total of 15 Saban assistants are now working as a coordinator in the NFL or college, and 12 others are a head coach at some level. Seeing his assistant coaches move on to bigger jobs brings Saban a certain satisfaction.
"In the beginning when you're insecure and you first become a head coach, it's like, 'If I'm not successful, I'll get fired,' so you worry about your success," Saban said. "But as you go through the years, you realize that if the players are successful and the people in your organization are successful, that's the thing that will help you be successful."
There may be no better example than Tucker.
"There is probably nobody that's moved up professionally as fast as him. ... Mel goes to Miami (of Ohio), coaches there for five months. I go to LSU, then I hired him at LSU, he stayed there one year and got a job at Ohio State. He was there two or three years and ends up with the Cleveland Browns as a coordinator," Saban said. "It took me 25 years to get that far."
Tucker, in turn, doesn't forget how it started.
"His loyalty comes through when you know him. As a recruit, I saw that side of him before I went to work with him. ... That helped me learn and not be intimidated," Tucker said. "He'd take the time to tell me stories about how to be smart with your money, mistakes he'd made, things to look out for, how to manage time with your family, things like that. It was genuine."
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.