There’s no statue of Alabama coach Nick Saban in East Lansing, Mich., nor will there ever be.
No streets are named in his honor, although Michigan State doesn’t do that kind of thing, and no championship trophies are on display from his time there.
But Saban’s influence, impact and legacy can be seen and felt almost 20 years since he last wore green and white on the Spartan Stadium sideline. He spent 10 years in East Lansing, five as an assistant coach in 1983-87 and five as the head coach 1995-99.
“I think at the end of the day, Nick’s always a Spartan,” said Mark Hollis, who has been at Michigan State since 1995 and succeeded Ron Mason as athletic director in 2008.
“When he says he’s going home, I think Michigan State is one of the places in his mind that he envisions as he makes that statement. I know Tuscaloosa is as well at this point in time, and West Virginia, but when he says home, I know it at least pops into his vision.”
While Hollis takes the high road, Michigan State fans might not be so forgiving as Saban’s Alabama teams have become the dominant force in college football. Some can’t help but dwell on what might have been — the lingering aftertaste following a sip of success.
The bitter part has spiked with each of Saban’s five national titles and the two times his Alabama teams crushed Michigan State in the postseason: 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl and 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl as part of the 2015 national championship run.
“Some people love him, and some people hate him,” former Spartans running back T.J. Duckett (1999-2001) said. “If he would have stayed, we would have had a championship.”
Saban’s record with the Spartans was 34-24-1, hardly eye-popping but impressive considering the circumstances. When he was hired prior to the 1995 season, Michigan State was in hot water with the NCAA. The Spartans forfeited all five wins from the 1994 season under George Perles after the NCAA penalized Michigan State for lack of institutional control. That cost Saban two scholarships during his first recruiting class and another seven in 1996.
Nevertheless, the Spartans didn’t have a losing season under Saban and landed bowl invitations during his first three years (all losses). In 1998, they knocked off No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus, and they were 9-2 when he stepped down at the end of the 1999 regular season before Bobby Williams took over.
Thus the heart of Saban’s love-hate relationship with fans of Michigan State, LSU and the NFL’s Miami Dolphins — he left in the midst of success.
“I still have to stick up for him behind his back when I go to Miami with the Dolphins fans,” former Michigan State running back Sedrick Irvin said. “I guess when people recognize greatness, you don’t want greatness to leave. LeBron [James] won two championships in Miami, and you still have people who hate him in Miami.
“I think that was the thing. They know if Nick Saban stayed at Michigan State all that time … he was beginning to walk that path of greatness. Knowing him, the trip to LSU, he always wants a challenge, and he wants to conquer that challenge.”
What Saban built would help serve as a future blueprint for the program’s resurgence under Mark Dantonio, who had been Saban’s secondary coach. Saban just completed his 11th as Alabama’s coach at last week’s SEC Media Days (16th overall). Dantonio will make his 11th as Spartans coach at Big Ten Media Days on Monday.
“I always thought he’d do great if he ever got an opportunity to be a head coach,” Saban said before the Cotton Bowl victory in 2015. “He’s certainly done a lot better job at Michigan State than I ever could do. So he’s done really well. I’m proud of him.”
Despite last year’s 3-9 finish, Michigan State had at least 11 wins in five of the previous six season. The Spartans played in three Big Ten Championship Games, and from 2013-15 finished third, fifth and sixth in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll. When Michigan State reached No. 2 in 2015, it was the Spartans’ highest ranking since reaching No. 1 in 1966.
“Had I never had that opportunity to go to Michigan State, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” said Dantonio, who is entering his 11th season as the Spartans’ head coach.
Likewise, Saban wouldn’t be the coach he’s become without Michigan State. Rumors persist that Saban had at least one opportunity over the years to return.
“Um … I don’t know that that’s true, but you always have conversations,” Hollis said. “Nick’s somebody I would call about almost any significant football issue because he’s going to tell you what he thinks.
“We’ve had numerous conversations, but I’m not sure there was an offer to come back to Michigan State.”
Regardless, the impact from his years there have been wide-ranging. One of Williams’ daughters works in the Michigan State athletic department, along with head strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie. He had the same position at Toledo when Saban was the head coach in 1990 and is running the Spartans’ “Fourth Quarter” offseason conditioning program.
Tough lessons learned
Just as impactful is what happened when Saban left for LSU in 1999. After losing records in eight of their previous 11 seasons, the Tigers were desperate to turn around things. They gave Saban a five-year contract for $1.25 million per year — a huge salary for a head coach in 1999.
Saban was 48 at the time and had yet to scratch the itch of being a head coach in the NFL. He found LSU’s offer too good to refuse. However, when he sent a plane back to pick up any assistants who wanted to join him in Baton Rouge, no one did.
“That was a tough lesson for Nick, and I think it was the best thing that could have happened to him,” said Hondo Carpenter, the founder and publisher of SpartanNation.com, which covers Michigan State athletics.
Carpenter believes the snubbing forced Saban to realize he would have to change some of his ways. He would no longer keep his assistant coaches in the office past midnight every night. He became more flexible in his play calling and realized he would have to learn to adapt.
“He understands you win with people all going in the same direction,” Carpenter said. That ties into Saban’s frequent analogy of the program being a bus and he’s just the driver.
Eventually Williams rejoined Saban at Alabama and served as the special teams and tight ends coach through the 2015 season. He’s now listed as a special assistant. Director of football operations Mike Vollmar also spent the 2008-10 seasons with the Crimson Tide, but otherwise Saban’s Michigan State staff scattered.
Dantonio stayed a year with Williams and then became the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, which helped lead to his first head coaching job at Cincinnati in 2004.
“A lot of the things we do and the way our program is shaped is patterned after really Jim Tressel and Nick Saban,” he said.
Duckett is a good example. Recruited by most schools as a linebacker at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, Mich., he was named Parade Magazine’s National Player of the Year. The key to his landing with the Spartans was Saban promising Duckett a chance to play the position he preferred: running back.
With 621 carries for 3,379 yards, he’s still sixth on the Spartans’ all-time rushing list.
“He reminded me of Al Pacino,” Duckett said of his first impression of the coach, which was anything but intimidating. After hearing from a former high school teammate about Saban’s hard-nosed, ruthless nature during practices, Duckett thought: “This guy? Him?”
Needless to say, that changed.
“His whole thing was the process, and the process is everything,” Duckett said. “There are no shortcuts, and the process is the way you’re going to get there.”
At Michigan State, Saban first established his program as a conduit for reaching the NFL. Quarterback Tony Banks and wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad were second-round draft selections in 1996. Other success stories followed, including wide receiver Derrick Mason in 1997 and tackle Flozell Adams in 1998.
In 2000, wide receiver Plaxico Burress and linebacker Julian Peterson were first-round picks. Two years later, Duckett followed as the 18th overall selection by the Atlanta Falcons and wide receiver Charles Rogers went second overall to Detroit in 2003. But MSU wouldn’t have another first-round pick until 2014.
“When I’ve had a chance to play with other players who have played for Coach Saban throughout the years at different universities, it’s the same story, the same thing,” Duckett said. “There was this time I was talking to older [NFL] vets, and some of them loved him, and some of them hated him. But at the same time, they all said that he prepared us all for this.
“It all started to make sense.”
It’s all about opportunity
Now some of those former players are coaches themselves and passing on many of the things they learned from Saban to the next generation of players.
Among them, Irvin was an Alabama intern for two seasons (2008-09) while finishing up his degree. After a stint as the running backs coach at Memphis, he became the head coach for Westminster Christian School in Palmetto Bay, Fla., and now has the same role at his alma mater, Miami High.
“I took lots of notes,” he said about seeing the other side of Saban.
Similarly, as the wide receivers coach at Eastern Michigan, Herb Haygood tells his players some of the same things Saban told him in 1998 and 1999.
“Coach Saban, he’s honest, and sometimes some recruits probably can’t handle that,” said Haygood, a former MSU wide receiver. “Clearly, I remember him saying, ‘Herb, you’re an outstanding player.’ What he expects, for us to go and get a degree, but he’s like, ‘I’m going to be very truthful with you: I am always going to be looking to replace you.’
“Some recruits would think, ‘OK, I’m not going to play for this guy,’ but really, when he broke it down [it made sense]: ‘If I don’t look to find someone who’s better than you or equal, you would get satisfied. … If you aren’t doing everything you can to be the best player, the best student, the best person you can be, someone’s going to come in and replace you.'”
Forever a fond place in his heart
Like so many others from Michigan State, Haygood is not surprised by Saban’s five titles. On the flip side, Saban obviously has a fond spot in his heart for East Lansing.
“If I had to do it over, ” Saban said in 2014, “I’d have just tried to stay in one place and establish a great program, not have all these goals and aspirations of things that eventually, you know, you weren’t happy doing.”
Saban and his wife, Terry, just completed a decade with the Crimson Tide. Perhaps after he eventually calls it a career, they might even go back and see the other place where they spent 10 years.
“We look forward to those visits,” Hollis said. “He’s a great person. He’s a great friend, and he’s an unbelievable coach.”