Nick Saban has won five national championships and is generally considered one of the best college football coaches of all time. But he hasn’t always been a success story.
Back on New Years Eve, 1981, Saban was fired from his job as the secondary coach at Ohio State, along with the most of the Buckeyes’ defensive staff. ESPN.com’s Alex Scarborough reported that even though Saban was respected by the rest of the staff, head coach Earle Bruce wasn’t happy with his defense after a close win over Navy in the Liberty Bowl.
The morning after the game, Saban and all but one other defensive assistant was out.
The termination, Scarborough reports, had less to do with Saban’s coaching and more to do with the relationships between Bruce and his staff.
Saban was already regarded as a great football mind, even as a relatively young coach. The Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator, Glen Mason, asked Saban to help him evaluate recruits all the time.
“And he was always right,” Mason said. “To be quite honest with you, it was things I didn’t think of, didn’t see or didn’t evaluate.”
His fellow assistants said Saban was obsessed with his work and very bright. They said the young secondary coach was ahead of the curve in terms of installing new, more advanced coverages.
Saban didn’t get along as well with Bruce. He wanted the defense to run more complex schemes, but Scarborough wrote that the head coach “wasn’t eager to play ball.” Saban was also close with Ohio State defensive coordinator Dennis Fryzel, who was often at odds with Bruce.
The result was that Saban was shown the door, even though everyone on staff agreed he was a smart coach and excellent recruiter.
“It was collateral damage,” Mason said. “It wasn’t because the secondary wasn’t playing well, (Saban) wasn’t recruiting well or he wasn’t doing his job well.”
Saban wasn’t bitter when asked about the only time he’s ever been fired.
“It was a little bit of a crazy deal,” he said, “but I look back more on the mistakes that I made rather than blaming somebody else.”
Bruce later admitted it was a rash decision to get rid of most of his defensive assistants, asking, “Why did I do that?”
With the benefit of hindsight, knowing the kind of coach Saban would become, the question seems even more appropriate.