Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban retired on Jan. 10, and one day later, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots parted ways. Both are GOATs in their respective fields, and it’s fitting that they left their empires in quick succession and without drawn-out farewell tours.
Yet, Saban and Belichick are tied together by more than their seats at the table of football immortality. In fact, their history can be traced back to the early 1980s, when a different Belichick had the two under one roof — Steve, Bill’s father.
A Look at Nick Saban and Bill Belichick’s Relationship
For over 30 years (1956-1989), Steve Belichick served as an assistant and scout for the Navy football team. His scrupulous scouting reports were the stuff of legends, and his book, “Football Scouting Methods,” is revered by many as the Bible of the profession. Yet, arguably, his biggest influence came from one dinner in the summer of 1982.
Steve invited first-year Navy assistant Saban to his home, and at the table was Steve’s only son, Bill, the New York Giants’ linebackers and special teams coach at the time. Saban had been in Annapolis for just a few months but made the most of his time. He was the DBs coach, but when working run fits and coverages, he’d often spill into the linebackers, and his coaching points transcended any one position.
His impression was made on Steve, and the longtime scout saw something in his son. Saban and the younger Belichick had actually met once before, when Saban was the DBs coach at Ohio State, and Bill took a scouting trip to the school. But that summer dinner marked the beginning of a friendship that would take the football world by storm.
“My dad had seen a lot of coaches come through the Naval Academy,” Belichick said. “So when he would say to me, ‘This is one of the best coaches I’ve worked with,’ I always kept that in the back of my mind.”
‘Secret Mission’ That Would’ve Made Navy Proud
After earning his stripes as the DBs coach and defensive coordinator for Michigan State from 1983-1987, Saban was ready for the big leagues. With a recommendation from Belichick (who’d been promoted to Giants DC) to then Houston Oilers head coach Jerry Glanville (whom he’d worked with in Detroit a decade prior), Saban earned his first NFL gig coaching the DBs.
But before the season began, the rookie NFL coach requested — or as Saban himself put it, “begged for” — some pointers from the veteran who had already won a Super Bowl on Bill Parcell’s staff. Belichick obliged, although it wasn’t because they were friends.
“It wasn’t just the secondary, which was his forte,” Belichick explained. “He knew what the nose guard was doing, and he knew what the quarterback was reading. He knew how receivers adjusted routes based on coverage. He understood all the components of the game, and that was very interesting for me. Because I saw the game that way myself, that everything kind of affects something else.”
Of course, seeing as the two were now NFL opponents, they couldn’t let their meeting become public. Thus, they met at a small hotel in West Point, New York, and picked each other’s brains. They discussed defensive keys, reads, and the pros and cons of Saban’s press man and Belichick’s Cover 2 schemes.
It was a pivotal moment for both coaches, and while Parcells claimed he knew about the meeting when it happened, Glanville uncovered the operation years after, saying, “If I’d have known, he would have been fired. [Nick] was smart enough not to tell us.”
Cleveland Browns Reunion
A few years — and a one-season stint as Toledo’s head coach for Saban — later, the two would bring their minds together yet again, this time on the same coaching staff. Belichick got his first head coaching break as the leader of the Browns, and his first hire was an easy one: Saban as the team’s defensive coordinator.
The first-year head coach said he had confidence in Saban, and while the two called very different defenses, they adapted to each other, with Browns linebacker from 1994-1995 Carl Banks saying, “It was Nick’s front and Bill’s coverages. And then it morphed. That’s the hallmark of these coaches: They can hybrid/morph anything.”
The dynastic duo didn’t exactly light the NFL on fire, going 6-10, 7-9, and 7-9 in their first three seasons together. But in 1994, Cleveland finished 11-5 and knocked off the Patriots in the Wild Card Round before falling to the Steelers the following week.
Saban said he wouldn’t leave the Browns for just any job, especially as his and Belichcik’s families had grown close in Cleveland. But when Michigan State’s head coaching spot was available, he couldn’t turn it down.
Without Saban at his side, Belichick and the Browns went 5-11, culminating in owner Art Modell firing him and moving the team to Baltimore — the franchise wouldn’t win another playoff contest for 26 years.
The Elevation of Empires
Belichick went on to join Parcells’ Patriots and Jets squads for the next four seasons before becoming New England’s 14th head coach — a title he’d own for the next 24 years.
The hiring was controversial, as Belichick was initially announced as Parcells’ successor in New York. But a day after the news went public, he turned his official introduction into a surprise resignation, writing on a napkin: “I resign as HC of the NYJ.”
The reason? The Patriots had an opening after firing Pete Carroll and were willing to give Belichick nearly complete control of football operations. Six Super Bowl victories, 18 playoff appearances, 17 division titles, three AP NFL Coach of the Year Awards, and a 292-120 record later, and it’s safe to say both sides made the right decision.
Meanwhile, Saban parlayed modest success with the Spartans into stops at LSU (where he won a national championship) and the Miami Dolphins.
That tenure in South Beach came with its own controversy, as in December of 2006 (his second season with the team), Saban repeatedly denied rumors that he’d become the new face of the Crimson Tide, going so far as stating, “I guess I have to say it: I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.”
Well, during the first week of January 2007, that’s exactly what he did. But Saban knew he’d leave the Dolphins log before signing in Tuscaloosa.
“Drew [Brees] was coming to Miami when I was the coach there. He was going to be the quarterback. That’s all we needed. We just went 9-7, and all we needed was a quarterback to be a playoff team,” Saban said in response to questions about why he left Miami.
“We were going to sign Drew Brees as a free agent. Dr. [James] Andrews operated on him, and I went to Birmingham to see Dr. Andrews, and he said it’ll be fine. Our doctors failed him on the physical. [Drew] was there to sign with us. I actually made a deal with his agent that he wouldn’t tell anybody for 72 hours he failed his physical until New Orleans signed him.
“That’s how he ended up in New Orleans.
“So, I decided right then when that happened that we don’t have a quarterback in the NFL, we’re not going to win. I’m getting out of here. I’m not staying here. I’m not going to be responsible for this. That doctor didn’t know his [rear end] from a handful of sand.
“Drew Brees plays 15 more years, wins a Super Bowl, goes to nine Pro Bowls, and we didn’t take him in Miami, where he wanted to go. Some things you can’t control. When we left there nobody understood why. Well, that was why. There’s always a reason.”
And the rest was history. Saban’s Alabama became college football’s equivalent of Belichick’s Patriots, and we’ll likely never see anything similar on either stage again.
In 17 seasons at the helm, Saban and Alabama accrued six national titles, nine SEC championships, a 183-25 record, and multiple coach and player accolades, also sending 123 prospects to the NFL via the draft.
As a quick aside for those wondering, Saban and Belichick did play head-to-head while the two manned AFC East franchises. Here’s how those four contests concluded:
- Nov. 13, 2005: Patriots 23, Dolphins 16
- Jan. 1, 2006: Dolphins 28, Patriots 26
- Oct. 8, 2006: Patriots 20, Dolphins 10
- Dec. 10, 2006: Dolphins 21, Patriots 0
Football’s ‘Romes’ Weren’t Built in a Day, But They Did Fall in Two
Saban isn’t abandoning his players at Tuscaloosa following his retirement Wednesday. “I’m going to have a presence,” Saban said in an interview with ESPN. “I’m going to stay in Tuscaloosa. They’re giving me an office in the stadium.” And Belichick reportedly wants to remain a coach in the NFL after leaving the Patriots on Thursday.
New England will eventually rebound, and Alabama — assuming they get their next head coach hiring correct — should maintain their status as one of the top dogs in the SEC. However, empires are never the same once they lose their emperors, and the NFL and CFB will feel the effects.
Saban and Belichick redefined what success was in football. Now, it’s time for the sport and all within it to redefine life beyond their dynasties.
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