Alabama coach Nick Saban on the late Don James: ‘He really changed the direction of my life’

Oct 24, 2013, 12:12 PM | Updated: 1:15 pm
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Don James came to Washington after reviving the program at Kent State, where he coached Nick Saban. (UW photo)

By Shannon Drayer

Alabama head coach Nick Saban joined 710 ESPN Seattle’s “Brock and Danny” Wednesday to remember the man who gave him his start in the business, the late Don James.

Saban, who has won four national championships and currently has a 7-0 record with the top-ranked Crimson Tide, said he was caught off guard one afternoon in 1972 when James – then the coach at Kent State University – called him into his office and asked him to be a graduate assistant the next season.

“I never really intended to be a coach at all, but Don called me in and said, ‘I would like you to be a GA,’ which was a shock to me,” Saban said. “I don’t know what he saw. I didn’t really want to go to graduate school, but I said, ‘Okay, I will do it,’ and it was the best thing I ever did. I have spent the last 40 years of my life never ever feeling like I was going to work.”

What Saban learned under James as both a player and a coach he took with him into his future jobs. A couple of weeks ago he let James know this in a phone call and got a laugh from his former coach when he told him that he still has his Alabama team run the same conditioning drill he learned from James.

“What I learned in those first couple of years has still affected our program dramatically today. A lot the things that he did, we still do,” he said.

James was known for his organization and the respect he commanded from all who were a part of his programs or came anywhere near them. Saban saw this early, both as a player and a graduate assistant, and said that these aspects among others separated James from his peers.

“When I was a player, I had a tremendous amount of respect for him because we had a great staff that did things the right way. Everybody played hard and the team always had great intangibles because they were demanded of you,” Saban said. “But when I first started coaching we were so well organized in everything we did. He defined expectation for everyone in the organization. Players we wanted to recruit at every position, how we prepared for a game, when we did what in practice, how we got the players to prepare – I just assumed that’s how everyone did it.

“Well, I went to three or four more jobs over the next 15 years and I am sitting there saying, ‘Why aren’t we as organized as we were with Coach James?’ And it was really frustrating.”

Saban agreed with co-host Brock Huard that James’ emphasis on “coaching the coaches” is a rarity in college football today.

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Nick Saban, a four-time national champion, said he wouldn’t have become a coach had it not been for Don James. (AP)

“I think in this day and age in coaching a lot of head coaches either get so far away from coaching that they don’t coach anymore and they count on their coordinators to do it, or they are totally involved in being the offensive or defensive coordinator and maybe they don’t have the big-picture perspective like Don did,” Saban said, “but there is no question that the way he did it is the absolute best way to manage an organization and really get the most out of everybody in the organization.”

With all of the success James had at Washington, Saban wanted to point out what he did in his first head-coaching job at Kent State.

“Before he came to Kent State, that may have been the worst program in America. We won two or three games the year before he came, the kids got shot the first spring we were there, May 4, 1970,” Saban said, referring to the Kent State massacre. “There was this dark cloud over the university. They had a terrible football program and he built the most successful program they ever had and I don’t think people really fully understand the magnitude of the accomplishment because it wasn’t in a big-time school where everybody got a lot of notoriety.

“I think it was only realized after the great success at Washington that people realized what a great coach and what a great man he really was.”

On a personal note, Saban called James a “great mentor” to him and a great person to emulate.

“He had a tremendous leadership and effect on my life at a young age when I was a college player for him and had the opportunity to be a GA. And he has been a great friend as well,” Saban said. “There is no question, I wouldn’t even be a coach, but more importantly the effect that he had on me personally. He really changed the direction of my life, all in a good way.

“It’s a sad time but we also have to have a lot of gratitude and appreciation for the association that we had with a great man,” Saban said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, Miss Carol and all the Husky Nation that has supported him and been his great friend. As someone from afar, I appreciate all the support, I am sure he would tell you, you all gave him. God bless you all.”

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Alabama coach Nick Saban on the late Don James: ‘He really changed the direction of my life’