In a week in which the conversation should be about Alabama’s appearance in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game against Florida Saturday, the headlines have been stolen by the unconfirmed – but undoubted – report that Kirby Smart, longtime defensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide, has been hired as head coach at Georgia.
Smart has seemed a reluctant candidate in the quest for a head coach job in the past, but there was a widely held belief that one job would lure him from the relative comfort of million dollar a year assistant at Bama.
Kirby Smart wanted to be head coach at his alma mater.
In his regular Wednesday evening press briefing, Alabama Coach Nick Saban made it clear that he was not going to discuss the rumor of Smart leaving the Crimson Tide for the Georgia Bulldogs at this crucial time.
Bama and Florida will kick off at 3 p.m. CST (4 p.m. Eastern time) Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for the SEC Championship. CBS will televise the game. If Alabama wins, the Tide is surely in the four-team College Football Playoff for the second consecutive year.
Saban was willing to discuss his path from assistant coach to head coach. Saban has been a successful head coach for so many years that it may have been overlooked that 19 of his first 20 years in the profession were spent as an assistant coach (though usually defensive coordinator) either in the National Football League or in the college ranks.
While Saban was not willing to discuss Smart returning to coach where he played college football, the Tide head coach did reveal something about his own try to become a head coach. It ws an unsuccessful application, and it came from his alma mater, Kent State.
Not getting that job made Saban think he would never be a head coach.
He was asked if he had wanted to be a head coach in the NFL or in college football, and also asked if had had a dream job.
Saban had played at Kent State, finishing his playing career in the 1972 season under the famed Don James. James enticed Saban to stay on as a graduate assistant coach, and Saban stayed through the 1976 season. He spent 1977 at Syracuse and then had two years at West Virginia, two at Ohio State, one year at Navy, and four years at Michigan State under George Perles, 1983-87.
He was defensive coordinator for the Spartans when Michigan State won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl with a 20-17 win over USC. Michigan State led the nation in rushing defense (61.2 yards per game) and was second nationally in scoring defense (12.4 points per game.
At the end of that season, Saban’s alma mater, Kent State, had a job opening and Saban applied for it.
“It was the first time I was ever excited about thinking that I would have a chance to be a head coach some day,” he said.
He didn’t get the job.
“That’s when I got a little frustrated and said, ‘Wow! You did what you did here this year and they didn’t hire you at your own school, you’re probably never going to be a head coach.’ That’s exactly what I thought.
“And that had a lot to do with me going a few months later to the Houston Oilers and coaching in the NFL for two years, because I thought I was never going to get to be a head coach in college.
“So then after two years there, the Toledo job came open and there was interest there, so I ended up going there (1990), but then went back to the NFL as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator at Cleveland.
“But really the job that I always thought about because I spent five years at Michigan State, had a lot of good friends there, that’s really the job I always wanted. After those four years at Cleveland I got that job, and really didn't care about any other job, to be honest with you.”
But he did accept the job at LSU in 2000 and stayed with the Bengal Tigers for five years, winning the national championship in 2993.
Saban said, “But I did think I’d go back to the NFL someday. I always thought that if I got the opportunity to be a head coach.
“I got that opportunity (2005-06), and I think most people would agree maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing for me to do, but you learn a lot about yourself and you figure out where you want to go and what you want to do, and I thought I wanted to be…enjoyed college coaching more because of the things you do for players and how they sort of develop and benefit personally, academically, and athletically, and there’s a lot more personal gratification in some of those areas and some of those things. And they happen every day.”
He became head coach at Alabama prior to the 2007 season and has had a phenomenal run, winning three national championships and two SEC titles and been in contention for the national crown in all but one season since 2008. Following a 7-6 rebuilding year in 2007, Saban has a 95-12 record through last week’s 29-13 win over Auburn.
But his success notwithstanding, he talks about the men he has been able to influence. He said, “I see Roy Upchurch having success in his life right now and B.J. Scott being a coach and a lot of guys who have been in this program are doing really well now, and it makes me feel good to see them have success and feel like something they learned while they were here kind of helps them do that.
“I don’t think being a head coach is something I ever planned on. I never thought I’d have an opportunity for it. And then when I got an opportunity, and didn’t get it, I thought it would ever happen.
“But then it did. I was fortunate to get that opportunity and all the other opportunities that came our way, and certainly hope that we’ve done something to enhance the jobs we’ve had in some kind of positive way.”