Shaping A Leader

When The University of Alabama began its nationwide search, it was looking for a coach, but specifically a leader, a man with a plan to orchestrate the resurgence of the Crimson Tide football program. Although nearly 40 years ago, an ABC prime time television special in 1967, "Coach Bryant: Alabama's Bear," included a few moments that are relevant to the situation for Alabama today.

Leaving the lockerroom at the end of his chalk talk, Alabama Coach Paul Bryant exhorted his players, "All we need is just somebody that wants to [show] some leadership out there…everybody's a leader!"

At the conclusion of the morning press conference on January 4 introducing the 27th head football coach at The University of Alabama, the consensus was that the Bama football program found some leadership in Nick Saban.

A philisophical question ponders whether leaders are born or made: Is one born with leadership skills or are they developed over time by being around the right pepole and being thrust into circumstances that enhance natural leadership abilities?

Nick Saban has made it clear over the years that his life was shaped in great part by his father, the late Nick Saban, Sr. And there are others he cites as important to his development as an outstanding football coach. We spoke to three of those who were influential and witnesses durig the formative years of Nick Saban's life. They are:

Don James, the former national championship football coach at the University of Washington and Nick Saban's football coach at Kent State University; Earl Keener, head football coach at Monongah High School, West Virginia; and Bill Criado, assistant coach of the Pop Warner Idamay Black Diamonds and life long friend of Nick Saban, Sr. (head football coach and founder of the Idamay Black Diamonds).

Arnold P. Steadham: Do you remember the first time you met Nick Saban?

Don James: I had gotten the Kent State job. We had a team meeting when I first got there to Kent State. We started a winter program and I got to see him and meet him. When we got to Kent State, the cupboard was a little bare. There were a handful of really good players, Nick, Gary Pinkel (University of Missouri head football coach), and Jack Lambert (Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Fame player).

APS: Why did you ask Nick Saban to be a graduate assistant on your coaching staff at Kent State?

Don James: He was going to consider coaching. I really thought he would be a good coach because he was young and bright. He was one of the players that was a lot more interested than just his position (defensive back). He wanted to know how the secondary tied in with the entire defense. I could have put him any place in the secondary. He wanted to know how things tied in with the pressure defense, the slants and the shifting. You could see right away he wanted to be involved in learning offenses and defenses.

APS: What should the people of Alabama know about Nick Saban?

Don James: I followed his career early when he was moving around and was so impressed with how he had progressed defensively. He really knew defenses and coverages. Over the years I've watched his teams. He is an intense guy. He's a no nonsense guy. He wants to do it right. He wants to be successful and I think he will.

APS: What are his strengths as a coach?

Don James: If you're going to be a coach in division 1A, you have to be a program guy. You have to have a solid program in everything there is including recruiting, academic counseling, winter program, spring ball and summer workouts. You have to know how to prepare a team in fall camp. Once you get into the season, you have to have a program that brings your team through the week and prepares them to play.

APS: When Nick Saban was a player for you, what example could you site that would illustrate his ability to be a coach?

Don James: When we came to Kent State, they had not had a very good record. He had the intensity of a Jack Lambert. There was no nonsense. Football was important to him. He did not want to tolerate his fellow teammates not working hard, not trying hard and not being into the game. That was the kind of leadership he gave us. It bothered him when we didn't succeed. We won the conference championship my second year there. That's the only championship they've ever won before or since. I think you have a good man. He's a good person. He's a good coach. He understands people, programs and football. I think the thing people have to realize you don't go out there and go 12-0 the first year. He has to take the team and plug in the holes. It's going to take awhile. He'll make progress. You'll see that.

Earl Keener, head football coach, Monongah High School, West Virginia

APS: What qualities did you see in him as a player?

Earl Keener: When he came out as a sophomore, I felt that he needed a little more of a social background about controlling the kids because the quarterback has to control the players in high school. It took him a little longer to grow up but by the fourth game of the season in his sophomore year, he started and never relinquished the position. He did a terrific job. He was a really fine athlete and always wanted to learn more. I had to shoo him off the football field so I could come home and see my family.

APS: What should the people of Alabama know about Nick Saban?

Earl Keener: Whatever form of problems that would happen, he seems to be intensely built for college coaching. I'm sure he's the best kid I had at that position (QB). Other positions I had all-state players too and so it's very hard to say he was my best athlete, although he certainly was my smartest. No doubt in my mind because once I gave him instructions to follow, if he varied, he had a good reason for variance. I think of this last transaction (move to Alabama) and I always thought and still think he's a straight shooter and he's probably back home (coaching college football). He's back in his own environment and I think he will succeed at Alabama because success seems to follow Nick.

APS: Could you give an example of how you coached Nick Saban?

Earl Keener: We played this team called Masontown Valley which is in Preston County. We were down 18-0. We went back to basics and finally scored two touchdowns but we missed both extra points. So when the last few moments of the game were on the line, I called time out. I told the team to come over and I talked to Nick. I said Nick, this is our situation. We had about 20-25 seconds left to play. You have one or two options. You've got an all-state running back by the name of Kerry Marbury (former West Virginia running back) and an all-state end by the name of Tom Hulderman (outfielder drafted by Chicago Cubs 1969). Now your decision is do you throw or do you run? I said, it's in your hands, not mine. He went back and hit Hulderman in the deep part of the end zone. The score was now 18-18. My kicker was scared to kick and I said you're going to kick that ball. He did and we won, 19-18. That is what I think and remember about Nicky. He was only a sophomore.

APS: What were your impressions of Nick as a player?

Earl Keener: He always seemed to hold himself upright. He always was very intent in listening. I would explain to him if we had something unusual to do, these are our choices. You make up your mind. I'm not going to call these particular plays. And it seemed like each time he that he would follow his own thoughts. Bingo, we won. All I did was when we called time out and when I had the conference with Nick, I'd say these are our options. This is what we have to do. Which one of the options do you think is going to work? I'm not playing the game. I'm on the sideline. Nine out of ten times, he called a winning number. It's that simple. He was a very good defensive back although I didn't play him at that position until he was a little stronger as a senior. He was very good and that's where he excelled in college at Kent State. I am very fortunate that he came to our school. We had other players who were equal to his talent but he still stood out above the crowd. He was bright and articulate. He fit the bill in everything he did here in Carolina, West Virginia. He handled himself. He's a fine gentleman. He is a bright kid and I knew that along time ago. That's my summation of young Nicky Saban.

Bill Criado, assistant coach of the Pop Warner Idamay Black Diamonds, West Virginia

APS: What do you remember about Nick?

Bill Criado: The team that won the state high school championship (1968) was composed of members of the Idamay Black Diamonds. Besides having Nick and Tom Hulderman, three players who received football scholarships to West Virginia were on that team, Kerry Marbury, Charlie Miller and Nate Stephens. Nick was called "Brother" by his older sister to distinguish from their dad, Nick, Sr., and he's known by that name by everyone around here. He had leadership qualities when he played Pop Warner football. He had leadership qualities when he played for Monongah High School. That's probably a pretty good indication that he might want to look at coaching. "Brother" played quarterback with the Idamay Black Diamonds.

APS: Could you describe his relationship with his Dad?

Bill Criado: His dad had a lot of influence over him. His dad was a good athlete himself, a great motivator and a great competitor. One particular time, it seemed like every game "Brother" scored a touchdown (at Monongah High School) from the quarterback position. His dad told him maybe he shouldn't try to do that every time because that could upset some of the other players. His dad thought maybe he should hand it off. He had a good relationship with his dad. If he had any questions about football, he would discuss them mostly with his dad.

Click here for Idamay Black Diamonds website

Editor's Note: Arnold P. Steadham covers special events for and 'BAMA Magazine.

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