Nick Saban will lead his Alabama Crimson Tide onto the field Saturday night to face Michigan. Saban and Alabama won the Bowl Championship Series title last season. It was Saban's third BCS title.
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Nick Saban has become one of the most accomplished college football coaches of the modern era. He has collected three Bowl Championship Series titles with two different schools, but he remembers where it all started.
Saban only spent a season in Toledo 22 years ago, but it helped mold him as a coach and left an indelible mark on the program and its players. He became a visionary of sorts when he began his head coaching career.
As Richard Isaiah discussed his senior season with the University of Toledo football team, he paused to acknowledge something -- the Mid-American Conference championship ring he wore.
Isaiah is now pastor of the Tabernacle of Praise congregation in Toledo, but as a wide receiver, Isaiah helped the Rockets win a share of the Mid-American Conference title. Isaiah's championship ring, however, isn't just a token of a 9-2 season. It's emblematic of the season that Saban spent as coach.
"We had a lot of fun, but we won a championship," Isaiah said. "And there was not a lot of room for frivolity at that time."
Saturday night, Saban will coach Alabama when it opens the season against Michigan at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Saban didn't immediately revolutionize college football. Yet he took an approach to academics and athletics that at the time was considered progressive.
Recently chronicled in Sports Illustrated, it's an approach that emphasizes accountability, professionalism, a high level of intensity, and a thorough work ethic. And it's now a prototype.
Florida coach Will Muschamp calls Saban's modus operandi "the blueprint." And if Saban operates under a blueprint, then consider the 1990 season a drafting table.
"Everything we do now, we tried to do the same things at Toledo," Saban said. "We have the same kind of academic support program we tried to implement, relative to the resources we had. Philosophically, we practiced the same way, recruited the same way and looked for the same thing in players, and tried to have the same kind of team.
"I think the team at Toledo probably reflected that, how they played, how they responded, how they did. We've learned a lot through the years, but we really haven't ever changed our philosophy from the first year at Toledo."
Nick Saban got his start as the coach of the Rockets in 1990. It was his only season in Toledo, and UT captured a share of the MAC title.
Coaching the Rockets was a chance for Saban to prove he was capable of running his own program, and a chance to experiment with a plan that he believed could produce a well-rounded program and a more holistic student-athlete.
"It may have been a little progressive," said Rusty Hanna, a Northview High School graduate who was a kicker for Saban. "At that time, a lot of guys I played with and even my mentality, I wanted to play college football. That was my main desire. Not that school came second. I took it serious. But a lot of guys I knew were there just for football. At that time, [Saban's stance] may have been progressive, but it was very important. He saw that academics is important, and you've got to stress that first."
That emphasis came at a time when some football programs focused solely on the "athlete" part of the student-athlete equation.
"He was a little bit ahead of his time about that demand," said former Toledo coach Tom Amstutz, who was an assistant to Saban. "He wanted the players to do well, he cared about them, and he wanted them to get their degree."
Saban's belief in instilling and maintaining high academic standards for the Rockets was also a testament to his upbringing in a blue-collar town south of Pittsburgh.
"He was a poor kid from West Virginia, and a college degree meant a lot to him," Amstutz said.
Not just to Saban -- who graduated from Kent State in 1973 -- but also to his players.
"Saban had the attitude that if you were here, it meant you could be a football player," Isaiah said. "For him to be successful as a coach and for us to be successful as a team, he had to keep us on the field."
Saban also made wholesale changes to the football program. When Saban walked into the Rockets' first winter conditioning session, Hanna immediately noticed a change in the dynamic.
"He brought his professional attitude to the team," said Hanna, who is now a physical education teacher at Springfield Middle School and an assistant coach at Northview.
Isaiah saw it too.
"Those changes, they were intense," Isaiah said. "No matter who you were, you were expected to perform, and that was noticeable. There were guys who didn't survive because they couldn't handle that intensity."
But Saban's tenure at Toledo was brief. He joined Bill Belichick's staff with the Cleveland Browns as a defensive coordinator for the 1991 season, then coached from 1995 to 2004 at Michigan State and Louisiana State. In two seasons (2005 and 2006) with the Miami Dolphins, Saban didn't have the same success, and returned to the college coaching ranks in 2007.
Saban believes he gained perspective while coaching the Rockets.
"Being a head coach for the first time and managing all the people around you, it's probably what I learned the most," Saban said. "I couldn't be a defensive coordinator anymore. I needed to sort of take a little bigger look at things from 1,000 feet away rather than through a straw, and see how it affected everyone in the organization."
The hallmark of Saban's first season as a college coach, Isaiah believes, was that methodical approach to running a program.
"If you play for Nick Saban, you will win," Isaiah said. "I don't know how much fun you're going to have, but you're going to win."
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