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Columbia Missourian

TIGER KICKOFF: Saban and Pinkel: College football friends turned conference foes

By Mike Vorel
October 12, 2012 | 12:00 p.m. CDT
In this 1972 Kent State University football team photo, Missouri football head coach Pinkel is No. 89 in the third row, eighth from the left, while Alabama head coach Nick Saban is No. 12 in the front row, first on the left.

COLUMBIA — One is already an icon, a man whose statue stands proudly outside the stadium where he still coaches. He is the owner of three national championships, three Southeastern Conference titles and a scowl that instills fear in even the most courageous young men.

The other is an enigma, a coach who won big in the past but now, after a year filled with controversy and realignment, stands at somewhat of a crossroads. His pursed lips and black visor have been constants on Missouri's sideline for more than a decade. This coach has celebrated wins, developed quarterbacks and said very little along the way.

But before all that — before the wins, the titles, the conference changes — Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel were teammates. They were friends.

A title that united a town

It all started in Kent, Ohio, in 1971.

Following a dismal 3-7 season in 1970, Don James took over as Kent State's head football coach. The school and community had endured a year rife with tragedy, after four students were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen at a protest on May 4, 1970.

Kent State needed something to believe in. The football team, at that time, wasn't it.

The previous coach, Dave Puddington, gave James fair warning about the group of players he was inheriting.

"When I first got the job in '71, the preceding coach told me there were a half dozen really solid players, and a half dozen really not-so-solid players that were a cancer to the team," James said, laughing loudly over the phone.

Three of the "really solid players" turned out to be future NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, safety Nick Saban, and an athletic, sure-handed tight end named Gary Pinkel.

Practices were intense, as Lambert and Saban brought a toughness to the defense that was missing in previous seasons. The coaches forced the players to wear pads in every practice, because the staff was concerned Lambert might injure some of his own teammates if they weren’t adequately protected.

Ken Dooner, the backup tight end behind Pinkel in 1972, remembers what it was like to stand toe-to-toe with Lambert and Saban. Saban, in particular, made an impact on him.

"Nick played free safety. I had a few run-ins with him, being the second-team tight end against the first-team defense," Dooner said. "Nick was a good player. He was a tough, hard-nosed guy, not much different than he is now."

Pinkel, on the other hand, was a strong, athletic tight end who caught anything that came his way. He wasn't the biggest guy or the shiftiest in open space, but he knew how to catch a football.

"Gary was just a solid player. He had all the things that you ever needed for any level of football, and he had great hands," James said. "He was bright. He didn't make mental mistakes."

In James' first year at Kent State, 1971, the team showed no improvement in the win-loss column, finishing 3-8. Then, with another year in the system, the Golden Flashes started seeing results.

They finished 6-5-1 in 1972, good enough to win the Mid-American Conference title and a berth in the Tangerine Bowl. While they lost the bowl game to the University of Tampa, that 1972 team still lays claim to the only MAC title and bowl appearance for the school.

After decades of consistent losing and a recent past tainted by one unforgettable tragedy, that team inspired hope. It took an entire community of various backgrounds, cultures and beliefs, and gave them all something to agree on.

"Talk about a university that needed something tremendously positive to happen," Pinkel said Monday. "It united us — football did."

A phone call from Nick

Nick Saban never wanted to be a football coach. Cars, not pigskins, were his passion in life.

"For a while, Nick was talking about selling cars," James said. "I knew he and his wife were from West Virginia, and I just assumed he was thinking about going back to West Virginia, getting a job and living there."

That was, in fact, the original plan. But after graduating from Kent State in 1973, Nick decided to spend one more year in Kent, while his wife, Terry Saban, earned an undergraduate degree of her own.

With Saban lingering temporarily in town, James seized the opportunity. He offered him a spot as a graduate assistant for the 1973 season. Saban accepted the position, and somewhere along the way decided he had a knack for coaching.

Cars would have to wait. The rest, as they say, is college football history.

Meanwhile, Pinkel had found a home at James' side – first as a graduate assistant at Kent State in 1974, and then as an offensive assistant at Washington from 1979 to 1990.

But, try as he might, he couldn't make the leap to head coach.

"I interviewed at Bowling Green, where I coached before, and didn't get the job. And I interviewed at Kent State, where I was an all-conference player, and didn't get the job," Pinkel said. "My wife didn't think I could get hired anywhere."

As it turns out, all he needed was a call from an old friend.

Saban had just completed his first year as head coach at Toledo in 1990, where he led the Rockets to a 9-2 season and a share of the MAC championship. He decided to make his tenure there a short one, though, jumping at an opportunity to become the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns under head coach Bill Belichick.

Before he left, Saban did his best to make sure the position stayed in the Kent State family.

"He calls me up and says, 'I'm leaving here, I can get you an interview — are you interested in the job?' " Pinkel said.

Pinkel was interested, and so was Toledo. He served as the Rockets' head coach for 10 seasons, delivering eight winning records, before leaving Ohio again for the greener pastures of Missouri.

But he wouldn't have become a head coach, Pinkel says, if not for that phone call. If not for Nick Saban.

"You have to get a break to be a head coach," Pinkel said. "I think there are hundreds of high school coaches that are good enough to coach in college, they just won't get the break to do it. Same goes for the head coach. Lots of guys you know could be head coaches that don't get that break."

"When you get the break, you've got to be able to do the job," Pinkel said. "But I got the break because of him. Who knows what would have happened (without him)."

A 40-year reunion

During Missouri’s first-ever SEC media day in mid-July, Pinkel stood at a podium, in front of a room full of reporters, knowing the question would eventually come. They'd want to know what he remembered about playing with Saban, the coaching great who one day, 40 years ago, just wanted to sell cars.

Pinkel addressed the crowd with wit, and a smile.

"First of all, he's older than me," Pinkel said, grinning. "I want to make that very clear."

Saban, who is indeed six months older than Pinkel, shot back at his former teammate the next day.

"I know he was up here bragging about the fact that he's younger than me. But, you know, there are other coaches in this league, like Steve Spurrier, that are older than me, that I look up to, that are my mentors, that I really learn a lot from, that I really want to try to be like," Saban said, implying that Missouri's coach should respect his elder.

They playfully exchanged barbs, seemingly channeling their younger selves. And on Saturday, just like in those physical Kent State practices 40 years ago, Pinkel and Saban will go toe-to-toe.

For both men, the lights are brighter now. This is the SEC, a place where every win and loss is magnified and every comment is skewered in the national press. Saban and Pinkel have taken different paths to get here, but on Saturday, the back story will hardly matter.

They will probably shake hands, maybe share a few old college stories before kickoff. But eventually, the one thing that will define and separate them is a football game.

And James, their former coach — a man who knew them before the statues, before the championships, before the opportunistic phone calls and recruiting wars – will be watching, an old man torn by allegiances and filled with pride.

"Having a former player become a coach — and I've put out a number of coaches through the years — they're like sons," James, 79, said via phone from Seattle. "You follow them every week. You look for their scores, and when they're on TV, you watch them. So that's going to be a fun night."

"I won't cheer for either one of them, but I'd like it to be a competitive game."

If it's anything like those practices 40 years ago, the ones where an athletic tight end sometimes collided with a tough-nosed safety, it will be.