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Ivan Maisel
November 19, 2001
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November 19, 2001

College Football

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LSU coach Nick Saban has few peers as a defensive strategist, but according to his confreres he has no equal when it comes to being tough to work for. SI asked a sampling of assistants and other football staffers across the nation who the most difficult bosses are. Among those named were Lou Holtz of South Carolina, for his caustic tongue; Paul Pasqualoni of Syracuse, for the long hours he demands; and Bob Toledo of UCLA, for the way he has hung his defensive coordinators out to dry (which may explain why he has had four of them in six years). However, more coaches from a wider array of conferences (the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC) mentioned Saban than any other coach.

Saban, 50, drives his staff so hard that early in his coaching career, when he was an assistant at West Virginia in the late 1970s, he earned the nickname Nick (No Thank You) Saban. "He's never, ever going to tell his staff, 'Hey, good job,' " says one of Saban's former underlings. "If you win 48-0, it's on to the next opponent."

"I've heard all the stories," Saban says. "I don't know how I got that reputation." Then he thinks for a minute. "When the assistants didn't come [to Louisiana State], that contributed to it." After Saban was hired from Michigan State in November 1999, LSU sent a plane north to pick up anyone on Saban's old staff who wanted to join him in Baton Rouge. The plane returned empty. The assistants chose to stay in East Lansing and work for Bobby Williams and not uproot their families.

Since then, Saban's reputation for going through assistants has grown. The key word is reputation, because many tales about Saban haw been exaggerated or are untrue. Take the story of why his first defensive coordinator with the Tigers, John Thompson, stayed less than a month before leaving. Supposedly Saban cussed out Thompson for getting the two of them lost in New Orleans on the way to a recruit's house. "It never happened," says Thompson, who made a lateral move to Arkansas to be near his parents. "I had no problems with Nick. He got upset when I left so soon, but I understood."

Or consider that after Michigan State won a bid to the 1997 Aloha Bowl, Saban called daily 5 a.m. coaches' meetings in Honolulu. In fact, the staff as a whole made that decision because the coaches wanted to operate on mainland time and be able to go to the beach with their families in the afternoons.

Or ponder that Saban demands that his assistants eat lunch at their desks. He says he has lunch brought in because that was the routine during his six seasons as an NFL secondary coach and defensive coordinator, and he found it a more efficient use of time.

Or consider the story that Saban never referred to anyone on the video staff at Michigan State by name, but was forever barking out things like, "Go get the f———video guy." That one's more or less true. "That was one name used," Michigan State director of sports broadcasting Rick Church says. "[ Saban] wanted to get the work done his way and get it done now."

Saban admits to being detail-oriented. "If they think I'm hard on them, I've worked all night the night before, showered, not shaved and kept going," he says. "I don't ask anybody else to do that."

Many coaches who left Saban took better jobs because of what they learned from him. "Nick is the best head coach I ever worked for," says Kent State coach Dean Pees, Saban's defensive coordinator for three years at Michigan State. "Some people think Nick is not personable enough. I didn't know that that has anything to do with coaching. Stories about coaches start out, and everybody keeps adding to them."

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