It is funny and sad how the modern sports-media hype machine caters to clicks and viewership, led by ESPN … the “leader” of something, indeed. The network and its associated outlets generally cater to advertisers, which are fueled by viewership. Hence, there’s always a bit hype and skew to the things ESPN publishes. While it’s not quite the FOX News of the sports world, it’s the closest thing there is to it, in reality.
Consider the current fluff pieces written about Alabama football coach Nick Saban, and then start doing your own homework on his football coaching record. It’s not a pretty sight, and it leads to some rather serious questions about … the details omitted in such “journalism” these days.
Start with his first college job: Saban was the head coach for one season (1990) at Toledo, then as now a small school in the MAC. He took over a program that had posted consecutive 6-5 seasons, and even though the schedule was a joke, Saban led the team to a 9-2 record. The Simple Rating System at Sports-Reference.com ranked that Rockets team 76th out of 107 Division I-A teams, despite the gaudy record. This was an improvement over the 1989 squad, which ranked 97th overall.
Chalk one up for Saban, right out of the gate, right? Except that the Rockets not only did not win their conference, they did not even get a bowl invite. Now, the bowl system was different back then, but Toledo lost the conference title due to a 13-12 loss on the road to Central Michigan. This has been one of Saban’s major weaknesses as a collegiate coach: His inability to win close games has haunted him at every step of the way in his career as outlined below. By the way, the Rockets’ second loss that year a 14-10 defeat at home to Navy, a 5-6 team in 1990. Saban’s record in games decided by a touchdown or less was 3-2 with this Toledo squad. Remember that.
His next head-coaching stop was at Michigan State, where he took over in 1995. The Spartans program had won just 19 games in the prior four seasons combined, with a single bowl appearance. In his first season with MSU, Saban improved the team’s record from from 5-6 to 6-5-1, which included a 19-point, bowl-game loss to LSU. So, he clearly started moving the team in the right direction, although from 1995-1998, Saban’s record at MSU was just 25-22-1. That was a slight improvement over the prior four years, but it included three bowl-game losses by an average of 28.3 points per defeat.
That was pretty embarrassing for the Spartans, and when MSU posted a 6-6 record in 1998 while failing to secure a bowl bid, Saban’s job was on the line. His record in close games at Michigan State was mediocre at best: 6-8-1, including 2-7 from 1996 through 1998. The man couldn’t game coach his way out of paper bag in East Lansing. He actually was getting worse as time went on at MSU.
However, everything seemed to click in 1999 when the Spartans opened the season with six straight wins and rose up to No. 5 in the country after a 34-31 win over then-No. 3 Michigan at home. Saban had MSU flying high for the first time in his tenure there. Yet it all crashed pretty quickly, as he could not keep his team on the emotional high after the rivalry win. The Spartans lost their next two games on the road by a combined 54 points, and Saban once again began to feel the heat. The team recovered to finish 9-2, by far the best record in Saban’s time at MSU, and he fled for more opportunity and “resources” at LSU before the team’s bowl game—which the Spartans won, 37-34, over Florida.
Saban never won a bowl game at MSU, and he never won a conference title. In his best chance to do the latter, he let his team fall flat on its face against lower-ranked opponents in blowout losses. Overall, his record with the Spartans (34-24-1) was primarily built on the one final season (9-2), which actually was a huge letdown after the 6-0 start. Saban’s MSU teams were classic underachievers, and in comparison to current MSU coach Mark Dantonio (100-45 record, five bowl wins, three Big Ten titles, etc.), Saban did nothing noteworthy at Michigan State whatsoever: no bowl wins, no conference championships.
(He finished his Spartan coaching career with a 9-8-1 record in close games, by the way, as the 1999 team went 3-0 in such situations. Still, for the alleged “best college coach ever”, that’s not an impressive mark. Remember it, though, as it becomes important later.)
To recap, in six years as a college head coach at this point, Saban had no bowl wins, no conference championships, and a 12-10-1 record in games decided by a TD or less. Why did LSU lure him away from MSU with the promise of more, more, more? Good question, because his record really wasn’t indicative of a coach on the rise, compared to someone like Urban Meyer: His first four years at Bowling Green and Utah included eight total losses, two bowl wins, an undefeated season, and a claim to the national championship. That’s a coach on the rise, and it’s clear why Florida hired Meyer away from Utah.
For Saban, there was no such obvious hook, at least on the surface.