NEW ORLEANS — The personalities of college coaches have long been driving forces in the sport’s popularity. Players come and go. The coaches and the traditions of the schools are the only constants.
Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and Alabama’s Nick Saban both have distinctive personalities. Both are highly competitive with well-earned reputations for demanding and getting the most from their players.
The Sooners close the BCS era with their ninth appearance in a BCS bowl game Thursday in the Sugar Bowl. Saban won three of the previous four national championships and has Alabama playing in a BCS game for the fourth time in five years.
Those close to them know there’s another side to both. Stoops pulled back the curtains on Saban in the time leading up to the Sugar Bowl. Long before Stoops ever came to Norman one of the coaches who helped him along the way was Saban, and the relationship has remained in place for four decades.
Stoops still recalls the first time they met when Saban was an assistant coach at Michigan State back in the mid 1980s. One of his recruiting areas was Youngstown, Ohio. A frequent trip was to Cardinal Mooney where Stoops and his brothers played and his father, Ron, was defensive coordinator. The relationship between the families was close enough that Stoops’ parents would go and visit the Sabans whenever their youngest son, Mark, who followed his brothers to Iowa and into coaching, played road games at Michigan State.
Saban recruited OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops before he decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps and go to Iowa.
The relationship continued when Saban became the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator in the early 1990s.
“My uncle and a few other people would go up there to watch them practice and study their defense and what they were doing,” Stoops recalled. “That’s a long time ago. He was always very good to my family and me and my dad and my uncle, Bob, who was a coach as well, of allowing us to be around and study what they were doing and for him to invite them to his place.”
Perhaps it’s because they come from similar places. They’re a decade apart in age, but Saban grew up in Fairmont, W.Va., about 150 miles south of Youngstown.
Both were the sons of fathers who coached football. Stoops’ at the high school level. Saban’s father was a youth coach in Fairmont. Both moved their ways up the coaching ranks as defensive assistants before landing as head coaches.
Mike Stoops believes the backgrounds have always been part of it.
“When you come up in football and you can relate, maybe we just relate to him very well and understand him, you know, his philosophy and his dedication to being a perfectionist and being great,” he said. “I mean, I think everyone respects that.”
For whatever reason, the Stoops family has always been one Saban’s felt extremely comfortable with.
“They’re great people, No. 1, they’re outstanding coaches,” Saban said. “There are some people in the coaching profession that you just sorta have a professional relationship with that you always like to trade ideas and you have a mutual respect for. Coach Stoops has always been one of those guys we’ve done that with.”
It’s no secret OU liberally lifted the 3-4 scheme it employed this season from the Crimson Tide. It’s no secret the defensive staffs are offseason sounding boards for one another.
Monday, Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said he could see the Crimson Tide evolving into an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. Odds are that will include a trip to Norman for talks about how to do it.
The relationship between Saban and Stoops will continue long after Thursday’s meeting in the Sugar Bowl. It’s their first meeting since Jan. 4, 2004, when Saban-coached LSU upset the Sooners in the national championship game.
The relationship survived that meeting. Obviously, the bond is secure.
“In the end, he’s a great family man,” Bob Stoops said of Saban. “You can’t deny the way he’s worked and how he’s developed the programs he’s had and the success he’s had. The people who know him love him.”
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