Peach Bowl opponents Alabama and Washington are connected by more than just the Tide’s 90-year-old fight song.
The 1991 Washington squad rolled through its opponents en route to the national championship. That team was coached by a man named Don James, a coaching legend in his own right.
Before James arrived in Seattle to ring up a 153–57–2 record, he coached at Kent State. While leading the Golden Flashes, he coached a defensive back in the early 1970s from Fairmont, West Virginia by the name of Nick Saban.
Saban would also get his start in coaching under James as a graduate assistant, before James left for Washington in 1975 to begin his legacy with the Huskies. Saban stuck around in Ohio until ‘76 before ping-ponging through jobs all the way to a permanent head coaching position at Michigan State in 1995. (Saban was head coach at Toledo for one season in 1990 before leaving for the NFL.)
Saban says the roots to Kent State and James run deep. He told a radio reporter in 2014 that he checks the score of Golden Flashes games every Saturday night.
When James passed away in 2013, Saban said that the coach “changed my life.” The fingerprints of James’ organization can be seen in Tuscaloosa these days.
Saban went a step further with his comments about James this week.
“I would never be a coach, never be sitting here as a coach if it wasn’t for Don James,” Saban said Thursday. “And I’ve tried to take a lot of the philosophical things that he does when it comes to creating values for players, not only how you develop on the field, but how you develop them as people.”
James’ tact was a bit different when it comes to rivals, however. Before the 1983 Apple Cup, James reportedly said this about his rivals from Pullman:
“I’ve always felt that being a Cougar prepares you well for life. You learn not to expect too much.”
He stayed just as savage in retirement.
The apple may have fallen far from the tree in that specific respect, since Saban reserves his critiques for the media and his own players. But Saban is certainly a James disciple (as are other head coaches like former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and UCLA’s Jim Mora), and he always will be.
Saban’s father died in 1973, Nick’s first year as a GA under James. In the last conversation he had with his dad, Saban charted the course for his professional life, a direction he gained while working for James.
"I said 'Dad, this is finally what I want to do. I know this is what I want to do,'" Saban said. "That was the last conversation I had. I told him what I wanted to do and that was to be a coach."