- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Mal Moore began his search for the next head football coach of the University of Alabama in late 2006, he looked at an ambitious list of candidates. The late athletic director of the Crimson Tide had fired a homegrown product in Mike Shula after a disappointing 26-24 tenure and decided to go for a home-run hire that would cross the traditional lines of nepotism and familiarity with the Alabama fan base. There would be no hiring of an alumnus or a branch of the Paul "Bear" Bryant coaching tree to pick from this time around.
Moore told ESPN.com in December 2006 that he had narrowed his choices to three names during the search, only one of which was currently in the SEC, as South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez and the Miami Dolphins' Nick Saban made the cut. None had direct ties to Alabama, which was fine with Moore, who went that direction with Shula only to watch it turn sour quickly. This time he wanted someone with "champion credentials," no matter where he came from.
In Saban, who cut his teeth at Toledo and then in the Big Ten at Michigan State, Moore found his man. It took persistence -- Moore flew all the way to Detroit to meet with Saban only to be sent back to wait until the season was over . And it took some charm to land the big-name head coach -- Moore was in Saban's living room winning over his wife on the day after the Dolphins played their final game.
While Saban did spend 2000-04 at LSU where he won a national championship, his bloodlines weren't that of the Southeastern Conference. His ten years with Michigan State as an assistant (1983-87) and as a head coach (1995-1999) are still the most he's spent with any one college football program in his career. He won 34 games and reached the Rose Bowl as head coach of the Spartans, something the school still hasn't done since he left.
In fact, Saban's tenure in Lansing, Mich., has become something of a measuring stick for new SEC coaches who come from the Big Ten conference. Or at least that's what first-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema would have Razorbacks fans believe. The former Wisconsin head coach made waves in early April when he told the Saline County Razorback Club in Benton, Ark., that he came to the SEC to beat Alabama and then fired a shot at Saban in the process, saying, "You can take Saban's record when he was at Michigan State and when he was a coach in the Big Ten and put it against mine, and he can't compare."
Saban, for his part, didn't retaliate at the slight, saying he wasn't "really concerned" with what was said. Though Bielema did win 68 games in seven years with the Badgers, he has to start anew with the Razorbacks.
"I really don't defend anything I ever did any place we've ever been," Saban told reporters. "Everybody has different situations they're in, everybody inherits different situations that they're in. You do the best you can to try to build a good program in those situations."
But the truth is Saban is neither an SEC coach nor a Big Ten coach. Rather, he's an NFL coach making a living in the college game. Everything he does, from assembling a staff to calling plays to scouting, is done in the style of an NFL franchise, something he learned from his time with then Cleveland Browns head coach Bill Belichick from 1991-94. Nearly every player who leaves Alabama for the NFL will tell you he runs the Crimson Tide in the same way pro teams are managed.
In Saban, Alabama got the best of all things. Even though he wasn't born bleeding an Alabama shade of crimson and didn't come up as a child indoctrinated in the SEC, he was the right man for the job. When Moore hired Saban, he hired a winner regardless of such window dressing.
4dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough