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Saban: College legend, messy Dolphin legacy

Former Dolphins coach leads Alabama to BCS title game

Dave Hyde

Sun Sentinel Columnist

11:28 AM PST, January 5, 2013

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Do you like Nick Saban? Can you? That's the question for the equipment manager, and he tells of arriving for work early one morning at the same time as the coach. It was still dark outside. Quiet.

The equipment manager, Tony Egues, reached the door to the Dolphins complex first, held it open for his boss and then said the two words that came to symbolize Saban's scarred Dolphins legacy.

"Morning, coach,'' he said.

Egues, who is no longer with the team, doesn't remember if Saban answered. What he remembers is Saban's lieutenant, Scott O'Brien, nicknamed "Dr. Doom," soon telling him never speak to the coach unless addressed first. Ever. Got it?

We choose stories to stand for people in sports. This one of simple, daily etiquette came to symbolize Saban's two years to many inside the team. Late Dolphins radio voice Jim Mandich was given the same cease-to-greet order by Dr. Doom. Rule No. 1 it became known by in Dolphins offices. Rule No 2?

"He wants to be called, 'Coach Saban,' and not, 'Nick,' '' Dr. Doom would tell them.

As Saban returns to South Florida an Alabama coaching legend for Monday's BCS Championship Game, there are more Saban stories swirling around the stadium where he'll try to win his fourth college title, good and bad, for him and against, involving bigger people and more public incidents.

Dolphins great Jason Taylor calls him, "maybe the best coach I ever had." Former receiver Chris Chambers calls him, "a dictator." And that's just it, there isn't a story that sums up Saban. There are sides of him, plural.

The raw and real and ridiculously insensitive is all true. Pick a story. Dolphins employees were ordered not to walk in the corridor outside his office – take the long way around – so as not to disturb him.

He famously stepped right over guard Jeno James, convulsing on the locker room floor after practice in a heat stroke, even as teammates rushed to help James.

When team videographer Dave Hack was hit by lightning on a hydraulic platform high above a practice field in 2005, players rushed to help as the platform descended. Team executive Bryan Wiedmeier rode with Hack in the ambulance to the hospital.

Assistant coach Mel Phillips was at the hospital when the ambulance door opened. Former coach Don Shula and team owner H. Wayne Huizenga called. Officials from other teams expressed concern for Hack, who was fine after the incident.

"To this day, I've not heard one word from Saban,'' Hack says from retirement. "I mean, I don't really care. But isn't that strange?"

You want more? A practice scrimmage in 2005. Linebacker Zach Thomas, as popular and dedicated as any Dolphin ever, got into a small spat with linebackers coach George Edwards.

Thomas did something wrong in a particular defense. Edwards corrected him from the sideline. Thomas yelled to correct him later. Get on with the scrimmage, Thomas said.

Saban stopped practice. He stomped toward Thomas.

"Next time a coach is talking to you, you shut the f--- up!" he yelled.

Thomas yelled for Saban to shut up, that he wasn't some kid. "I'm a grown-ass man!" Thomas roared, ripping off his helmet. They got in each other's face. Teammates pulled Thomas back.

"I will bench you!" Saban yelled.

"Bench me!" Thomas yelled.

It wasn't the only time a player was pulled from Saban. Struggling quarterback Daunte Culpepper screamed at Saban at being replaced by Joey Harrington the next year to the point Taylor separated the two in a practice.

It's football. Emotion happens. But the Thomas story, confirmed by four witnesses, became legendary inside the team. The immediate reaction was telling. As one player related, he went up to Thomas later that day and said, "You're my hero."

"And I wasn't alone,'' the player says all these years later. "I know other guys went up to Zach and said that for how he stood up to Nick."

Stack all these stories like firewood, and you can rekindle the anger if you want. Put Saban's lying on top. Yes, his lying became the national centerpiece. Saban stood before the cameras and said, "Well, I guess I have to say it, I won't be the coach at Alabama."

Two weeks later, he became that coach at Alabama.

That great coach. That championship coach. That coach they built a statue for. That coach working on a third national title there. That coach called "extremely handsome" by Sandra Bullock in the movie "Blindside" and adorning covers of Sports Illustrated ("Raising Alabama") and Forbes ("The Most Powerful Coach In Sports").

That coach he never was in Miami. That coach fans never saw with the Dolphins.

"If he'd won here, none of that other stuff would've mattered,'' Taylor says. "So he's not bubbly inside the team. (New England coach) Bill Belichick is not going to win any personality awards, either."

Taylor liked Saban in good part because Saban liked Taylor. Saban did what great coaches do in that regard. He recognized Taylor's unusual talents. He made Taylor a centerpiece of the defense.

He created a free-lancing position that, as much as the physical challenge became an "intellectual exercise," Taylor said. It helped Taylor become the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2006.

"If he'd had a quarterback, he was so organized and so smart he'd have won here and still be here,'' Taylor said.

Here's the larger issue: Do you have to be a cold human being to be a great football coach? Don Shula had players pulled from hospital beds to play in games, then return to the hospital. Jimmy Johnson, in retirement, talks of having to adopt that "bad guy" persona as a coach.

Taylor says there were some unfortunate incidents with Saban, but some are overdone. The James' incident, for instance. Most players side with fullback Heath Evans, who first told the story to South Florida radio host Jorge Sedano.

Says Taylor: "No way Nick knew how serious it was. He went to the hospital for hours (to see James) that night. I was there with him."

Odd? Sure, there were quirks in Saban's personality. He demanded to wear the same type of shorts to practice every day. He had boxes of peanut butter crackers and Li'l Debbie cakes to snack on.

Five months into the Dolphins, his office bookshelves and walls were barren. The only features were a desk to work on and a video machine to watch tape.

|"He never let you close, and you never really wanted to get close,'' Chambers said. "We all heard about employees not being allowed to talk to him. He'd yell at (assistants) a lot."

Chambers then told his Saban story. This was in 2005, Saban's first Dolphins year, and the team was short of receivers. Chambers was called into his office.

"You're the one guy on our team who has to be perfect,' Saban told him. "You're the only one we need to play perfect."

"That sparked something inside me,'' Chambers says now. "I thought, 'He believes in me.' That's the kind of thing he could do. I had the best year of my career that season (82 catches, 1,118 yards, 11 touchdowns). He knew how to help me get there."

Saban has been gone six seasons now. The Dolphins remain lost in the wilderness. Saban has become a college coaching legend in Tuscaloosa, proving he made the right move.

Many Dolphins players still wonder about his methods. Many Dolphins employees wonder about his humanity. Perhaps Egues categorizes it best. After he finished telling the don't-talk-to-Saban story, Egues says, "Let me tell you another story."

This one happened immediately after Saban left for Tuscaloosa. Egues' phone rang. It was Saban. Egues was stunned.

"If we exchanged 10 words a month, it was a lot,'' Egues said. "Nick didn't really talk to people he thought were doing good jobs. God help you if you weren't pulling your weight, but he left people alone who did good work.

"And now he was calling me, thanking me for everything, telling me I was the best equipment guy he'd had and I had a friend for life. Look, I know who I am and where I stand in the big scheme. To get a call like that ..."

Egues's voice dropped into a whisper that shows just how complicated and contorted Saban's legacy remains even to those embarrassed by him.

"I considered working for Nick Saban one of the great honors in my life,'' he said.