Saban: College legend, messy Dolphin legacy

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.