Nick Saban is the monomaniacal control freak who smiles once every lunar eclipse. Les Miles is the carefree strategic lightweight who gets by because every crazy gamble somehow works.
The contrast makes for a compelling storyline, one that you’ve probably heard reiterated plenty of times this week. Too bad it’s not entirely true.
Certainly, there is some factual basis to the reputations of both men. Saban is indeed famously focused and as prone to frivolity as a Secret Service agent. Miles is indeed a walking wildcard of unpredictability.
But to other coaches who have known them for decades, the stereotypes do a disservice to both men.
On Saban: “I don’t think he’s as big a prick as some people say,” said Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, an old Saban friend dating to their time as Spartans assistants in the 1980s and head coaches in the ‘90s. “You’ve just got to get to know him, and he doesn’t let many people get to know him.”
On Miles: “Some coaches take risks or run trick plays and they’re labeled a riverboat gambler,” said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, who was an assistant with Miles at Colorado in the 1980s. “When Les does it, they say he’s lucky. It’s kind of unfair. I don’t think he’s any luckier than the next guy.”
They are not “Wizard of Oz” characters. Turns out Saban does have a heart. And Miles does have a brain. And they’re both amply equipped with courage.
If you ask Izzo, the Saban you don’t see is a loyal friend and family man.
“Nick’s children (Nicholas and Kristin) are adopted,” Izzo said. “After my wife and I had our first child, we couldn’t have another one. Nick helped me get my (adopted) son.
“Man, if I ever needed something, he’d be there. I think he’s the same with his players.”
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Izzo talked to Saban on Wednesday, in fact. Called to wish him good luck in the Game of the Century – and maybe to give him a little grief for all the access he’s giving ESPN this week leading up to the game.
“He was pretty guarded,” Izzo said. “Now he does more things, more open-access stuff. He’s grown. He’s more secure in his own way. But I don’t think Nick Saban ever gets fat and sassy. He’s never thinking he’s better than he is.”
That’s one of the things the eternally unpretentious Izzo valued in Saban from the very beginning. The blue-collar coach from Iron Mountain, Mich., loved the earthiness of the blue-collar coach from Fairmont, W.Va.
“I’d go to Nick’s house and he’d be in the back cutting trees down,” Izzo recalled. “He didn’t hire out, he did his own work. He’s a real man – a man’s man.
“He liked nice stuff – had a nice cottage, a nice boat. But he appreciates things because of where he came from. He’s a down-home kind of guy.”
From the early days when the two were young coaches who impressed each other with their relentless recruiting efforts, Izzo suspected Saban would be a star in the profession. The attention to detail was there from the beginning.
The same suspicions were not present about young Les Miles when he was coaching centers and guards at Colorado from 1982-86. On a star-studded Bill McCartney staff that produced a battalion of future head coaches – DiNardo, Gary Barnett, Lou Tepper, Steve Logan, Jim Caldwell, Ron Dickerson, Bob Simmons – Miles was not the guy you’d predict would one day win a national title.
“No, no, no,” said Barnett, when asked whether he thought Miles was bound for head-coaching greatness. “He has a really good football mind, and probably as good a feel for a staff as anybody. But Les was always a little on an island. He was a little different from everyone on the staff, personally and as a coach.”
DiNardo put it a bit more bluntly: “Les is a little goofy. There’s no denying that. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
No, it’s not a bad thing. Eating grass is, in fact, a fairly entertaining note in the personal biography. But goofiness can at times keep others from taking you seriously.
When Miles got his chance as a head coach at Oklahoma State in 2001, he immediately impressed Barnett (then the head coach at Colorado) with his growth. He’d always had great relationships with his players – something that remains a strength today – but he’d developed significantly as a tactician.
“I really liked what he did,” Barnett said. “In 2001 (when Colorado won the Big 12 and Oklahoma State was going 4-7) we barely beat him, and we should have won easily.”
Turned out Miles could coach a good game. He always could talk a great one. The hallmark of his time at Colorado was endlessly debating with other staff members about what the Buffaloes were doing, how they did it and what might be a better way.
“In an argument, you always wanted Les on your side,” Barnett recalled. “He was a great debater, whether he baffled you with all the words he used or not. He was argumentative as hell, but he’s a very charming guy.”
DiNardo recalls one Colorado argument he had with Miles that lasted for weeks, over how the offensive linemen would line up. McCartney asked them to settle it, and it dragged on to the point that a compromise was reached: DiNardo’s tight ends and tackles would line up the way he wanted them to, and Miles’ guards would do it his way.
“He always had a great passion for recruiting and coaching,” DiNardo said. “He was a very popular guy with the team, had great rapport with his players.”
DiNardo also knows a little about the caldron that is the LSU job, having been the head coach there from 1995-99. He marvels at Miles’ ability to survive it, especially the times when his job appeared to be in jeopardy. Now in his seventh season, he’s the longest-tenured coach in Baton Rouge since Charley McClendon was in charge from 1962-79.
“The main thing that makes you a good fit in the LSU job is winning,” he said. “There’s nothing else that really matters. At LSU, there’s always a benchmark to reach. Every time his back is against the wall, he reaches the benchmark.
“He’s kept it going, and that’s hard to do. Let’s see somebody else do what he’s done for seven years.”
It goes against the script, but it might be time to admit that Les Miles has some coaching acumen. And Nick Saban has a nice-guy streak. You just have to do some digging to unearth those things.
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