Tuscaloosa, Ala. — No, this is neither ironic nor startling to Nick Saban that the Michigan State team he once coached is meeting his Alabama gang in two weeks as part of a final four college football playoff.
“I’m not at all surprised,” Saban said Wednesday during a conversation in his office at the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility. “Michigan State’s a team that’s gotten steadily better the last three years. They have one of the dominant teams in the conference.
“So, it’s not surprising to me. I was actually surprised when they stubbed their toe at Nebraska (a 39-38 loss).”
Saban’s team, like Michigan State, is 12-1 and plays the Spartans at 8 p.m. New Year’s Eve in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas. The winner meets the Orange Bowl champion, Clemson or Oklahoma, in the Jan. 11 national championship game at Glendale, Ariz.
Saban was the Spartans coach from 1995-99 until friction between him and, primarily, school president M. Peter McPherson sent Saban to LSU.
He has since won four national championships: one at LSU and three with Alabama, the last arriving in 2012.
It was Saban who hired current Spartans coach Mark Dantonio as an assistant ahead of the 1995 season. Eleven years later, Dantonio became the Spartans commander in chief and has since enjoyed in East Lansing a brand of glory, apart from national titles, Saban has regularly known in Tuscaloosa.
“I had always liked Mark,” Saban said, explaining he had attempted to recruit Dantonio at Kent State, where Saban then was coaching, only to see Dantonio opt for South Carolina and for a fine career there as a defensive back.
Dantonio was on staff at Kansas when Saban, who knew of Dantonio’s coaching and recruiting skills, hired him as Michigan State’s defensive backfield coach.
“We were glad to get him,” Saban said. “He did a wonderful job for us.”
Saban’s regard for Dantonio’s rebuilding process has left even an architect of Saban’s level floored.
“I think Mark has done more than I ever dreamed I could do at Michigan State,” Saban said. “You have to remember, we had probation and scholarship deductions, and yet he’s improved this team every year.
“I spent 10 years at Michigan State and we won one Big Ten championship,” Saban said, referring to his five years as an assistant and five as head coach. “He’s won three. I’ve always thought Michigan State was a fantastic job and a great place. I have friends there. I loved it there. Tommy (Izzo, basketball coach), has had great success there, too, but Mark has done a phenomenal job. I can’t say enough for what he’s done.”
But it is Michigan State’s blend of all things substantive Saban most appreciates about Dantonio’s team.
“They play well on defense, they’ve got great balance on offense, and they’re well-coached in every aspect of the game,” said Saban, who first came to Michigan State in 1983 as a secondary coach and eventual defensive coordinator under George Perles.
“They really have great competitive spirit. You can see the goodwill and unity. All those things explain why they’ve won so many games in the fourth quarter. That competitive character allows them to finish games so well.”
Saban also appreciates the man Alabama most hopes to disrupt at AT&T Stadium: Spartans quarterback Connor Cook.
“I think the guy is really a good player, and, arguably, the best quarterback we’ve played against all year,” Saban said. “He gives them an opportunity to make plays with their great skill players.”
Alabama’s only defeat came Sept. 19 — 43-37 to Mississippi. Since then, it has plowed through, among other teams, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU, Auburn and Florida en route to the New Year’s Eve showdown against a school Saban knew consummately during his two stints in East Lansing.