Behind the scenes: Nick Saban embraced recruiting trail, but relationship with MSU leaders soured

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Each week, The Detroit News will look back at events and people from past sports moments, enlarging on experiences that might have been forgotten with time, or revisiting behind-the-scenes drama that never made it into print or on airwaves.

A man who viewed sleep and food as mere options was now walking rapidly from his room and into the Cleveland Airport Marriott’s lobby.

Nick Saban was Michigan State's head football coach from 1995-99.

Nick Saban was wearing a coat and tie. There was an overcoat draped across one arm, a cup of Starbucks coffee toted in the other.

It was 10:45 a.m. on a Tuesday in January 1999, and Saban, who then was Michigan State’s head football coach, had been awake for most of the past 30 hours as he and assistant Pat Ruel rendezvoused and headed for a white Cadillac rental car.

This was a typical January recruiting day and week for college coaches at a time when the first Wednesday of February was Signing Day for that year’s incoming crop. Saban had agreed to let a Detroit News writer tag along for an hour-by-hour glimpse at how recruiting’s machinations worked.

The trip had begun for Saban and Ruel with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up the day before in East Lansing. After a 6:15 a.m. flight from Lansing to Chicago, there was a non-stop to Los Angeles, followed by a 357-mile drive to Santa Barbara for a visit with Bradlee Van Pelt, son of the late Spartan great Brad Van Pelt, and a quarterback recruit who had committed to MSU. Then a flight back to Los Angeles to check in on another pledged recruit, offensive tackle Tupe Peko. At the time, no names could be printed because of NCAA stipulations against coaches disclosing recruiting targets prior to signing day. Those names, now part of recruiting history, can be revealed.

Considering the two coaches had logged more than 700 miles the previous day in California, and had taken an 11 p.m. red-eye flight to Cleveland, they looked astonishingly fresh, even if their daybreak nap had lasted all of two hours.

They were headed this day for four Cleveland-area high schools. Berea High, first, where conversations with Berea head coach Dave McFarland were planned. There would be heavy emphasis on junior offensive tackle Alex Stepanovich, a glorious athlete Saban was desperate to get to East Lansing for summer camp or for a visit (Stepanovich, en route to a NFL career, later opted for Ohio State, much to Saban’s and Michigan coach Lloyd Carr’s sadness).

After the check-in at Berea there were stops at three more high schools: Midpark, Garfield Heights, and Walsh Jesuit, all before Saban and Ruel were set to have a lasagna dinner at the home of another MSU pledge, Walsh Jesuit quarterback Dan Larlham.

More behind-the-scenes moments: The time Knight's heated fury scarred Bill Frieder

Coaching camaraderie

What remains fresh from a Tuesday tour was the intimacy and trust coaches hold for each other. Not only for their own staffers, but for the men working high school fields.

This deep caring for their own kids, this desire on the part of prep coaches to get their teenage stars college offers, is balanced by a kind of surpassing competitive integrity. They can’t afford to oversell. The respect coaches have for each other and for the difference talent and intangibles create is for them vocational sanctity.

Michigan State football coach Nick Saban was 34-24-1 in five seasons in East Lansing.

“He’s a good one, Nick,” McFarland said that day, nodding, speaking of a rival talent, a down-the-road recruit, Saban had inquired about. This for Saban was reinforcement, an objective eye helping a Big Ten coach keep priorities straight as future classes were being considered.

In fact, the conversations with college coaches work, then and now, just as critically for a prep coach. The high school guys need feedback on how their players rate, nationally. Critiques from colleges studying film of their best talent allow for sharper assessments and projections. That in turn leads to more trust on the other end the next time a college coach calls.

"As a high school coach, one of the most important things to know is that you can ask for an evaluation about your player and get an honest answer," McFarland said later that day, explaining how his particular bond with Saban had been forged. "Some of the programs just give you a lot of talk and put the kid's name on a computer. But there's a lot of respect for Nick in Ohio."

By noon, Saban had let it be known to Stepanovich, by a head coach’s sheer presence, that MSU wanted him to personally see — at camp, during a visit, or both — all the splendor that could be his in East Lansing. Saban was barred by rules from any in-school contact with a recruit. But he had made sure Stepanovich was aware. And the sight of Stepanovich against his locker as Saban made his way along a hallway from McFarland’s office to the school parking lot quashed any doubts there.

It was time for lunch. At least for Ruel, as the two men drove into a Wendy’s. Saban was locked in on his cellphone, speaking with other assistants in other territories, getting a bead on what players were leaning toward what schools, checking on updates from his office.

Ruel ordered from the drive-in window a burger and a combo beverage. Saban, the man who seemingly never met a calorie he liked, stuck with a soft drink. No food. Their lunch break had taken all of 10 minutes.

Check-ins at Midpark, Garfield Heights, and Walsh Jesuit, about an hour at each high school, continued. More deep conversations with head coaches. More relationships bolstered.

The Cadillac spun from Walsh Jesuit’s lot at 4 p.m. on a path back to the Marriott. The coaches would shower, change clothes, and head for their lasagna dinner (NCAA rules prevented media people from sitting in on at-home visits).

Saban pulled into a seat at the Marriott’s bar. He had decided he could at least withstand a bowl of tomato soup before heading to his room and shower.

“Actually,” he had said that day, "I love recruiting. You see first-hand how important it is to get players who are quality kids who want an education and who want to have a quality life. And what you realize is that you have to reach out to them. They aren't going to come to you."

Nick Saban has won five national titles at Alabama.

Issues fester

The previous season, Saban’s fourth in East Lansing, had not gone well: 6-6 record, with three losses by a combined nine points. Worse, attrition that had been part of NCAA probation during George Perles’ earlier regime, along with dropouts during Saban’s tenure, had left the Spartans in 1998 with a stunning 71 players on scholarship — 14 beneath the NCAA limit.

Roster depth had helped wreck what could have been a nifty year in East Lansing. Shallow numbers were why Saban was busy filling a maximum 25 scholarship spots in 1999.

What he did not know that cold January afternoon in Cleveland was that this would be his last winter recruiting for Michigan State.

Saban had been having issues with MSU’s higher-ups. Already, he had been bypassing an athletic director for whom he had little regard, Merritt Norvell, and was dealing directly with MSU president M. Peter McPherson.

But neither was that relationship purring. There were money and contract issues. Saban was being told no by McPherson on a bonus clause, geared to the stock market, that was due to pay Saban $150,000. McPherson balked.

Saban also was making in the autumn of 1999 less money than was basketball coach Tom Izzo.

The Spartans had a sturdy ’99 season, going 9-2 ahead of a victory over Florida at the Citrus Bowl.

But in late November, Saban was being romanced by a deep South suitor: Louisiana State University.

Neither he, nor his wife, Terry, wanted out of East Lansing. It had always been for them the closest thing to home-spun comfort they had known on a long national coaching thoroughfare.

They had, in fact, decided after an all-night conversation, after Terry had returned from a scouting trip to Baton Rouge, that they would stay in East Lansing. McPherson had promised to upgrade the contract.

But a pre-dawn call from McPherson changed history for Saban, for Michigan State, and for LSU. There was, in Saban’s view, a, “You’re not doing that to me” tone to McPherson’s voice.

He hung up the phone. And announced to Terry that they were heading to LSU.

A head coach’s recruiting prowess would take on ultimate sheen for years ahead in a conference where, ironically, Saban had never before worked.

Four years later he would win a national championship at LSU. Then, five more at his next college stop: The University of Alabama.

Michigan State was about to turn matters over to Bobby Williams, followed by John L. Smith.

Not until Mark Dantonio showed up seven years later were fortunes at Michigan State — on the field, or on the recruiting trail — to be as pleasing as during the final months of Saban’s short-circuited time in East Lansing.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.  

Previous installments

Behind the scenes: The time Bobby Knight's heated fury scarred Bill Frieder