By the Associated Press
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nick Saban will have a reunion of sorts from Kent State’s 1972 Mid-American Conference championship team, since he couldn’t make the first one.
The Alabama coach was a safety on that team 40 years ago, while Missouri’s Gary Pinkel was the star tight end. They’ll be opposing coaches for the first time Saturday in Columbia, Mo., instead of teammates and co-workers.
They share an alma mater, a mentor (Don James) and pretty impressive coaching track records. And James will be pulling only for a pristine game that shows the strong coaching he expects. Rooting for one ex-pupil would be too much like rooting against the other.
“It’s like having two sons out there,” James said.
Pinkel flew to Ohio for the real reunion before Kent State’s Thursday night opener in August. Saban couldn’t make it since that’s when he hosts his weekly radio show and Alabama happened to have a big game against Michigan two days later in Texas.
Now, they’re Southeastern Conference rivals since Missouri joined the league — much to the chagrin of James.
“I like them both and cheer for them both,” said James, who might have to record this one to see Washington play. “I wish that Gary hadn’t gone into the Southeastern Conference.
“He can recruit and he can coach, so he’ll be all right.”
Pinkel is getting a rough indoctrination to the league that Saban and the Tide (5-0, 2-0 SEC) have been presiding over with two national titles in the past three seasons and a shot at No. 3. The Tigers (3-3, 0-3) are still seeking their first SEC win.
The two coaches speak fondly of one another personally and professionally, but Pinkel said they didn’t hang out during their college days.
Saban was a year ahead of Pinkel. They’re the coaching hotshots from a team that also included Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert. They both worked as graduate assistants under James, who went on to win a share of a national title with Washington in 1991.
“When we both became GAs, it was pretty evident to me that he could be a really, really good coach,” Saban recalls. “So it’s no surprise to me that he has been an outstanding coach for a number of years. We were both fortunate to have been exposed to Don James as players and as young coaches. Gary spent more time with him than I did. It certainly helped our systematic approach to how we do every part of our program, whether it’s personnel, academics, developing players, whatever that may be. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s turned out to be a fantastic coach.”
Pinkel said he remembers the two discussing going into coaching at the Kent State library.
“Obviously we’re friends,” Pinkel said. “We just kind of grew apart, because he went to a different part of the country. I think Don James had a big influence on both of us. He came to a program that was down and out and built a championship team.”
That championship came more than two years after four Kent State students were killed and nine others wounded by Ohio National Guardsmen during an anti-war protest.
“Talk about a university that needed something tremendously positive to happen,” Pinkel said. “Back then, we called them hippies — nice folks, a little bit different from me. But you know what? They came to games, and were into it, excited … It united us.”
Saban quickly climbed the coaching ranks and recommended Pinkel as his replacement when he left after one season at Toledo to become the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator in 1991.
Pinkel, who held that job until leaving for Missouri 10 years later, had been Washington’s offensive coordinator under James.
“Nick, every time I needed a coach, he wasn’t available,” James said. “I would have hired him in a heartbeat. He got head jobs earlier and went in the NFL. I was impressed with him because I’d see him at the convention once or twice a year and I was impressed with how far he had come in defensive knowledge.”
James spent a day with Saban and his team in California before the national title game in Pasadena after the 2009 season.
He also scored some tickets for his granddaughter to the title game against LSU two years later. Saban had to turn down his invitation to the Kent State reunion but he was still a topic of discussion.
“I think the whole team just kind of had the same feeling that I did: This was one of the guys that I played with and I know, and look what he’s done with his life,” James said. “And he’s making, what, $6 million or so. He’s done well.”