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Monday, March 30, 2009

“Much Traveled Lou” Embodied a By-Gone Era of Professional Football

The sports world lost a legendary character on Sunday with the death of former football player, coach and administrator Lou Saban.

Known as “Much Traveled Lou” for his penchant of hopping from job to job, Saban is best remembered for his 16 years as a head coach in the AFL and NFL.

Though it has been 33 years since he last coached in the NFL and he spent most of the last three decades floating from one small college coaching job to another, Lou Saban’s fiery personality will forever be immortalized in some of the most memorable moments in NFL Films history.

If you have ever watched any of the NFL Films where they show coaches on the sidelines or in the locker room, then you have probably seen Saban’s antics. His intensity and spontaneous comments reflect a truly by-gone era in professional football. While the NFL of today is part sport and part entertainment, Saban thrived during an era when both the players and coaches reflected the brutality and harshness of the game.

After hearing of his passing last night, I went back and re-watched some of the segments in which he and other coaches from the 1960s and 1970s display the emotion and passion of the times. Unlike modern coaches whose passion and intensity are perhaps slightly tempered by the safety nets of guaranteed contracts, you can see in their sideline antics how Saban and other coaches of his generation truly lived and died with every play.

In one set of clips from while he was coaching the Denver Broncos, Saban first yells, “My daughter could do better, my daughter could do better.” At another moment he brutally cries out to an assistant “They’re killing me Whitey.”

Perhaps Saban’s most famous NFL Films moment occurred before and after a 1974 battle between his Buffalo Bills and the defending Super Bowl Champion Miami Dolphins. In a rare glimpse into an NFL locker room, the piece starts with Saban telling his players not to be too proud to take in all the fluids they might need to make it through the South Florida heat. He then reflects to them the urgency and opportunity of the moment.

“If we die, we die together,” he bellowed in a gruff tone. “You can get it done, you can get it done. What’s more, you’ve got to get it done.”

Despite a dramatic late game rally led by rookie backup quarterback Gary Marangi, the Bills lost the game when Miami marched down the field to score a touchdown in the final minute.

After the game, Saban is shown not standing at a podium as is the custom today, but sitting in the locker room with reporters gathered around him. Even after a disappointing loss, he reflects the straightforward approach that was part of that era of NFL football.

“Boy oh boy, 56 seconds and we let them off the hook,” Saban said. “We’ve got to beat these people one of these days and we haven’t been able to do it. We’re coming after them again next week.”

After playing college football at Indiana University, Saban was twice a first team All-AAFC selection while playing for Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns from 1946-49.

In 1950 he started his coaching career as the head coach at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland. He also coached at Northwestern and Western Illinois University before embarking on his professional coaching career.

Saban joined the fledgling American Football League as head coach of the Boston Patriots in 1960 and amassed a 7-12 record before leaving midway through the 1961 season. In 1962 he joined the Buffalo Bills and led the team to back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and 1965. However, he left the franchise after a disagreement with owner Ralph Wilson and spent the 1966 season as the head football coach at the University of Maryland.

Resurfacing in Denver in 1967, Saban coached the Broncos for four and a half years, but never won more than five games in a season. Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of his tenure occurred in 1968 when Saban became the first modern AFL or NFL coach to start a black quarterback. Marlin Briscoe started five games for the Broncos with the team posting a 2-3 record.

Briscoe moved to Buffalo the next season and spent the rest of his career as a wide receiver, but Saban’s decision to give a black quarterback an opportunity to start put the wheels in motion for other coaches and black quarterbacks.

Saban returned to Buffalo in 1972, but the Bills he inherited were a far cry from the championship team he left nearly a decade earlier. He did manage to post three winning seasons and make one playoff appearance, but the team was never a championship contender.

His second tenure with the Bills is best recognized for serving as the launching pad for O.J. Simpson’s amazing five-year stretch as the best running back in football. After not rushing for more than 742 yards in any of his first three NFL seasons, Saban made Simpson the emphasis of the offense when he arrived in 1972. Simpson responded by leading the NFL in rushing in 1972 and the next season became the first running back (and only one in a 14 game season) to break the 2,000-yard mark. Overall, Simpson gained 7,699 yards between 1972-1976 and led the NFL in rushing four times.

After starting the 1976 season with a 2-3 record, Saban quit as coach of the Bills during the week of his 55th birthday and never again coached in the NFL.

Saban became the head football coach the University of Miami in 1977 and though the Hurricanes posted a 9-13 record during his tenure, he is credited with laying the foundation that led to Miami’s emergence as a national power in the 1980s.

He spent the 1979 season as the head football coach at Army and later made a brief foray outside of football serving two seasons as President of the New York Yankees, which happened to be owned by longtime friend George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner had served as an assistant football coach for Saban at Northwestern. He also spent 19 days as the Athletic Director at the University of Cincinnati and reportedly quit during halftime of an early season football game against Ohio University.

Saban also spent two seasons as the head coach at the University of Central Florida from 1983-84. He helped set the wheels in motion for the Golden Knights to move from Division II to Division I, but again didn’t stick around long enough to reap the rewards of his labor.

Over the next two decades, Saban continued to wrack up lines on his resume with each position seemingly taking him further and further away from the limelight. He coached at the high school level in the late 1980s and except for a brief stint coaching in the Arena Football League spent the remainder of his career starting or building college programs at a number of small schools including Peru State, Canton Tech, Alfred State and Chowan.

The numerous obituaries about Saban that have emerged on the internet say that he had a short temper and that may partly account for why such a decorated professional coach completed his coaching career at such off-the-beaten-path locations.

Dick Finnegan, an Orlando area businessman and a friend of this blog, crossed paths with Saban when they both worked at the University of Miami in the late 1970s and he described Saban as being “gruff...thick-bodied, harsh tone. You got the impression he lived a full life and showed the fun side to close friends only.”

There is no doubt that Saban was a true sports character the likes of which we will probably never see again. However, while Saban may be gone, thanks to NFL Films, his intensity and passion will never be completely forgotten.

(Click Here to watch Saban and other NFL Coaches from the 1960s and 1970s in a classic NFL Films montage)

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