A LITTLE MORE THAN 35 YEARS AGO, BILL BELICHICK'S DAD INTRODUCED HIM TO A PROMISING NAVY ASSISTANT NAMED NICK SABAN. THIS IS THE STORY OF HOW THOSE TWO YOUNG COACHES—AND THEIR QUIET FRIENDSHIP—EVOLVED AS THEY WENT ON TO CONQUER THE HIGHEST LEVELS OF FOOTBALL
THEY AGREED to meet in West Point, N.Y., at a little hotel with a name neither can remember. For two men with deep connections to Navy, the locale was a surprising choice. All the better.
This was in the late 1980s, summertime; they were both a couple years away from turning 40, and neither man's name meant then what it does today. Nick Saban flew in from Houston, where he coached the Oilers' defensive backs. Bill Belichick, then the Giants' defensive coordinator, drove up from New Jersey with 16-millimeter film canisters and a projector stashed in his car.
They were two assistants from opposing teams, planning to spend the weekend discussing the intricacies of the Cover 2 defense. The rendezvous might have gotten either man fired had their bosses found out about it, so it was conducted with a stealth more befitting of the military academy down the road. "We kind of had a secret mission," says Saban, "to go where nobody would expect us to be."
This was before they worked together; before they competed against one another; before they each built a program that would become the only contemporary analog for success of the other. Saban has since won six national titles; Belichick is trying for his sixth Super Bowl ring with the Patriots. Their secret mission turned into one of the most significant friendships in football, one based around the very thing that brought them to that hotel in West Point: the realization that they didn't have all the answers, and a shared obsession to find them. "We are like we are because of that," says Saban. "We're always trying to learn, to improve the way we do things."
The best NFL coach of this generation has been friends for more than 30 years with the best college football coach, a fact that is remarkable but not entirely surprising. This is the story of a friendship that has made a lasting impact on the sport.
SUMMER 1982 | ANNAPOLIS, MD.
Steve and Jeannette Belichick set a table for six. Their only child, Bill, was on a break from his job as the Giants' linebackers and special teams coach, and he was visiting home with his wife, Debby. Two more guests would join for dinner: Nick and Terry Saban.
Back then Steve was an assistant and advance scout for Navy's football team; over 33 years in that gig he would grow legendary for his meticulous scouting reports. The screened-in porch at his home, a few miles from the Academy, was a gathering spot for the Midshipmen's coaching staff, and Bill had been joining them since grade school.
In the summer of 1982, Steve was working alongside a young new assistant just six months older than Bill. Nick Saban had only been in Annapolis a few months, but he'd already made an impression: He was intense, vocal, detail-oriented. His job was to lead the secondary, but his coaching often spilled over elsewhere. He saw the big picture on defense, how all the positions work together. When coaching his safeties on coverage responsibilities or run fits, he'd end up working with the linebackers, too.
The details of that first dinner proved largely unmemorable—they all "chit-chatted," as Bill puts it—but an impression had been made. "My dad had seen a lot of coaches come through the Naval Academy," Belichick says. "So when he said to me, 'This is one of the best I've worked with,' I've always kept that in the back of my mind."
LATE 1980S | WEST POINT
"Let's get together sometime," Saban told Belichick, "and talk some ball." That's how the secret mission began. (Actually, Saban corrects himself: He probably "begged" the more experienced Belichick to spend a weekend with him.)
In 1988, Saban got his first NFL job when Jerry Glanville hired him onto his Oilers staff, thanks in part to a recommendation from Belichick, who'd coached with Glanville in Detroit. By then Belichick was the Giants' defensive coordinator—he'd already won a Super Bowl as part of Bill Parcells's staff—and his friend wanted to pick his brain about the pro ranks. Belichick agreed, he says, "because I saw the game [the same way Nick did], that everything kind of affects something else.... He knew what the noseguard was doing, and he knew what the quarterback was reading. He knew how receivers adjusted routes based on coverage."
The problem: Both of their bosses disapproved of fraternizing with the enemy. Glanville didn't even want his assistants presenting at coaching clinics. So they picked a weekend in the offseason, meeting in a town where they didn't know anyone. (There's a tinge of irony in hearing Belichick say, "it wasn't like we were giving away any big state secrets," considering the way his Patriots guard information today.)
In the end, Belichick (who'd spent many of his years coaching the Giants' linebackers and was known as something of a Cover 2 savant) and Saban (who focused on the secondary and favored press man coverage) exchanged different perspectives on coaching defense, such as the keys they teach their players to read certain offenses. Saban, for one, had more familiarity with the then-popular run-and-shoot offense, and "those kinds of things would be very helpful to me," Belichick says. "We didn't really face that in the NFC East."
Saban says, "I probably learned a lot more than he did." Still, he'd still rather his old employer not know about that West Point summit. "It's almost like [getting] caught when you were a kid."
Good thing he didn't. Parcells claims he knew about it at the time, but Glanville only learned about it a few years later. "If I'd have known, he would have been fired," the old coach says with a tinge of mischievousness. "[Nick] was smart enough not to tell us."
FEBRUARY 1991 | BEREA, OHIO
Belichick got his first head coaching job at age 38, with the Browns, and interviewed 85 potential assistant coaches. His first hire was the easiest: defensive coordinator Nick Saban. An all-star staff was assembled, including nine future NFL head coaches or GMs, plus three men who would go on to lead major college programs. But even with all that brainpower, says Chuck Bresnahan, a linebackers coach on the 1994 Browns team, "when Bill and Nick walked in the room, there was a different response from everyone. Things got quiet. You knew it was time for business."
Well, mostly business. Belichick had a loge box at Cleveland Stadium, and when Pink Floyd came to town in 1994 he took the whole coaching staff. Saban, meanwhile, was known for throwing an annual Kentucky Derby party at his home. And the two most important guests during training camp were Steve Belichick—he'd get down in a three-point stance next to the linemen during goal-line blocking exercises—and Jon Bon Jovi, who one Browns staffer swears once got to lead a two-minute drill.
Other than that, it often seemed there weren't enough hours in the day to get everything done. Belichick took over a team that had just gone 3--13, and suddenly the Browns' Berea facility permeated with the same "Do Your Job" mantra that years later is associated with his Patriots. Assistants stopped checking the clock during Tuesday game-planning meetings, where no detail was considered unimportant. Those conversations he and Saban had at West Point about defense? In Cleveland it was "like, 500 times more of that," says Belichick.
Not that they immediately jelled on everything. With the Giants, Belichick had employed a 3--4, two-gap front, primed for run-stuffing, using mainly a Cover 2 zone defense on the back end. At Michigan State in the mid-'80s, under George Perles, Saban had learned the stunt 4--3, an attacking front made famous by Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense, and Saban favored man coverage. This led to an early lesson in a basic tenet of both coaches' philosophies: Be rigid in fundamentals and techniques, but flexible in scheme.
Ultimately "it was more of his defense than mine; I learned a lot from him," says Belichick. Carl Banks, a Browns linebacker in 1994 and '95, clarifies: "It was Nick's front and Bill's coverages. And then they morphed together. That's the hallmark of these coaches: They can morph anything."
The two coaches' contrasting styles mirrored the yin and yang of their personalities—the subtle-but-sarcastic Belichick versus the fiery Saban—and they often clashed while game-planning. Saban wanted every call at his disposal for a given situation. Belichick would force his staff to pick one. (This is still true today.)
In the end, Belichick, the more conservative of the two, absorbed how Saban paired pressure packages with his front to bring blitzers from different spots. And Saban learned from Belichick how to bring pressure without putting stress on the back end. Each took something from the other.
In fact, Belichick valued Saban so much that at one point in Cleveland he decided his assistants were no longer permitted to talk to the media. When the Browns' head of p.r. broke the news, Saban chuckled. The implication: He knows we're good, and he doesn't want to lose us. "I don't plan to be the defensive coordinator for the rest of my life," Saban plainly informed the p.r. director, "so I will probably be talking to the media." Two days later, he was quoted in the Akron Beacon Journal.
JANUARY 2000 | FOXBOROUGH, MASS.
On his first morning as the coach of the Patriots, a FedEx package arrived on Bill Belichick's desk. Inside was a résumé, plus film breakdowns and scouting reports rigorously prepared to the specifications of Nick Saban. "Nick called," Belichick explains. "He said: 'You've got to hire this guy; he's one of the best I've ever had.' You get a thousand names like that when you're a new head coach. But when Nick recommends somebody like that? You know he doesn't recommend 50 guys to you."
It had been five years since Belichick and Saban stood on the same sideline. After the Browns lost to the Steelers in the divisional playoffs in 1995, Saban left Cleveland to coach Michigan State. Belichick was fired a year later (by owner Art Modell, who moved his team to Baltimore—not by the present-day Browns, whose fans are pretty uptight about this detail); he spent the next four seasons working under Parcells in New England and with the Jets before getting his second shot to lead an NFL team. But the two coaches had stayed close, and on Saban's recommendation Belichick hired a 24-year-old Michigan State grad assistant named Brian Daboll for a defensive quality-control job. Daboll spent the next two years in that role—insiders call it a "20/20" gig, because you work 20 hours a day for less than $20,000 a year—when a higher-paying offensive position job came open.
Says Belichick: "I told him, 'Look, I'd love to give you more responsibility, but this job you have is really an important job. If you can find me somebody who can break down film as good as you can, I'll get you out of this job tomorrow.'"
No problem. Daboll had someone in mind: Josh McDaniels, who'd been a fellow Spartans GA under Saban. A year later, Belichick had the same conversation with McDaniels, who suggested Nick Caserio, a former teammate at John Carroll University.
Today, McDaniels is Belichick's offensive coordinator. Caserio is the Patriots' director of personnel. Daboll was Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama last season; he will coordinate the Bills' O next season. "And it all started with Nick," Belichick says. "Nick and my relationship is the strongest chain, but there are a lot of other ones that are pretty strong. It's all part of the Belichick-Saban ... what do you want to call it?" He pauses. "I don't know if legacy is the right word."
NOVEMBER 2005 | ANNAPOLIS, MD.
Steve Belichick was in his usual press-box seat for Navy's 38--17 win over Temple on Nov. 19. This was part of his Saturday routine. He called his son after the game, and later that evening he was in his chair in the house with the porch, watching USC play Fresno State. In the middle of the night, Bill got a call. Steve, 86, had died of heart failure.
Belichick coached the Patriots the next day, a 24--17 home win over the Saints, then headed to Annapolis. It was Thanksgiving week, but that didn't stop some 200 people from coming to pay their respects: Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis... and Saban, who by then was coaching a division rival of Belichick's, the Dolphins. (Belichick, on their shared time in the AFC East: "It was hard. We still had a strong personal relationship... [but] once he left Miami, that made it a lot easier.")
To understand the meaning of Saban's leaving his team for the wake, consider: One year later, during Saban's second training camp with Miami, he turned down a dinner invitation from President George W. Bush because he had a responsibility to be with his team. "I know how hard it is during the season to do something like that," says Belichick, "but that speaks to the friendship he had with my dad, and the closeness of our families."
Later in the week, at a press conference, Saban gave Steve Belichick the highest possible compliment. "If the truth was ever known and he had the opportunity," Saban said then, "it may be that he was a better coach than Bill."
DECEMBER 2006 | MIAMI GARDENS, FLA.
Jason Taylor lined up all over the field. He had his hand in the dirt on both the left and right sides of the formation; he lined up wide of the tackle and also inside. He was a stand-up rusher; he dropped into coverage. This was the kind of deployment Saban had promised Taylor in early 2005, when the new Dolphins coach phoned his star defensive player. He'd heard rumblings that Taylor was wary of moving from a 4--3 end to a 3--4 hybrid in the defense Saban was bringing to Miami.
"Trust me," Saban told Taylor, "you'll be a Hall of Famer in this defense."
Taylor had already played eight seasons in the NFL and had been named All-Pro three times as a pass-rushing end who, as he puts it, only played the run on the way to the quarterback. But Saban challenged him to expand his repertoire. The result? Taylor was the 2006 Defensive Player of the Year, at age 32.
This is what the Patriots were up against when they traveled to South Florida in Week 14 of the 2006 season. They were 9--3, on their way to another AFC East title. The Dolphins were 5--7, gaining a little bit of traction after losing six of their first seven games. This was the fourth time Belichick and Saban had faced each other as NFL head coaches—the former had won two of the first three—and their friendship was less of a focus than it had been the first three times around. During the CBS broadcast, play-by-play announcer Dick Enberg referenced it only twice.
With Taylor leading the charge, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was under duress most of the game. He was sacked four times, once by Taylor, and lost one of his two fumbles. He threw for just 78 yards.
It was the last time Brady would be shut out. It was also the last time Belichick and Saban coached against each other. And it was Saban's final win as an NFL coach. He was unhappy, and two days after a season-ending loss to the Colts, less than two weeks after famously declaring that he would not be the Alabama coach, he talked with Tide officials. One day later he took the job in Tuscaloosa.
FALL 2009 | FOXBOROUGH, MASS.
Floyd Reese heard a familiar call on the Patriots' practice field. One-rat!!!
It was a coverage call, putting the defensive backs in man-press coverage, with one safety deep and a free "rat" player looking to steal the ball on inside-breaking routes. Reese, who'd come to work for Belichick's Pats as an adviser, chuckled. He knew where he'd heard that before: as a linebackers coach in the late '80s on Glanville's Oilers staff, where Saban got his NFL start.
In football, ideas and terminologies spread across the league as coaches move around; this is not unusual. Nor is a "rat" defense a unique term. But there in Foxborough, 20 years after that secret mission to West Point, Reese heard a direct link to Saban. "We used [that scheme] because we played so much man-to-man in Houston," says Reese. "I think Nick used it the same way, and I think Bill used it in a similar fashion."
JULY 2010 | JACKSON, MISS.
Some 1,500 high school coaches from across Mississippi had gathered at a hotel for the state's annual coaching clinic. The speaker that morning: Saban, months removed from winning his first title at Alabama. His topic: "Building a Championship."
During his hour-long presentation, Saban referred to his Browns days more than once. For example: Not every player can be coached the same—that's a lesson he learned when he discovered that Everson Walls, a DB the Browns had signed as a free agent, couldn't backpedal. So Saban taught him to move with receivers by turning his hips and shuffling at an angle.
Saban ended his presentation by sharing a trademark defensive strategy that he uses at Alabama: "pattern matching," a zone coverage that turns into man as a pass pattern develops. It's different from a basic zone, in which defenders drop to a spot, and it's an important strategy today against spread offenses that have both a run threat and multiple passing options.
"This started at the Browns," Saban said, explaining how he and Belichick came up with this way of playing man and zone coverage at the same time, giving defenders maximum flexibility. It was creative enough that he was presenting it at a clinic some 16 years later.
MARCH 2017 | TUSCALOOSA, ALA.
Phil Savage, a scout on Belichick's Browns staff (and later an NFL GM), was standing next to his old boss at Alabama's Pro Day. They looked around the fieldhouse, admiring the Crimson Tide's latest crop of NFL-bound talent. "He's really built a complete program here," Belichick said to his old pupil.
Savage told Belichick about the book he was writing, Fourth and Goal, Every Day, which connects the old Cleveland days with the empire Saban has in Tuscaloosa. The proof was all over the field. Belichick's Browns had established what they called three "critical factors" for every position, nonnegotiable traits that players needed to perform. Corners, for example, had to be able to tackle, play the ball in the deep part of the field and play man coverage. They added height/weight/speed preferences: 6 feet, 180 pounds, run less than 4.5. And nearly every Alabama corner fits this rubric. Belichick, in putting together a roster under a salary cap, has to compromise in some areas (height is one), but he too adheres to the critical factors theory.
Saban's base defense at Alabama employs Belichick's old 3--4 Giants front. Belichick, meanwhile, picks Saban's brain about the college offenses trickling up to the NFL. "'How do you handle this? How do you handle that?'" Belichick says he would ask. "Maybe it's not even what you're doing; it's just how you're reading it, what you're telling the guy to look at."
Over the decades their meetings, not so secret any longer, have taken place in Tuscaloosa; in Indianapolis, during the scouting combine; at Saban's house in East Lansing, one week in the late 1990s when Belichick stayed while one of his sons attended Saban's football camp....
"Can you remember every time you met one of your friends?" Saban asks. "It's a long, long time that we've been doing things like that. I don't think I would be as good a coach if I didn't have the experiences that I've had with Bill. In fact, I know I wouldn't."
PARCELLS CLAIMS HE KNEW ABOUT THEIR MEETING, BUT GLANVILLE ONLY LEARNED ABOUT IT A FEW YEARS LATER. "If I'd have known," the old coach says, "Nick would have been fired."
SABAN GAVE STEVE THE HIGHEST COMPLIMENT. "IF THE TRUTH WAS EVER KNOWN AND HE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY," he said, "it may be that he was a better coach than Bill."
THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT GUESTS AT TRAINING CAMP FOR BELICHICK'S BROWNS WERE HIS FATHER AND JON BON JOVI, who one Browns staffer swears once led a two-minute drill.