MIAMI — Something wasn’t right on Dec. 31, 2006. Miami had lost the regular-season finale 27-22 at Indianapolis and Dolphins players figured their head coach would be in his usual miserable mood after a defeat.
Then they heard Nick Saban talking on his cell phone.
“He was laughing and joking,’’ recalls Channing Crowder, a linebacker on that team. “He was never like that after a loss; he was always ticked off. So we knew then that he was gone.’’
Saban had been saying throughout that month he was committed to the Dolphins and wouldn’t be taking the head coaching position at Alabama. Crowder said the players believed him. But soon after that loss to the Colts, Saban was out the door to Alabama after two years with the Dolphins.
Six years later, Saban will be back at Sun Life Stadium for Monday’s BCS Championship Game against Notre Dame. Saban is going for his fourth national title and third in four years, an accomplishment that would put him right up there with the legendary coaches of the game.
But Saban isn’t regarded as a coaching legend by many in South Florida. Still remembered are his two seasons with the Dolphins when he failed to make the playoffs.
He went 9-7 in 2005 and 6-10 in 2006 after he had been lured away from LSU with a big contract, which he had led to a national title in 2003. And, of course, remembered are his claims that he wouldn’t be joining the Crimson Tide.
“I’m not going to be the Alabama coach,’’ Saban famously had said with two games left in the 2006 season.
Saban received plenty of criticism after he left.
Former Dolphins star guard Bob Kuechenberg called Saban a “scoundrel and a skunk’’ in addition to a “lair.’’ Former Dolphins tight end and radio analyst Jim Mandich, who died of cancer in 2011, told the NFL Network that Saban was the “biggest two-bit phony fraud I’ve ever known in my life. … (If) Nick Saban walked through that door right now, I’d say, ‘Let’s go. Let’s start throwing down (punches).’’
After Saban touched down in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with the Crimson Tide on Wednesday, one of the first questions he was asked was about returning to south Florida following his unceremonious departure in 2006.
“I’ve made my comments about all that,’’ said Saban, referring to an interview he gave Dec. 17 on the Dan Le Batard Show on Miami radio station 790 The Ticket. “We all learn things about ourselves as we go. Some things we all would do differently.
“I don’t really think it’s worth (getting into) what I would have done. I just think we all make mistakes and sometimes we’d like to do things differently. But you don’t get the opportunity to get it back. We’ve said what we have to say about it.’’
In the radio interview, Saban admitted it still bothers him how he exited.
“I just didn’t handle it the right way,’’ Saban said. “I never felt good about it. I don’t feel good about it right now and I’ll probably never feel good about it.’’
Saban declined to say then how he would have handled matters differently. But he said in a 2010 interview with the Sporting News he should have just issued a no comment.
The comment from Saban’s radio interview last month that registered the most buzz was his claim he had wanted to sign quarterback Drew Brees as a free agent in 2006 over Daunte Culpepper but that Brees failed a physical. Brees was coming off a serious shoulder injury while Culpepper had a knee injury, and there was much discussion over which one to sign.
Brees, of course, went on to win a Super Bowl with New Orleans in the 2009-10 season and is bound for the Hall of Fame. Culpepper got hurt with the Dolphins in ’06, playing in just four games, and that was pretty much it for his career.
“We chose Drew Brees,’’ said Saban, who then controlled player personnel for the Dolphins. “I’ve never ever talked about this publicly and I think a lot of players know this. … We think Drew Brees was an outstanding player. That’s the guy we made the first offer to. And, quite frankly, he didn’t pass the physical with our organization, so we had to go (with Culpepper).’’
Crowder doesn’t buy it.
“He’s backtracking,’’ said Crowder, who now does radio for Miami station WQAM after having played for the Dolphins from 2005-10. “I heard that the medical staff just laid out the information and that (Saban) picked Culpepper. They had a meeting and he said, ‘I’m going with the big guy.’’’
The 6-foot-4, 264-pound Culpepper, a Florida native who had starred at the University of Central Florida, was a disaster. After the Dolphins got off to a 1-3 start, he didn’t play again that season because of a shoulder injury and continued knee problems. The trouble increased when Culpepper had a heated run-in with Saban, who was relegated to using notorious NFL underachiever Joey Harrington at quarterback the remainder of that disastrous 6-10 season.
The debate rages to this day how much would have changed with Saban had the Dolphins, who had gone 9-7 with journeyman quarterback Gus Frerotte in 2005 and were picked by Sports Illustrated in 2006 to advance to the Super Bowl, signed Brees. Saban didn’t deny in the Sporting News interview that Brees would “have made our team a lot better.’’
“I think it would have rewritten history if the Dolphins had gotten Drew Brees,’’ said Kim Bokamper, a former Dolphins linebacker who long has covered the team for WFOR-TV in South Florida and was the sideline reporter for preseason games during Saban’s two Miami seasons.
“Play in the NFL is dictated more by quarterback play than in college, and they already had a pretty good defense. I think Nick would have stayed longer. I don’t know if he’d still be here because he’s been a bit of a vagabond.’’
Crowder believes it’s realistic to think Brees could have taken the Dolphins to a Super Bowl the way he did with the Saints. But Leroy Hoard, a former NFL running back who is co-host of a Dolphins postgame show on 790 The Ticket, said it’s going too far to assume that Brees, who had played for San Diego from 2001-05, would have excelled in Saban’s conservative offense.
“Drew Brees played in two of the most high-octane offenses you can probably find in the NFL in San Diego and New Orleans,’’ said Hoard, who was with the Cleveland Browns when Saban was defensive coordinator from 1991-94. “Drew Brees is a thrower, but that’s not Nick Saban’s brand of football. You can’t say that Drew Brees would have been the same with the Dolphins as he was in New Orleans.’’
Quarterback play, though, wasn’t the only problem that plagued Saban during his Miami tenure. The Dolphins lost running back Ricky Williams for the entire 2006 season due to a drug suspension.
Saban’s primary runner during his two Miami seasons was running back Ronnie Brown, who gained 1,915 yards in those years after being the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft. But Brown never quite lived up to being drafted that high.
Saban’s two drafts with the Dolphins were spotty. His other first-round pick was safety Jason Allen, who has had an underwhelming career after going No. 16 in 2006.
One of Saban’s better picks was Crowder, who was taken in the third round in 2005 and became a reliable starter. But Crowder said Saban, 53 when he arrived in Miami and now 61, was used to being a college head coach and had some difficulties dealing with pro players.
“He wasn’t the Nick Saban who wants to be put on a pedestal like he is at Alabama,’’ Crowder said of the image Saban sought. “He had guys on the team who were like 35. He used to cringe when players called him ‘Nick’ because he wanted to be called ‘coach Saban.’ But guys who were making millions weren’t going to call him that. … He would tell guys things like not to go to South Beach and don’t drive after midnight. But you’re not going to tell guys who are 35 where they can go.’’
Bokamper, a former Pro Bowler who has been involved with the Dolphins for more than three decades as a player and broadcaster, agreed Saban didn’t have the right touch when it came to dealing with NFL players.
“I don’t think his message got across as much as it does on the college level,’’ Bokamper said. “He’s a great college coach, but I think some of the veteran guys had some resistance. He’s a controlling coach. He wanted guys to follow his marching orders to some degree 24 hours a day.’’
Crowder said Saban had a sports psychologist come in to speak with players the coach believed needed help. Crowder said he was selected due to having had some issues at the University of Florida.
“We called him ‘The Shrink,’’’ Crowder said. “He was a dude about 5-foot-2 with a big Santa Claus beard and a wooden belt buckle. He used to talk to me about anger management. He had a big thing of sand and he’d make you rake it and then he’d mess it up to see how mad you got.’’
Crowder said Saban has an “amazing football mind.” He has certainly shown it in college in recent years with Alabama having claimed national titles in 2009 and 2011. But in the NFL he wasn’t exactly a players’ coach.
“I remember once walking into a bathroom (at the team training facility) and I didn’t think anybody would be in there, but Saban was in there,’’ Crowder said. “I said to him, ‘How’s your wife (Terry)?’ He just looked at me straight in the eye and said, ‘She’d be a lot better if you could cover the back on third down.’
“When I was a rookie, I had my first big game against Tampa Bay and got my first game ball. He saw me on Monday and he just walks by and kicks me in the foot and said, ‘If you play like that, we might be worth a damn.’ My first big NFL game, and that’s all I got. I would never say that anybody is heartless, but I will say that he’s not too much in touch with his heart.’’
Crowder confirmed a story told in 2011 by former Miami fullback Heath Evans that Saban walked right past offensive lineman Jeno James after he had collapsed in a hallway, vomited and had convulsions following a 2005 practice. Crowder called it “more than 100 percent’’ accurate what Evans said.
“It was in the hallway and Jeno James had had a heat stroke,’’ Crowder said of James, who was suffering from dehydration brought on by gastroenteritis and would recover. “Saban walks right through the hallway and doesn’t even stop. Here was a guy with foam coming out of his mouth and having convulsions and he doesn’t stop. … He later came down to tell (the players) that he panicked and didn’t know what to do. But, if a guy was having a seizure, wouldn’t you call a doctor? That was kind of eye-opening (about Saban).’’
Saban defended himself when asked last month on 790 The Ticket about the James incident.
“No one really realized that Jeno was probably having as tough of a time as he was and immediately thereafter I was with Jeno for several hours,” Saban said. “And I came back down as soon as I heard Jeno was having an issue and a problem. Everybody has got their little sort of perception of how things happen and whether they want to look at the negative side of it or the positive side.’’
Former Dolphins star defensive end Jason Taylor, though, always has spoken well of Saban. Taylor, an NFL analyst who also appears each Monday on the Dan Le Batard Show, joined the interview last month with Saban and defended him. Taylor, who did not return a message seeking additional comment, reiterated then that he has great respect for Saban.
The only current Dolphins player remaining from the Saban era is long snapper John Denney, who said he’s indebted to the coach for giving him an opportunity as an undrafted free agent to make the NFL in 2005. Denney said Saban was in a “tough situation’’ and understands why he left the Dolphins in the manner he did.
Denney acknowledges Saban isn’t the most popular guy in South Florida. But he doesn’t “think a bunch of angry Dolphins fans are going to buy tickets just to go to the (BCS) Championship Game so they can boo.’’
Saban also did not endear himself to some former Miami players, namely Kuechenberg and Mandich, key players on the Super Bowl-winning teams of 1972 and ’73 and members of the Dolphins Ring of Honor. Kuechenberg did not return messages seeking updated comments about Saban.
Two of Mandich’s three sons, Nick and Michael, explained why their mild-mannered father developed such a dislike for Saban. Their father was a longtime team radio analyst, although his role during Saban’s two Miami seasons was as a radio talk-show host, when he was openly critical of the coach.
“My dad didn’t really have enemies,’’ Nick Mandich said. “But if you don’t respect him, he’s not going to respect you. … The first time my dad saw Saban, it was in a hallway next to his office. He said ‘hi’ to him and Saban just walked right by and didn’t acknowledge him.’’
Michael Mandich said his father received a call after that encounter.
“His assistant called and said, ‘Please do not address coach Saban unless he addresses you first,’’’ Michael Mandich said. “My dad meant it when he said he would have fought him. He never really disliked somebody quite to that degree.’’’
Jim Mandich made the comment about wanting to fight Saban on the NFL Network show “Top 10 NFL Coaches Who Belonged in College,” which ranked Saban No. 7. Mandich called Saban “a miserable failure as a head coach in professional football,’’ which seems rather excessive for a coach whose record was just under .500.
Still, expectations were high when Saban arrived in Miami. He signed a five-year, $22.5 million contract after being lured away from LSU.
Saban’s NFL tenure has been judged mostly by how he left the Dolphins. Crowder said Saban had delivered the same speech to the team as he did to the media about how he wasn’t going to be Alabama’s coach.
After Saban left, Crowder said he and many other players never heard a word from the coach. Crowder said he didn’t like that Saban told his Dolphins assistant coaches on a conference call he was departing.
“He’s not a good person, but everybody knows that,’’ Crowder said. “He doesn’t act like a good person and he doesn’t want to be a good person. He wants to be a football coach. If he was walking by and you called him ‘Nick Satan,’ he wouldn’t bat an eye. But if you questioned a call he made on third down, he wouldn’t like that. He is a great college football coach. I wouldn’t bet against him to win (Monday’s title game).’’
But if Alabama comes up short against the Fighting Irish, one thing seems certain. Saban won’t be laughing and joking on the phone after the game.