Separated in Cleveland: Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, a coaches story
The coaches at the top of college and professional football, Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, took different paths once they departed the Cleveland Browns.
Believe it or not, “The Factory of Sadness” once was home to the current giants of the professional and college football landscape. Long before Bill Belichick was winning the most Super Bowls as a head coach in NFL history, he was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Before Nick Saban was chasing down Bear Bryant for titles with the Alabama Crimson Tide, he was Belichick’s defensive coordinator.
Perhaps the stench of the Browns wasn’t around to curse these men because the team hadn’t moved yet. Yes, this was at a time when the Browns were a respectable organization that was often competitive despite suffering heartbreak in the playoffs on a consistent basis. Then Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore, fired Belichick and the Browns were without a football team and two future football coaching icons.
The sad story in all of this is the way Browns fans had to suffer the worst fate of all. A team that was competitive and had two great coaches leading the way suddenly ceased to exist. They got their team back and the passionate fan base returned, but the wins didn’t.
Things turned out better for Belichick and Saban. Belichick would rejoin his former mentor Bill Parcells in New England and served on a staff that made it to Super Bowl XXXI. That’s when Belichick and the rivalry between him and the New York Jets took off. He would become interim head coach of the Jets for a brief few days before Bill Parcells officially became the head coach.
Then Parcells stepped down and Belichick decided he didn’t want the job. He went to back to New England, eventually gave the quarterback job to that guy named Tom Brady and commandeered a franchise to five Super Bowls his way.
Saban didn’t coach the final year of the original Cleveland Browns as defensive coordinator. He sprung to the collegiate ranks and back to Michigan State, where had been an assistant before. The struggling Spartans started to have moderate success with their new coach.
His exit from the Spartans wasn’t the big surprise that Belichick’s was from the Jets, but the parallels can be drawn. After the 1999 season, Saban capitalized on the program’s best season in over 30 years to join the LSU Tigers. It was a sudden move that caught people off guard but not quite in the way of making a surprise resignation at a press conference like his former boss.
While Belichick was leading the Patriots to their first championships in the early 2000’s, Saban picked up the highest prize in college football for his team as well. The 2003 season proved to be the year that cemented Saban’s approach to coaching collegiality. His attention to detail and commitment to bringing in the best recruits brought the Tigers a National Championship.
A month later, his former head coach was coaching the Patriots as they defeated the Carolina Panthers on another last second drive to win their second Super Bowl. The two former Browns stood atop the football world in unison.
The itch to return to the NFL returned for Saban. After building a good thing with the Tigers, the Miami Dolphins came calling. Belichick’s rule over the NFL would now face the test of having a man who knew him as well as anyone in the same division. Like everywhere else Saban went in his career, the first year started as promising.
Circling back to Cleveland, the Browns were back and sifting through quarterback after quarterback. This wasn’t the franchise that left for Baltimore. Their 2003 postseason run was a flash in the pan, to which they still haven’t returned. Butch Davis was just the next in a line of coaches that didn’t pan out in Cleveland, while the faithful had to watch two men they used to call their own have the ultimate success at each level.
Saban’s first year was a promising one for the Dolphins. After a poor 3-7 start, the team won six straight to end the year and finish 9-7. In that tally was a win over Belichick, proving Saban might have been the one to know how to coach against his former boss.
In fact, it’s quite interesting that he had a lack of success with the Dolphins, yet managed to beat Belichick’s Patriots on multiple occasions. How often does anyone see the Patriots get shutout on the football field? That would be it for Saban in the NFL and he would return to the college ranks.
However, it would be ridiculous to say the thought of him coaching again in the NFL isn’t intriguing. Rumors are always like to associate him with jobs, but his success with Alabama makes it all the less likely that chapter gets finished.
After denying he was taking the Alabama job and eventually ending up in Tuscaloosa, Saban fixed the Crimson Tide in a hurry. A team woefully not performing up to standard quickly got there. The Tide went from Independence Bowl to Sugar Bowl to BCS National Championship by Saban’s third year with the program.
A duo separated since coaching on the shores of Lake Erie had paved their own path. Unlike many former head coaches and top assistants, these two weren’t tied at the hip and you didn’t see the public praise for the other. Whether it’s ego or a drive to outdo the other, both have found themselves deadlocked in championship count at their respective levels as head coaches.
With five Super Bowls for Belichick as a head coach and five National Championships for Saban, 10 times combined they have stood at the top of their sport. It’s another 10 moments where the city of Cleveland had to painfully reflect on a fate they didn’t deserve.
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