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Looking back at Nick Saban’s legacy in the MAC

The 7-time national champion head coach retires from the sport with roots in the Mid-American Conference.

Kent State safety Nick Saban
Credit: Kent State University via Vasha Hunt at AL.com

No matter the date, time, or circumstance, the occurrence would be simultaneously inevitable and shocking. There was no question the day would come when a coaching legend unlike any the sport had seen would hang up the headset for the final time. That day turned out to be Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.

Legendary coach Nick Saban officially announced his retirement after a 51-year coaching career, which included 30 years as an FBS head coach and 17 years as the frontman at University of Alabama. Saban won an FBS-record seven national championships, earning his first with LSU in 2003 and six with the Crimson Tide in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017, and 2020.

While the coach often regarded as the greatest all-time is more renowned for his accolades and accomplishments in SEC country — specifically, Tuscaloosa, AL — before he ever uttered the words “Roll Tide,” the eventual College Football Hall of Famer got his start in the Mid-American Conference.

Saban enjoyed a prolific high school football career in West Virginia where he was a state champion quarterback. Before enrolling at the next level, the Fairmont, WV native earned three scholarship offers from MAC institutions, garnering attention from Kent State, Miami (OH), and Ohio. Saban ultimately selected Kent State where he initially played quarterback before moving to safety to round out his college days.

The undersized 5’6” defensive back played three seasons for the Golden Flashes from 1970-72. Kent State posted 3-7 and 3-8 records in Saban’s first two years with the program, but the 1972 season is one that is still often-referenced by Kent State faithful. That year, the Golden Flashes won the MAC championship for the first time ever, and to this day, it remains their only MAC title. Kent State finished 6-5 that season with a loss to Tampa in the Tangerine Bowl, but the team took care of conference opponents with a 4-1 MAC record. That Tangerine Bowl appearance was the program’s pinnacle for decades, as Kent State didn’t qualify for another bowl game until 40 years later in 2012.

Four-time Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Fame middle linebacker Jack Lambert was one star lining up alongside Saban on that historic Kent State team’s defense. Another notable name on the other side of the ball was tight end Gary Pinkel, who later became Saban’s successor at Toledo and currently stands as the winningest head coach in the program histories of both Toledo and Missouri.

After the 1972 championship season subsided, Saban was offered a spot as a graduate assistant by Kent State head coach Don James. Pursuing a master’s degree while launching his coaching career, he spent two seasons in that role before a promotion to linebackers coach for the 1975 and 1976 seasons. After seven years of association with the university, Saban moved on from Kent State to coach linebackers at Syracuse in 1977. But more than a decade later, he returned to the conference where it all started.

Toledo head coach Nick Saban
Credit: Toledo Blade | University of Toledo Athletics

It was only fitting a MAC alumnus would land his first head coaching job in the same league he formerly called home. In December 1989 while serving as the Houston Oilers defensive backs coach, Saban finally earned an opportunity to lead a program as Toledo hired him as head coach. Toledo immediately rose to the top of the MAC under the future national championship-winner, posting a 9-2 record in Saban’s first season. The Rockets were crowned co-MAC champions with Central Michigan with a 7-1 standing in conference play. However, Toledo fans were only offered a sneak peak of the promising Saban era. The following February, the head coach resigned to pursue a defensive coordinator role on Bill Belichick’s staff with the Cleveland Browns.

Saban completed the final 33 years of his prolific career without returning to another MAC coaching position, with Michigan State, LSU, and Alabama serving as his final three stops. Still, the former Kent State safety squared off against his alma mater twice in 2011 and 2016 while operating as Alabama’s head coach.

The MAC connections stood the test of time, and Saban even referenced his playing days in his press conferences leading up to those matchups against Kent State. So when the 7-time national champion announced retirement, it was no surprise the MAC community applauded Saban for his storied career.

“I’d like to extend heartfelt congratulations to Alabama head coach Nick Saban as we celebrate not just the end of an era, but a remarkable journey that began with his playing career at Kent State and culminated in a coaching legacy for the ages,” MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher released in a statement Wednesday. “From his early days as an assistant coach at his alma mater to his first head coaching job at Toledo, Coach Saban helped shape the landscape of college football. I wish Coach Saban and Miss Terry the very best as they enter the next chapter of their lives.”

The face of college football’s greatest 21st century dynasty finally rode off into the sunset after an accomplished run, toting more national championships than anybody else associated with the sport. But before the confetti showers and trophy ceremonies in the grandeur of NFL stadiums in January, Saban’s journey was one with humble midwest beginnings — one beginning as a player for Kent State in 1970 and another beginning as a newly-minted head coach for Toledo in 1990.