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The Road To The SEC Title Leads Through The MAC

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And we're not talking about Interstate 75. though it does run from Toledo to Atlanta.

Gary Pinkel leads the Toledo Rockets against Ohio State in 1998.
Gary Pinkel leads the Toledo Rockets against Ohio State in 1998.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

In 1972, the Kent State Golden Flashes, led by legendary coach Don James, won the Mid-American Conference football title. Kent State's only MAC title came at an odd time, just after Chuck Ealey graduated from Toledo after quarterbacking the Rockets to 35 consecutive wins over three seasons, and just before the Miami Redskins gave up fewer than nine points a game en route to a three-year record of 32-1-1. But while those Toledo and Miami teams were undoubtedly better than the 1972 Golden Flashes squad, which only managed a 6-5 record, it's Kent State's most decorated team that turned out to be the most consequential.

Why? A sophomore tight end named Gary Pinkel and a senior defensive back named Nick Saban.

In fact, if it weren't for the influence of Don James, Saban wouldn't be coaching today: Saban would have become a car salesman after graduation if James hadn't seen his potential. Instead of meeting monthly targets on Pontiacs while waiting for his wife to finish at Kent State, Saban found himself serving as a graduate assistant for the Flashes' defense. Two years later, James extended the same offer to Pinkel, who worked on the offensive side of the ball.

When James left for Washington, Pinkel went with him, while Saban stayed in northeast Ohio as a full-time coach for Kent State. But as the years passed and they bounced from job to job, the two kept in touch. By the late 1980s, Saban was seen as an up-and-coming defensive mastermind with considerable college and pro experience, while Pinkel was coordinating the Washington offense to record-setting heights.

And then it was back to the MAC for Saban, who took the head coaching job at Toledo in 1990. He led the Rockets to a 9-2 season and a conference title. Then the NFL came calling again, and Saban really had his shot: to work as defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns under Bill Belichick.* Although he was leaving Toledo in the lurch after just a season, Saban had one name in mind to succeed him: Gary Pinkel.

*Everyone was on that Browns staff from 1991-95. It's amazing.

Pinkel turned out to be a very, very good recommendation. Over ten years at Toledo, he won one conference title (in 1995, where he also led one of two undefeated teams in the nation) and three division titles after the MAC split into a two-division setup. He'd have more hardware to his name had he not run into Marshall and its mops-for-props-fueled Thundering Herd squads. Saban, meanwhile, was quite successful himself; he parlayed the Browns position into the head coaching gig at Michigan State, where he dug the Spartans out from a heap of sanctions and rebuilt them to the point that they beat Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Penn State all in one season in 1999 before leaving for LSU in 2000.

Since 2001, neither Saban nor Pinkel has been in MAC country: Pinkel, of course, took the Missouri job, and Saban jumped to the NFL before resurrecting the Alabama of old. This Saturday's SEC championship game will be only the second time they've met on the field in their long careers, and it will definitely be the more consequential of the two. Plenty of ink will be spilled about the road to Atlanta: how Alabama overcame a loss to Ole Miss, how Mizzou mounted a comeback against a suddenly fearsome Arkansas team. But when you see Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel shake hands after the whistle blows, remember that the road to Atlanta starts in northern Ohio, in cities like Toledo and Kent. Remember that the road to the SEC title, at least this year, leads through the Mid-American Conference.