TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel are pretty familiar with each other.
The pair faced each other two years ago in Missouri’s first year in the SEC and are both veterans of the profession. But their relationship goes back further. Much further.
Saban and Pinkel share similar beginnings and a common past. They both point to the same coach as a mentor, from whom their philosophies and principles originated.
When former Kent State and Washington coach Don James died a little over a year ago on October 20, 2013, each coach lost a little piece of his past and a trusted friend.
L.G. Patterson/Associated Press
And when Alabama and Missouri meet in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday, it will be a coaching matchup years in the making. The two have met before but never on a stage this big or with stakes so high.
“We probably all have three or four really significant people in our life that you say that having a relationship with this person really impacted the direction of my life, the quality of my life, a lot of the personal decisions that I made and philosophically the way you live your life, the way you do your job. All kinds of things get affected by those people. Don James was certainly one of those people for me,” Saban said last year shortly after James’ death.
“I have as much respect for him as a person and as a coach, the job that he did, the organization that he had. To this day, a lot of the things that I learned being a graduate assistant for him are still things that we implement in our program philosophically.”
James was hired by Kent State in 1971, when Saban was a senior defensive back and Pinkel a sophomore tight end.
When Saban graduated, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with the next chapter of his life. But his new wife, Terry, still had a year left of school.
James asked Saban if he wanted a position as a graduate assistant. Saban had never thought about coaching before and didn’t really want to go to grad school, but he gave it a shot anyway.
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“I never really wanted to be a coach,” Saban said. “I really liked it. I have thanked Coach James many, many times for inspiring me into the opportunity to do it; also [for] a lot of the lessons that I learned from him starting out as a young coach.”
Saban ended up spending three seasons as a graduate assistant under James. When James left to be the head coach at Washington, Saban was promoted to defensive assistant and thus began one of the most successful coaching tenures in college football history’s career—with James’ fingerprints all over it.
“It starts with how we recruit players, how we evaluate players, character and attitude, how those things sort of play into it, how you sort of try to find out those things about players so you get the kind of guys that are a good fit for your program. That was a big thing that Don always emphasized,” Saban said.
“There’s quite a bit of stuff. Don was one of the best coaches, to me, of all time. He was my coach, had a great impact on my life. I certainly appreciate him more than anyone could know for the start that he sort of inspired me to have as a coach.
“A lot of his influences really affected our coaching career.”
Pinkel spent a little bit more time in James’ tutelage.
He played his last three years under James and then was also retained as a graduate assistant. Pinkel followed James to Washington, where he was a tight ends coach for a year. After a two-year stint at Bowling Green, Pinkel and James were reunited at Washington.
JAMES A. FINLEY/Associated Press
Gary Pinkel when he was hired at Missouri
Pinkel was James’ wide receivers coach for five years and was promoted to offensive coordinator for seven more. In 1991 he got his first head coaching job at Toledo, where he stayed until he was hired at Missouri in 2001.
“I guess the thing that Coach James was, he was an organizational genius,” Pinkel said. “The detail of organizing every little tiny aspect of your football program, having a plan in place for everything, evaluate everything you do after you do it. I’ve been a head coach for 24 years now. We have an infrastructure in place.
“I would say that in itself is probably as important as anything I’ve done, I’ve learned from him; not only having this detailed infrastructure, but constantly evaluate yourself to make yourself better and to learn, in everything we do. Those things are very invaluable to me as a head coach and our organization.”
If you notice similar threads in Saban and Pinkel’s coaching philosophy, that’s not a coincidence. That attention to detail, CEO-like mentality, constant thoughts of improving: Those were all James staples that were passed down to his coaching disciples.
“They’re both like sons,” James told The Columbia Tribune’s Dave Matter in 2012 before Alabama played Missouri that year. “You follow them, you cheer for them. But I don’t know what to do this week.”
It’s safe to say he would have similar feelings this week, when so much more is on the line.
Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.