Nick Saban, Bill Belichick dish on their decades-long friendship

"It was one of the best things I did professionally, in terms of my growth."

Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick watches from the sideline during the first half. –AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Between Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, who is the worse loser?

“That’d probably be a photo finish,” Belichick said in a pregame segment before Monday’s College Football Playoff between Alabama and Clemson. “We both take it really hard.”

The losses certainly don’t seem to come around often for Belichick, who boasts five Super Bowl titles and a .740 winning percentage during his 19-year tenure in New England, or Saban, who touts five national championships and a .880 winning percentage during his 12-year tenure in Alabama. But before the pair established themselves as arguably two of the best to do it in their respective fields, they were forging a bond over their mutual love for the sport.

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“We got along well and talked ball,” Saban said.

The friendship began when Belichick was an assistant for the New York Giants and Saban was an assistant at the Naval Academy, where Belichick’s father, Steve, was a longtime scout. Saban only worked with the Navy for a season, but Belichick said his dad called him “one of the best coaches he’s ever worked with.”

“He was effusive in his praise of Nick,” Belichick said.

When Belichick accepted his first head coaching job in the NFL a decade later with the Cleveland Browns, the first person he brought on was none other than Saban. Belichick called Saban’s hire “the most important one,” referring to his friend as “someone [he] had confidence in.”

The lessons were plentiful during their four years together in Cleveland, as Belichick applauded Saban’s ability to focus and Saban recalled how he learned “how to define the expectation for people working in your organization.”

“It was one of the best things I did professionally, in terms of my growth,” Saban said. “I never thought it was hard working for Bill because you knew exactly what he expected.”

They eventually parted ways but remained in touch while pursuing separate paths. When Belichick’s father died in 2005, Saban, then coach of the Miami Dolphins, attended the memorial services, which were held on a Thursday in season.

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“Honestly, the last person I expected to see walk into the funeral home was Nick Saban,” Belichick said.

Saban said their “tremendous amount of [mutual] respect” is what fuels their relationship, which is still going strong nearly four decades after their initial meeting. So, given their successes, what’s the one thing they understand the best about each other?

“How hard it is to sustain it, how hard it is to do it year after year,” Belichick said. “You always have new players; your opponents have new players. You’re the target for them. The bull’s eye’s on you every week.”