Nick Saban has more NCAA football national championships, six, than all but Bear Bryant. Bill Belichick has more NFL Super Bowl championships than anyone with six, and more NFL championships than all but George Halas and Curly Lambeau — each of whom coached more than 30 seasons. The two are close friends today, having met nearly 40 years ago while Saban was secondary coach at Navy and Belichick’s father, Steve, was still working as an assistant and advance scout.
Saban, thus, has some interesting insights on what makes the Patriots coach so good at what he does. Insights he shared on Wednesday morning with ESPN, speaking as he began what was another successful signing day for his Alabama Crimson Tide.
“I think there’s a Belichick factor to all this,” Saban told Mike Greenberg by phone on ‘Get Up.’ “That his teams, even our team back in Cleveland, even though when we started out we weren’t maybe talented enough, but we certainly developed a really good team. They’re very disciplined in the way they approach the game. The way they play. They don’t beat themselves. And every one on his teams are always responsible and accountable to do their job.
“You hear him say all the time, ‘Do your job,’ but he defines that very well for everybody. Everybody has a good understanding of what they have to do and I think the Super Bowl was an indication of, ‘Here’s the plan, guys. Here’s the way we’re gonna win this game,’ and you could just kind of see it unfolding the way … everybody was responsible and accountable to do their job, and everybody puts the team first.”
In February 1991, less than 10 days into his first head coaching job with Cleveland, Belichick — a defensive guru with the Giants — hired Saban as his defensive coordinator. After three sub-.500 seasons, the Browns came together in 1994, the league’s top-scoring defense helping them go 11-5 and beat the Patriots in the wild-card round to make what remains Cleveland’s last playoff victory.
Saban had already agreed to become the head coach at Michigan State before year’s end, freeing him from the ugly end in Cleveland that saw the team’s move to Baltimore announced in November, the Browns losing seven of their final eight games, and Belichick being fired a week after the formal approval of their shift east.
Fast forward 25 years, and the two are behemoths of their respective football wings. (They’ve won a combined seven titles since 2010.) What keeps both going?
“You kind of become the standard for what a lot of people sort of target and shoot at. So you become the mountain a little bit, in terms of getting everybody’s best shot, and I think it’s very challenging to get your new players, your new team … to get all those guys to buy into what you’ve got to do to climb the mountain,” Saban said. “That’s a challenge as a coach. What motivates you is to get the next team to do it. It doesn’t have anything to do with what you’ve accomplished in the past because your whole life is about your future. So that’s what you’re focused on.”
Belichick getting this Patriots team, which looked less than championship caliber numerous times this season, to another Super Bowl title stands in contrast with Saban’s Crimson Tide from last fall. The preseason No. 1 for the third straight year, Alabama was unbeaten and scarcely challenged up until the College Football Playoff National Championship, which Clemson won in a blowout.
“You always, as a coach, want to see your team play to its full potential. And sometimes when you have a talented team and you really got all these pieces that are supposed to do great, sometimes it’s much, much more difficult to make that work,” said Saban. “The team chemistry. Everybody buying into the same things when maybe you’re a little bit of the underdog or you have something to prove or you have something to overcome. I think sometimes when you have a really talented team, the team can get distracted a little bit by outcomes, if you know what I mean. Guys want the ball so much. Guys want so many carries. Guys want to make so many plays that it’s a little bit harder to get everybody to buy into that team concept and keep the kind of humility you need to do things that you need to do to respect winning.
“I think sometimes when you have a team that overachieves, as a coach, it’s a little bit more self gratifying.”
The two haven’t stood on opposing sidelines in 13 years, when Saban’s last NFL head coaching win was shutting out Belichick’s Patriots in 2006. (The only time the Patriots have been shut out since came in 2016, the final game of Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension.) Their paths to immortality, however, are forever linked. And it’s clear both, for all their own success, deeply respect what the other has done.
“He’s got a lot of players on that team that have won a lot, and it was clear that it was very important to them to win again because they all put the team first,” Saban said. “Tom Brady, after all the success that he’s had, he still puts the team first. [That’s] important in any organization to get the kind of result that you want, but results and a lot of wins and probably more accolades for all the players [come] that way too. And certainly championships.”