TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Four decades ago, Gary Pinkel and Nick Saban captured a conference championship with Kent State.
Now, the former teammates who once labored long hours together for paltry pay and invaluable experience as graduate assistants will face off with a bigger prize on the line.
Saban and No. 1 Alabama will meet Pinkel’s 14th-ranked Missouri Tigers Saturday in the Southeastern Conference championship game in the Georgia Dome. The Crimson Tide will be certain of a playoff berth with a victory.
The longtime friends are still logging long hours but now for seven-figure salaries.
They’re also still putting to work the lessons learned under coaching mentor Don James, who coaxed a reluctant Saban into the profession.
“I never really wanted to be a coach,” said Saban, who has since won four national titles at LSU and Alabama. “Coach James asked me to be a graduate assistant. My wife had another year of school, so I decided to do it, even though I didn’t want to go to graduate school.
“I really liked it. I have thanked coach James many, many times for inspiring me into the opportunity to do it.”
Pinkel and Saban were teammates on Kent State’s 1972 Mid-American Conference championship team coached by James. Pinkel became a grad assistant a year after Saban.
Both Saban and Pinkel still cite lessons and practices adopted decades ago from James, a Hall of Famer who died in October 2013 at age 80.
“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 learned from him.”
Similarly, Saban said he has modeled some aspects of his program from James, everything from recruiting to offseason conditioning workouts.
Both James pupils have forged long, successful coaching careers applying those lessons.
Saban recommended Pinkel as his replacement when he left after one season at Toledo to become the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator in 1991.
Pinkel held that job for 10 seasons and is in Year 14 at Missouri. Saban, meanwhile, is on his fifth head coaching stop, including a two-year stint with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
The differences go beyond career trajectories.
Missouri was mostly overlooked coming into the last two seasons but won the SEC East both times. Alabama is routinely among the favorites to win the national title, leaving no possibility of being labeled as overachievers.
Another big difference lies in the star ratings of their players as prospects. ‘Bama has had five straight No. 1 recruiting classes, according to Rivals.com. Missouri’s highest ranking was 31st in 2012.
Saban’s somewhat dismissive of such rankings.
“But I also think it does speak to the job that Gary and his staff have done in building their team and building their program, the very good job they’ve done of recruiting players as well as developing those players,” he said.
“Sometimes I don’t know what comes first in recruiting rankings, the cart or the horse. When a guy gets recruited by what I’m going to call high profile programs, he gets ranked higher. That’s where I question the validity of how accurate some of those things may be.”
Pinkel’s players get a chance to prove they measure up on the field.