I certainly can’t say I knew him particularly well, having engaged him in conversation maybe a half dozen times during my years in professional football, but after each interaction with the man, I always left with the feeling that I had been in the presence of greatness.
Lou Saban, a former all Big Ten quarterback, offensive guard and fullback at the University of Indiana, a captain and all-league linebacker with the Cleveland Browns of the All American Football Conference, longtime collegiate and professional football and sports administrator, died early Sunday morning in his home in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
I’m saddened and was totally unaware that this great man, who had dedicated nearly his entire adult life to the game of football, had quietly retired less than fifty miles from where I currently reside in Wilmington, North Carolina. If I had, and if the big man had been receptive, I’m certain I would have made numerous pilgrimages down state highway 17 to visit this football legend..
After beginning his career with assistant coaching jobs at Northwestern U and the U of Washington and head coaching positions at Case Western Reserve and Western Illinois University, Saban was named the first head coach of the then-Boston Patriots of the American Football League.
To say he was a tough task master back in 1960 would certainly have been an understatement. From the start of training camp until he was relieved of his job at the mid-point of the 1961 season, Coach Saban drove this band of upstarts extremely hard. It was not uncommon for Coach Lou to send a player packing within hours after a poor on-field performance.
My dad brought my older brother and I to observe a number of these training camp sessions prior to the Patriots inaugural season. Even as a pre-teen, I realized very quickly from watching these sessions that talent alone will not insure victory - if a person does not have desire, work ethic and competitiveness, his chances for success in the classroom, business and sports world are extremely limited.
Unlike many of the modern-day coaches who are only looking for the right job in the right situation for the right financial package, Coach Lou was never afraid to take on the seemingly most insurmountable task or resurrect the most anemic and downtrodden of football programs.
Aside from his season and a half with the Patriots and the four previously mentioned college coaching positions, Lou amazingly was also was the head coach with the Buffalo Bills (twice), the Denver Broncos, U of Maryland, U of Miami, West Point, University of Central Florida, Georgetown (SC) High School, Peru State (NE) the Milwaukee Mustangs (AFL), SUNY Canton, Chowan College (NC) and also served as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League!
On the rare occasions when he wasn’t on the sidelines, Lou also served as the Athletic Director of the U of Miami, the General Manager of the Denver Broncos and the president of the New York Yankees.
Most people are probably not aware that back in the late seventies, Miami of Florida was very close to just dropping the sport. The university's football program was in absolute shambles. In a final attempt to keep the program alive, the Hurricanes hired Lou Saban. Instead of just cashing checks and riding off into the sunset, Lou became, in my opinion, the single most important individual in transforming the ailing program into the country's top program for the next two decades.
His overall record as a football coach at an amazing five different levels (prep, JUCO, college, Arena Football League and the National Football League certainly pales in comparison to Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi and his former mentor, the great Paul Brown. But make no mistake about it, Lou Saban's contribution to the game of football was immeasurable.
Over the last three decades, Lou had experienced some serious health issues, and it was coronary disease that ultimately ended his life early Sunday morning at the age of eighty-seven. But, even in failing health, I have a distinct feeling that if a middle school administrator or Pop Warner commissioner somewhere along the Carolina Coast had approached him about starting or resurrecting their ailing football program, Coach Lou would have without hesitation added another footnote to his amazing coaching resume.
The final gun has sounded, coach, and the crowd has emptied the stadium. All that’s left now is to exit the locker room and meet with the ultimate of all league commissioners. I don’t presume to speak for the commissioner, but I suspect the big guy might just smile at Coach Lou and simply say; “Job well done, coach. Job well done.”