HOOVER, Ala. — Gary Pinkel is honest when he says he and Nick Saban don’t speak much. Both men are driven, and thanks to the grind of coaching college football, they’re also busy, too.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
But make no mistake about it, the head football coaches at Missouri and Alabama are friendly with each other. And it goes beyond the fact they both played football at Kent State around the same time.
“I might not even be here if it wasn’t for him,” Pinkel said of Saban on Tuesday.
By here, he meant SEC Media Days, which was held this week at the Wynfrey Hotel just outside of Birmingham, Ala. Pinkel is in the midst of a solid 12-year run at Missouri, but he clearly remembers the days as an offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Washington in the late 80s and early-90s, when he wondered if the head-coaching job he long coveted would ever come along.
“I interviewed at Bowling Green where I coached before and didn’t get the job, and I interviewed at Kent State where I was an all-conference player and didn’t get the job,” Pinkel said. “My wife didn’t think I could get hired anywhere.”
Then, as Pinkel recalls, a phone call came around late February or early March of 1991. Former college teammate Nick Saban was on the line. Turns out he was leaving Toledo for a better job — defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns.
“He calls me up and says ‘I’m leaving here, I can get you an interview — are you interested in the job?’ ” Pinkel recalled.
Pinkel, of course, said yes. He went on to get the job — the biggest break of his coaching career. And to this day, Pinkel still doesn’t take it for granted.
“You have to get a break to be a head coach,” Pinkel said. “I think there are hundreds of high school coaches that are good enough to coach in college, they just won’t get the break to do it. Same (goes for) the head coach. Lots of guys you know could be head coaches that don’t get that break.”
Saban said Thursday that he recommended Pinkel for the Toledo job simply because he thought he’d “do a fantastic job.” He even poked fun at a statement Pinkel made Tuesday. Pinkel had pointed out that Saban was older than him (both are 60, but Saban is older by about six months).
“I heard he was up here bragging about the fact he was younger than me,” Saban deadpanned. “But you know, there are a lot of coaches in this league, like Steve Spurrier, that are older than me, that I look up to, that are my mentors and that I really want to try to be like.”
This inspired plenty of laughs. The bit about Spurrier as a joke, but there’s no doubt Pinkel holds his former teammate in high regard.
“I have great respect for him, always have,” Pinkel said. “As a player, great competitor … very tough, very dedicated, very committed, very team-oriented. I think that reflects the intensity (he shows). … I think historically, he’ll go down as one of the great coaches in college football. And he should.”
And while Pinkel will also be trying desperately to topple Saban’s Alabama machine going forward, there’s no doubt he will forever be grateful to his friend and soon-to-be foe for the favor he did for him 21 years ago, the same one that springboarded Pinkel’s coaching career and allowed him to work his way up to his current position.
“When you get the break, you’ve got to be able to do (the job),” Pinkel said. “But I got the break because of him. Who knows what would have happened (without him).”