They’ve gone head-to-head before, Mark Stoops and Nick Saban, only this time it wasn’t coach vs. coach. It was one-on-one, when Stoops was a senior at Cardinal Mooney High School. Saban was the defensive backs coach at Michigan State who coveted the services of the hard-hitting defensive back from Youngstown.
“I was not a very good football player,” Stoops says, but he must have been good enough. Not only was Saban recruiting him, so were Ohio State and Iowa, where two of his brothers had previously signed. Stoops knew that if he wasn’t going to be a Buckeye, he was going to follow in his brothers’ footsteps.
Saban was destined to finish third which, in the recruiting world, is tied for last, although he had a fairly good inkling. “(Iowa coach) Hayden Fry had that family wrapped up,” he said.
Still, when Stoops had to inform Saban that he wouldn’t be joining Sparty and in fact was cancelling his official visit, it was a moment he won’t forget. “That phone call,” Stoops said, “didn’t go very well.”
They never did become mentor and pupil; now, they’re peers, both coaches in the Southeastern Conference, only with distinctly different views of the college football landscape. Saban is the reigning king of all he can survey, while Stoops is still struggling just to get his Wildcats into a bowl game, any bowl game that will have them. And the experts say you could give Kentucky a 31-point head start on Saturday and it won’t be enough against an Alabama team that’s perfect through four games.
“They’re a fabulous football team,” Stoops said. Asked what he sees when he breaks down Bama’s special teams, Stoops chuckled and said, “Same thing I see when I look at their offense and defense. A bunch of war daddies.”
It starts with Saban, of course. “He’s arguably the best college coach of all time,” Stoops said. “I admire him a lot.” How the Crimson Tide operates, he says, is a reflection of Saban, who’s earned the respect of “anybody in this business.” Whatever Alabama does includes discipline, work ethic and class. “He does things the right way,” Stoops said.
Saban is famous for his focus, the kind of concentration that can have him complaining to a TV sidelines reporter at halftime about how his team has managed a mere 41-0 lead. Stoops once heard a story from his own Uncle Bob about how keenly Saban can be dialed in.
Like most of the Stoops clan, Uncle Bob is a coach who once sat with Saban at a local Youngstown establishment, talking football, drawing up formations and plays on cocktail napkins.
“They were talking Xs and Os,” said Stoops, “and they were so wrapped up in it that they had no idea somebody came in and robbed the place at gunpoint.
“I always thought my uncle was full of it. You know, he’s a little crazy. But I heard coach Saban say it on one of his shows. He verified it, so that was like, ‘Wow, Bob, you were telling the truth.’ “
The Youngstown police approached the two men, looking for their eyewitnesses accounts. “What happened?” an officer asked. “And (Saban) says, ‘What do you mean, what happened?’ They were working on football.”
Saban will attack the Kentucky game plan with that same brand of intensity, including plays designed to get the football to Madison Southern product Damien Harris, who chose Kentucky over Alabama two years ago. He was vilified in some corners of the Bluegrass state for opting to wear Crimson, but he owns one national championship ring already and has designs on another.
The Cats will arrive more confident, following their grind-it-out victory over South Carolina. The last time they played in a hostile environment, they traveled to Gainesville off a disappointing loss in their season opener. They scurried home after a sound beating. And the team they’ve hooked this week is markedly better than Florida.
“We’re playing an amazing football team” Stoops said, “an amazing program, the number one team in the country, for a good reason.”
But, he said, the Wildcats can’t afford to become starstruck with the Tide, else they lose track of what they need to do. “We know who we are and what we’re capable of,” Stoops said.
So, after splitting your first two games, who ARE you, anyway?
“We’ll worry about that in the locker room,” he said, laughing. “You’re opening a Pandora’s box right there. Let’s not worry about that. Don’t worry about us.”
Stoops won the battle of wills, back when he was a high school senior, fending off a very persuasive Nick Saban, who so wanted to coach him. On Saturday, Saban just might teach him a lesson after all.