Friends. Coworkers. Rivals. Confidantes.
And perhaps, even family?
“Somewhere along the line we’re probably related, distantly,” Belichick said in the 2019 HBO documentary “Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching,” citing their shared Croatian heritage. “There’s gotta be a brotherhood there somewhere, or at least cousins.”
“I think there’s a lot of similarities,” Saban said. “Now whether it comes from lineage or something else I really don’t know. I always thought we sort of thought a little bit alike.”
The two added another connection this week, as their historically successful team-coach partnerships reached the end. On Wednesday, Saban announced his retirement as head football coach of the University of Alabama, and on Thursday, Belichick announced he and the NFL’s New England Patriots had mutually agreed to part ways.
The timing is likely coincidental. But like founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who died on the same day, it’s symbolic of their many connections – lives running in parallel and occasionally intersecting for over 70 years.
Professionally, Belichick and Saban’s careers have run in tandem, as they rose to the top of the sport and have dominated the pro and college games over the last 25-odd years, winning a combined 13 championships as head coaches. They also worked together with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns for three seasons in the early 1990s, and coached against each other four times in the 2000s when Saban led the Miami Dolphins.
Personally, the connections go even deeper. Born just six months apart to football coach fathers, they became friends in 1982 when Saban worked with Belichick’s dad, and they’ve gotten together every year since. In “The Art of Coaching” documentary, which sat in on one of those meetings, they discussed their mutual disdain for modern technology, their intense focus on every minute detail, their difficulty balancing work and life and their respect for each other.
“There’s nobody I respect more in football than Nick Saban and I don’t think there’s anybody that’s a better coach than Nick Saban,” Belichick said in the documentary. “What he’s accomplished as a football coach is I think unparalleled. I look up to him. I admire what he’s done, and I’ve learned a ton from Nick.”
“Sometimes people have a real true love and respect for someone,” Saban said. “You really love to see them have this success and continue to have this success. I don’t know how many people can really understand that kind of relationship. That’s kind of how I feel about Bill.”
From friends to coworkers
Saban, born in West Virginia, and Belichick, born in Tennessee and raised in Annapolis, Maryland, both had football coaches as fathers who taught “tough love,” the two said in the documentary. They both played football in college – Belichick at Wesleyan University and Saban at Kent State – and then went into coaching.
In 1982, Saban took a job at the Naval Academy, where Belichick’s father, Steve Belichick, was assistant football coach. They struck up a friendship, and when Bill Belichick came home to visit family, he and Saban became friends themselves.
“Same age, same young guys trying to come up in the business. We just sort of naturally became friends,” Saban said.
Their coaching careers went along split paths, both honing their crafts on the defensive side of the ball, and Belichick won two Super Bowls as the defensive coordinator with the New York Giants. When Belichick became head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1991, he had Saban in mind for his defensive coordinator, and worked to lure him away from his head coaching position at the University of Toledo.
“Nick was the first coach I hired and the best coach I hired,” Belichick said. “Nick was really my number one partner there and I had tremendous confidence in him on every level.”
They worked together for three seasons and helped turn the Browns into a fierce defense that in 1994 allowed the fewest points in the league. In that time, Belichick crafted the phrase that both coaches would take on as a life motto: “Do your job.” The idea is for each coach and player to focus on their own specific responsibilities and not worry about anything else. They were both detail-oriented to the extreme, bordering on dictatorial, and intense figures on the sideline.
“One of the things that I liked most about working for you,” Saban told Belichick in the documentary, “I knew exactly what to expect, I knew exactly what you expected from me, and I worked other places and that was never ever clearly defined.”
“It’s something that I’ve tried to take away so that we get that in our building,” he added.
Their partnership ended after the 1994 season when Saban left Cleveland to take the head coaching job at Michigan State University. Belichick was fired as Browns head coach after five seasons, ending his tenure with a 36–44 record.
From coworkers to rivals
With the turn of the milennium came the championships.
In 2000, Belichick got his second major opportunity when he was hired as head coach and de facto general manager of the New England Patriots under owner Bob Kraft. His second season, a little-known sixth round pick out of the University of Michigan named Tom Brady stepped in as quarterback, and the Patriots won three out of the next four Super Bowls.
Saban, meanwhile, became head coach of Louisiana State University in 2000 and led the Tigers to an NCAA co-championship in 2003.
Then in 2005 they became direct rivals when Saban was named head coach of the Miami Dolphins, putting him and Belichick in the same division. They went an even 2-2 against each other the next two seasons, before Saban jumped to take over the head coaching job at the University of Alabama.
From there, the two were the undisputed best coaches in their respective leagues. Belichick and the Patriots made the Super Bowl five more times, winning in 2014, 2016 and 2018. He is the only head coach in NFL history to win six Super Bowl titles, ranks second all-time with 333 total victories as a head coach, and his 31 career playoff wins are the most all-time among head coaches.
Saban transformed the Alabama program into a perennial championship contender, taking home the title in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2020. In his head coaching career he was 292-71-1 and he never had a year with a losing record.
Throughout that time, they continued to share annual meetings, and occasionally Belichick copied a creative play call from Saban’s Alabama teams.
“I watch what they do, I study their schemes, because I know if it’s good enough for Nick, and he’s doing it, that it’s probably good enough for me,” Belichick said in the HBO documentary. HBO is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, which also owns CNN.
But now those days are over. Saban, 72, retired on Wednesday, telling ESPN he was not confident he could handle the rigors of the demanding job.
“Last season was difficult for me from just a health standpoint, not necessarily having anything major wrong, but just being able to sustain and do things the way I want to do them, the way I’ve always done them,” Saban said. “It just got a little bit harder. So you have to decide, OK, this is sort of inevitable when you get to my age.”
Belichick, 71, is leaving the Patriots after two straight losing seasons, including a 4-13 record this year. Kraft, the Patriots owner, said they split “amicably,” though Belichick’s days coaching may not yet be done.
“So many fond memories and thoughts that I think about the Patriots and I’ll always be a Patriot,” Belichick said. “I’ll look forward to coming back here, but at this time, we are going to move on.”