ORLANDO, Fla. — The expectation for a joint press conference between Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh, two people who would rather be anywhere but a joint press conference, is accordingly low.
As far as public interactions go, the two coaches are mostly known for a 2016 spat over satellite camps in which Harbaugh took a Twitter potshot at Saban. But Tuesday morning ahead of the Citrus Bowl, as Saban wrapped up the proceedings with a recollection of playing in the 1972 Tangerine Bowl with Kent State, Harbaugh reacted with intrigue. “Is that right?” he asked. He leaned to the side, away from the microphone, and made conversation as the two walked off.
Their relationship, it turns out, is more than a three-year old Twitter spat. It goes back to Jim’s father, Jack, and Saban’s early days as a head coach.
“I’ve always had a tremendous respect for Jim and his family as coaches,” Saban said. “His dad, Jack, kinda came up with me. I was a little younger, he was one of the most respected secondary coaches — that’s what I coached. I used to try and visit with him as much as I could and had a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
Saban and Jack Harbaugh, per Jack’s recollection, first met at a clinic. Jack places it around 1990, when Saban was in his first and only year as the head coach at Toledo. Saban gave a lecture on press coverage, a technique few college teams used at the time. “I think I wrote down every word he said,” Jack said in a phone interview.
Saban had yet to link up with Bill Belichick in Cleveland, where the two changed the way defense is played by pioneering pattern-match coverage. He was still finding ways to innovate.
“The hand-to-hand combat on the line of scrimmage, that was unheard of back in that day,” Jack said. “Everybody played off back in that day, it was a lot of zone defense.”
After Saban’s presentation ended, Jack jumped up to talk with him 1-on-1. He doesn’t quite recall the specifics, but remembers some of the technique — the defensive back was taught to grab the receiver’s shoulder that dipped, using the hand that crossed his body.
He also remembers his impression of Saban.
“The way he presented it, you could tell what an outstanding teacher he is and was,” Jack said.
Years later, in April 2003, they had another run-in. The Harbaugh family attended the Final Four in New Orleans, as guests of then-Marquette coach Tom Crean, the husband of Joani Harbaugh. Saban — who worked as Michigan State’s football coach when Crean was an assistant on Tom Izzo’s staff — sat nearby.
Before the game, Jim Harbaugh and Saban exchanged pleasantries, then one brought up a question. Two minutes to go, the ball’s on your own 20-yard line and if you get a first down you win the game. Do you dare throw the ball?
And so, sitting inside the Superdome less than an hour before a Final Four game tipped off, Harbaugh and Saban discussed and debated the decision for about 30 minutes. Pens, pencils and paper came out.
“As only coaches could do,” Jack said. “Discussing whether you’d want to take a chance and throw an incompletion, or you’d stop the clock or worse, you’d throw a pass, they’d intercept it and you’d lose the game. Or you just run the clock.
“And I’m sitting there like at a tennis match, watching them back and forth. But that brings back, back and forth, it’s a giant fraternity we share as coaches. We share ideas. Now if you were working for GM or one of those big corporations and you would sit down and share company secrets, it would be just cause for firing. But in coaching, we can’t wait.”
Over the years since, the two have grown apart, engulfed in their own worlds.
Still, the mutual respect remains. It’s why, as Saban sad at the podium on Tuesday at the Rosen Grand Plaza, he brought up the possibility of another conversation.
“I never ever stopped trying to learn,” Saban said. “And I would certainly cherish and have tremendous gratitude for the opportunity to be able to sit down with Jim and talk to him about how he does things and how that can improve our organization.”