Throwback Thursday: Lou Saban, Western Illinois coach

Throwback Thursday:  Lou Saban, Western Illinois coach
The 1957 Western Illinois University coaching staff featured head coach Lou Saban (cneter) and assistants Red Miller (left) and Joe Collier (right). (photo courtesy wiu.edu)

In a profession filled with rolling stones, Lou Saban may have been the most nomadic of them all.

“When Lou took a job his next thought was what would be the job after that,” said former Western Illinois assistant and Macomb native Robert “Red” Miller in 2009.

To stress his point, Miller told a story in which Saban had accepted a coaching position at a Midwest university.

“They put him in this convertible car and were driving him around in a parade through town,” Miller said. “But during the course of the parade they (school officials) reneged on some promises they made to Lou. By the time that parade was over, Lou Saban had quit that job.”

(WIU photo)

(WIU photo)

Former WIU quarterback Mike McFarland added, “Did you ever hear that story about Lou and the parade? It’s got to be true if Red is telling it.”

Whether the story is reality or an embellishment, it illustrates Saban’s coaching caravan quite well. In all, Saban coached 28 different teams at all levels of play in his 52-year career.

Leatherneck legacy

Saban spent three unforgettable seasons as the WIU head coach. Under his guidance, the Leathernecks posted a 20-5-1 record. After finishing second in the Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 1957, Saban’s 1958 and ’59 teams won the league. The ’58 team suffered its only loss by a single point, while the 1959 Leathernecks went unbeaten at 9-0-0. Saban was chosen as the NAIA Coach of the Year. Saban was inducted in Western’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1974.

Saban was assisted at Western by Miller, Joe Collier, Guy Ricci and Art Dufelmeier.

“He’d drive you hard but I remember him saying one of the best ways to be successful was to surround yourself with good people,” former WIU player Warren Dew said of Saban. “Lou did that with his coaching staff. That’s a lesson I always remembered and took into my future careers. Anytime I was in a position to hire people, I followed Lou’s example.”

Collier, a Rock Island native, said, “Lou came to Northwestern when I was graduating. He was a defensive-minded guy. I remembered him from his time with the Cleveland Browns as a linebacker in the pros. I had just gotten out of the army and was looking to coach at the high school level. He took me on as a graduate assistant. It was a premiere learning experience for me.”

Saban’s three-year span at WIU produced two pro football draft picks, McFarland by the Minnesota Vikings in 1961 and Leroy Jackson by the Cleveland Browns in 1962. Jackson, a running back, was a first-round draft choice.

In addition, several other Leathernecks from the Saban era found their way into pro football including Jack Atchason, Larry Garron, William Larson, Bill Zavadil and Booker Edgerson.

Pro football beckons

Saban (seated) and his 1964 Buffalo staff;  standing (l to r): Joe Collier, John Mazur, Harvey Johnson and Jerry Smith.

Saban (seated) and his 1964 Buffalo staff; standing (l to r): Joe Collier, John Mazur, Harvey Johnson and Jerry Smith.

Saban left Western to become the original head coach of the Boston Patriots in the upstart American Football League for the 1960 season. He later coached the Buffalo Bills to the 1964 and 1965 AFL championships.

Saban left the pro ranks to coach briefly at the University of Maryland in 1966 before returning to the AFL as the head coach of the Denver Broncos (1967-1971). He resurfaced in Buffalo to coach the Bills through the glory years of O.J. Simpson (1972-1976).

Saban developed a cult following thanks to his frequent appearances in iconic NFL Films pieces. His volatile style was perhaps best expressed in a famous clip in which Saban uttered to an assistant coach, “They’re killin’ me out there, Whitey, they’re killin’ me!”

Steve Sabol, co-founder of NFL Films with his father Ed, summarized Saban’s classic appearances.

“Lou Saban conveyed his meaning clearly, if not always gracefully. Nothing ever ate at him inside; it was all on the outside,” Sabol said in an e-mail shortly before his death in 2012. “Some players flourished under his glare, some shriveled. Saban had the capacity to forgive the sinner but never the sin.”

Back to his college roots . . . and a brief stint in baseball

After his days in pro football ended, Saban coached collegiately at Miami-Florida (1977-1978) and Army (1979).

In a strange turn of events, George Steinbrenner—his former assistant coach turned owner of the New York Yankees—hired Saban as the Yankee president for the 1981 and ’82 seasons.

Saban with quarterback Daryle Lamonica.(photo by Robert L. Smith)

Saban with quarterback Daryle Lamonica.(photo by Robert L. Smith)

Saban spent the 1983 and 1984 seasons as the head coach at the University of Central Florida, a Division-II school at the time.

Saban briefly retired in 1985. However, the coaching itch returned and he took over the Georgetown High School Bulldogs in Georgetown, South Carolina for the 1989 season.

A year later, Saban coached four games for the Middle Georgia Heat Wave, a semipro team in Macon, Georgia. He left the job in what the team termed “not a firing” and Saban said was “not a resignation.”

No walking away

After coaching at Peru State College in Nebraska in 1991, Saban appeared to be out of the profession.

Yet, Saban returned to become the head coach of the expansion Milwaukee Mustangs of the Arena Football League in 1994. However, he lasted just four games before being fired.

Though he never coached a game there, Saban helped start New York’s Alfred State College football program. He later coached at another New York state school, SUNY Canton from 1995 until his next “retirement” in 2000.

After compiling at 34-16 record at SUNY Canton, Saban attempted to live a quiet life in coastal South Carolina. However, he accepted the head coaching position at Chowan University, a Division-III school in Murfreesboro, North Carolina, for the 2001 and 2002 seasons.

“The guy coached into his 80s for crying out loud!” Dew exclaimed.

Saban died at this home in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on March 29, 2009.

“Coach Saban was one of Western’s true football coaching legends,” said then WIU athletic director Dr. Tim Val Alstine. “His undefeated 1959 team will always be the standard of Leatherneck football. The fact that his professional coaching career was launched from Leatherneck football will always be a source of pride for Western Illinois University.”

Leave a comment