College football playoff: Nick Saban, Mark Dantonio have a 40-year history
TUSCALOOSA -- Nick Saban likes to joke his memory isn't what it used to be.
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But when he sat beside Michigan State's Mark Dantonio -- a man he's known for approximately 40 years -- the memories and smiles came flooding back.
"I remember Mark when he played at Zanesville (Ohio) High School," Alabama's head coach recalled during a news conference previewing the upcoming College Football Playoff.
The first time Saban met the future Michigan State coach was as a young graduate assistant at Kent State, his alma mater, in the mid-1970s, when Dantonio was an all-state safety at Zanesville.
While Saban is now known as one of the nation's best recruiters, Dantonio was one of the earliest to spurn his advances, opting for South Carolina, where he was a three-year letterman.
Their paths would continue to intertwine during the next several decades as each made his way through the college coaching ranks.
They even coached together when Saban hired Dantonio to be his defensive backs coach during a five-year stint (1995-2000) as the Spartans' head coach.
"When you kind of know these people and you develop relationships with them, you never forget them," Saban said. "I thought we were fortunate to be able to hire him, and he did a fantastic job for us in the five years that we were there.
"I always thought he'd do great if he ever got an opportunity to be a head coach. He's certainly done a lot better job at Michigan State than I ever could do. So he's done really well. I'm proud of him."
Some 40 years after they first met, the two will face one another once again when Saban and No. 2 Alabama play Dantonio and No. 3 Michigan State on Dec. 31 in the Cotton Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff.
But it was 20 years ago, when Saban was putting together his staff after returning to Michigan State as head coach in 1995 -- following four years as the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick -- that Saban dipped into his own past. Reaching out to then-Kansas head coach Glen Mason, a former colleague at Ohio State in the mid-1980s, Saban inquired about the Jayhawks' defensive backs coach, Dantonio.
But the two had been acquainted before then.
"(When) he was at the Browns, he would talk to me about a couple players that maybe were in college," Dantonio recalled. "(So) when I got the opportunity, as hiring goes, it happened very, very quickly."
Professionally, Dantonio gives Saban credit for helping put him into the position he's in now, leading the three-time Big Ten champion Spartans to the verge of its first national championship appearance in half a century.
"He taught me a lot about organization and preparation for games," Dantonio said. "A lot of the things we do (at Michigan State) and the way our program is shaped is patterned after really Jim Tressel and Nick Saban."
It wasn't just as a head coach that Saban influenced Dantonio. While working side-by-side with Saban during Michigan State practices could be at times "difficult," Dantonio said, it was rewarding and a learning experience.
"He's a defensive back guy. I'm a defensive back guy. So I learned a tremendous amount of football in that time," Dantonio said. "I never worked for a head coach who had been a secondary coach. So when I did come to Michigan State, I had the opportunity to work with a guy who had been in the NFL and had, obviously, a lot of success as a coordinator in the NFL.
"So my knowledge in the secondary grew greatly in those five years. I appreciate everything that he's done for me in that vein."
All of their interactions over the years, and the fact that each has been in his current position since 2007, means Dantonio and Saban have an good idea what the other will bring to the table.
"I've sort of seen him take Alabama back to a championship-type level, obviously," Dantonio said. "When I watch their football team, I see guys play with great technique. ... I watch how firm their defensive line is. I watch their running back (Derrick Henry). ... I see great precision. I see great technique, and I see guys playing together."
For Saban, his influence is evident in the many similarities in style and team makeup, which the longtime coach knows will only make the opposition more difficult to prepare for.
"The fact they've won several games this year late in games by making big plays tells you a lot about the confidence of a team and how they compete in a game," Saban said. "They're a very physical team. They run the ball, play really good defense. So this is going to be a really challenging game for us."