Football's Man in Perpetual Motion, Lou Saban, Comes to Rest—for Now—at a Florida High School
12/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
Lou Saban has been around. And around. And around. A onetime linebacker with the post-World War II Cleveland Browns, he is better known for the mileage he has put on his résumé than for the ball carriers he stuffed on defense. Once upon a time he coached the Buffalo Bills, then quarterbacked by a clubhouse conservative named Jack Kemp, to a pair of American Football League championships. A man like that ought to be able to settle down and become a fixture somewhere—part of the landscape. But not Lou Saban. Since 1950 he has held 18 jobs, been fired from two and voluntarily abandoned the others. Along the way he coached nine college and three professional teams—the Bills, the (then) Boston Patriots and the Denver Broncos—and strung together a paper chain of newspaper headlines: Saban Quits, Saban Resigns, Saban Begins Again.
Now, at 65, Saban has begun one more time, in a position that might seem beneath him. Fortunately, he doesn't see it that way. Last August he signed on as assistant coach at Martin County High in Stuart, Fla., a middle-size, middle-class school with a football program in need of repair. "I knew I wasn't ready to retire," says Saban. "I didn't want to be just a living memory." Instead he helped his new boss, head coach Bill Cubit, take the Martin County Tigers from a 4-6 record last year to a 7-3 record this fall. "The defense was better this year," says Saban with enthusiasm, "and the kids had more pride in the game."
Saban's off-field duties include teaching courses in vocational training, and his $22,000 salary is less than half what he earned coaching the Broncos nearly 20 years ago, but Martin County fans do not deposit their garbage on his front lawn, as Denver fans did one losing season. And there are other rewards—intangibles that Saban now seems to value. "Guys get their start in life in their teens," he says. "Seeing them grow from nothing is what makes this job great. I wanted the challenge, but I was afraid people would take shots at me for tackling another job."
Saban may have inherited his peripatetic nature from his Croatian father, a McCook, III. mine worker who often left home looking for work. Lou began playing football in high school, went on to star at Indiana University and signed with the Cleveland Browns before his discharge from the Army. After four years playing under Paul Brown, pro football's reigning organizational genius, he began coaching in 1950 at Case Institute, after earning a master's in physical education.
Married in 1947 to a stewardess he met, naturally, in transit, Saban set out on his nomadic course five years later, moving from Case to the University of Washington to Northwestern to Western Illinois. In 1960 he packed wife and four children off to Boston to coach the Patriots, who fired him in midseason. "That shakes your whole sense of self," he once said. "You learn to run." Five more jobs followed in the next 16 years. Saban resigned from four of them, including the head coaching job at West Point. "I like to do things my own way," he explains, "and if things don't work out, I go elsewhere." Comments a football observer: "No matter what mountaintop he's on, he's always looking for one with a better view. He's a little like the politician who enjoys campaigning for office more than holding it."
In 1976 Saban was recovering from triple bypass surgery and planning yet another move, this time to the University of Miami, when his wife, Lorraine, who suffered from diabetes, committed suicide in their Buffalo home. "We were all devastated," he says, "but I decided to go on with my life and bought a house in Miami." Remarried in 1978 to Joyce McCord, 44, the real estate agent who sold him the house in Miami, Saban held several more jobs between 1978 and 1986. Last summer he was living in North Carolina and working as a baseball scout for the New York Yankees when the call came from Bill Cubit, who had worked under Saban in 1984 at the University of Central Florida.
The Sabans are settled in an ocean-side condominium in Jensen Beach, Fla. Each weekday morning Lou heads down A1A for an 8:30 class at the high school. Seven hours later he's on the field barking orders. "The kids really like him," says Cubit. "He teaches the basics, and we need that, but he's also a character. People are already asking how long will he stay?" Over to you, Lou. "If they want me," he says, "I want them."