He was a star football player in college, a champion pro football coach, a baseball president, a man with a short temper and very long résumé, never averse to tackling something new.
Nobody has ever done it quite like Lou Saban, who died early Sunday at his home in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., at age 87. He had heart problems for years and recently suffered a fall that required hospitalization, his wife, Joyce, said.
“He was an original,” she said. “He was one of a kind.”
There was a reason Saban was dubbed “Much Traveled Lou.” In the first 33 years of a career that spanned five decades, Saban held 18 jobs, an average of 1.83 years per stop. Among those jobs was president of the New York Yankees from 1981-82 for his longtime friend, team owner George Steinbrenner.
“He has been my friend and mentor for over 50 years, and one of the people who helped shape my life,” Steinbrenner, who was receivers coach under Saban at Northwestern University in 1955, said in a statement. “Lou was tough and disciplined, and he earned all the respect and recognition that came his way. He spent a lifetime leading, teaching and inspiring, and took great satisfaction in making the lives around him better. This is a tremendous loss to me personally.”
Louis Henry Saban, a son of Yugoslav immigrants, was born in Brookfield, Ill., in 1921, was an underground construction worker during the building of the Chicago subways and a 1940 graduate of Lyons Township High School.
He became a star quarterback and linebacker at Indiana University and an all-league linebacker for the Cleveland Browns from 1946-49.
In 1950, Saban accepted the first of his many head coaching positions – at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland. Five years later, he took over at Northwestern for two years, then moved to Western Illinois University before embarking on an unmatched head coaching career.
It included stops with the Boston Patriots and Buffalo Bills of the old American Football League and Denver Broncos and Bills after the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970, along with college jobs at Miami, Army, Northwestern and Maryland.
Saban joined the Patriots in 1960 and left for the Bills in 1962, guiding them to AFL championships in 1964 and 1965, the only titles the Bills have ever won. He quit for a job with the Broncos because of difficulties with owner Ralph Wilson.
Six years later, at the urging of Steinbrenner, Wilson rehired Saban, and he again was successful, overseeing O.J. Simpson’s record-breaking, 2,003-yard rushing season in 1973 and getting the Bills to the NFL playoffs the next season. Saban left again after some of his responsibilities were taken away.
“He was like a father to me,” former Bills defensive back Booker Edgerson said. “He steered me in the right direction. He gave me advice. Some of it, I didn’t like, but isn’t that what a father does?”
After quitting the Bills midseason in 1976, Saban spent two years as athletic director at Miami, where he recruited future Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly.
He earned his peripatetic nickname as he skipped from job to job, coaching Army in 1979 and then becoming athletic director at Miami. Among the entries on his résumé – athletics director at the University of Cincinnati, for 19 days. Saban left that job at halftime of an early-season football game against Ohio University.
Saban also coached at Central Florida in 1983-84 when it was a struggling Division II school and coached high schools in the late 1980s and in the Arena Football League in 1994.
Saban spent most of the 1990s starting or rebuilding college programs at places like Peru State, Canton Tech and Alfred State, where he left before the team played its first game.
“I’ve coached at all levels, covered the gamut, and I’ve never really seen any difference,” Saban said after being hired to coach Alfred in upstate New York in 1994. “My coaching techniques are pretty much the same, with some adjustments for what younger players can and can’t do.”