Nick Saban and Earle Bruce.
Scott Halleran /Allsport/Getty Images (left), Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images (right),

Nick Saban Was Once Fired By Ohio State, And He Never Looked Back

Nick Saban is the greatest coach of all time, but there's only one school that can ever say they fired him.

Alabama's Nick Saban is synonymous with success. The GOAT of college football coaching has more national championships than anyone in history, and he did that by rising through the ranks of programs throughout the country.

Success hasn't followed Saban exactly everywhere he's gone, however. His failed Miami Dolphins experiment drove him back to the NCAA level, but even that was a job he left on his own accord.

There's one gig — and one gig only — that the now-71-year-old legend was ever fired from.

When Ohio State Fired a GOAT

Earle Bruce greets his players in 1987.

Ohio State head coach Earle Bruce welcomes some of his players approaching the sidelines near the end of the Buckeyes' 28-12 Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M in 1987. (Getty Images)

It was Dec. 30, 1981. Ohio State, the 15th-ranked team in the country, was playing Navy in the Liberty Bowl. The Midshipmen were coming off a 3-3 tie against rival Army and hadn't averaged more than 50 passing yards per game the whole season.

Yet in Memphis, Navy quarterback Marco Pagnanelli led an air attack that put up 240 passing yards and two touchdowns — against none other than the unit led by Ohio State defensive backs coach Nick Saban. Ohio State won the game 31-28, but not before Navy took a 20-17 lead halfway through the third quarter and OSU recovered an onside kick to win the game.

It was a game that was way too close for Buckeyes head coach Earle Bruce, who — upon seeing his defensive coordinator speaking to the press afterward (despite his rule against this) — had had enough. As ESPN noted, Bruce stormed into the locker room after the game, threw things and yelled, "That's it! It's over! It's done!" Bruce fired everyone coach on the defensive staff at 8 a.m. the next day. Again, this was after a 9-3 finish and a win — and in a bowl game nonetheless.

Just like that, Saban was gone. He was 30 and didn't have a job in football. He recalled the firing to ESPN in 2016:

"What it made me realize is that you have to work to please the person that you're working for," he explained. "I really look back at all of the things that I did, the mistakes that I made — and even sometimes if you're right, it's not worth it to be right."

Things worked out all right for Saban. Somewhat ironically, he  then became the Navy defensive backs coach in 1982 — joining his buddy Steve Belichick, Bill Belichick's father, on staff. Navy was actually where Saban was originally going to play football before he changed his mind and went to Kent State.

Of course, everything after this is history. Saban moved on as an assistant at Michigan State and with the Houston Oilers before Toledo gave him his first head coaching opportunity in 1990. He went 9-2, and the Cleveland Browns hired him as the team's defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick. Stops at Michigan State, LSU, the Miami Dolphins and now Alabama have netted him seven championship rings in total, and he doesn't seem intent on stopping.

Urban Meyer and Nick Saban greet each other.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In fact, exactly 40 years after the firing, Saban led Alabama to a win over Cincinnati in the College Football Playoff semifinals, on Dec. 31, 2021, en route to the national championship game yet again. It was the same year that Saban had earlier captured a national title over an Ohio State team led by Urban Meyer.

The next time you're watching Alabama play Ohio State, just remember that Saban is probably taking that game extra personally.

MORE: Nick Saban Almost Played For Navy and Changed NCAA History