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Petrino vs. Saban: Only the beginning

9/18/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

If they feel a certain kinship, they're not saying it.

They're highly complimentary of each other. They've both been accused of being coaching nomads, and they both probably won't be included in any reunions at their most recent NFL coaching stops.

Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino are more alike than they are dissimilar. Saban's the defensive guru and Petrino the offensive guru. Saban won a national championship at LSU before trying his hand in the NFL. Petrino built Louisville into a national power before taking his shot in the NFL.

And, now, here they are about to face each other for the first time as college head coaches.

Of course, both men have about as much interest in revisiting their coaching pasts as they do in revealing what their first play will be on Saturday or opening up their practices to anybody with a camera or a notepad.

What they agree on is that they're happy in college football. It's where both feel like they belong.

And maybe enduring disappointing stints in the NFL -- and the kind of nightmarish exits you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy -- was what they needed to reinforce how much they belonged in the college game.

Saban and Petrino come face-to-face on Saturday when Alabama and Arkansas meet at Razorback Stadium, and both men insist they've been way too busy to consider the ironies of how they arrived here.

Saban said he and Petrino never talked when Petrino was in the process of leaving the Atlanta Falcons for the Arkansas job before the season was over last year. The Falcons' players trashed Petrino unmercifully.

Saban received similar treatment when he left the Miami Dolphins after only two years to take the Alabama job and did so after publicly saying that he wasn't going to be the Alabama coach.

The two men did talk some at the SEC meetings this past spring in Destin, Fla., although Saban said it wasn't necessarily about the manner in which they left their NFL jobs.

"There's always going to be a lot of scrutiny in our business," said Saban, in the second year of an eight-year, $32 million contract. "It's difficult sometimes in the circumstances you're put in. There's a lot of tough decisions you have to make. Bobby's a great coach and a good guy. I'm sure he's going to do a great job and is doing a great job at Arkansas right now. They have an outstanding coach. I think they're going to have a great program. They've had a great program, and I think he'll build on that tradition."

Petrino is careful not to draw any parallels to his and Saban's re-entry back into college coaching, but he has nothing but good things to say about the guy he'll be facing Saturday.

"I've got a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Saban and have been watching how he coaches and what he's done for a long time," said Petrino, who makes $2.85 million annually at Arkansas. "You look at what he did at Michigan State and what he did at LSU and how quickly now he's turning Alabama around.

"He's a terrific coach and does an unbelievable job."

The question that will dog both men now, at least until they're in their current jobs for a number of years, is how long they plan to stay.

Saban, who's never stayed anywhere as a head coach for longer than five years, is adamant that this is it for him. He said in the spring that there are "no other horizons for me."

Petrino, who's had 10 different jobs since 1990 (counting assistant positions), made a similar statement at the SEC spring meetings when he said, "I feel like this needs to be my last job."

Who knows?

Maybe Saturday's game in the Ozarks is the start of the next great coaching rivalry in the SEC.

Given their credentials (and their pasts), it sure ought to be fun.