The passing of Bills two-time AFL Championship coach Lou Saban over the weekend was certainly met with sadness among his former players from the AFL days. Saban coached the Bills for two separate stints from 1962-66 and 1972-76. His overall record with Buffalo (68-45-4) is second only to Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy in winning percentage (.602). Saban, who had been battling heart problems for some time, was 87.
"Pro football has lost one of its pioneer coaches in Lou Saban," said former Bills quarterback Jack Kemp in a statement. "He was on of the great coaches from the early days of the American Football League including Sid Gilman, Al Davis and Hank Stram. Coach Saban's leadership is what set the stage for our Buffalo Bills' AFL championships in 1964 and 1965."
Despite the sorrow over his passing, remembering their sideline boss has also conjured up a lot of pleasant memories for many of the players who considered him a father figure.
"My rookie year I was single and when Thanksgiving rolled around he asked Booker (Edgerson) and I if we had any place to go for dinner because he knew we were both single," said former receiver Ed Rutkowski. "So he invited Booker and me over to his house to share Thanksgiving dinner with his family."
"I've known him since I was 18," said Edgerson, who was coached by Saban in college at Western Illinois as well as with the Bills. "He helped to mold me into a professional player by getting me to demand more of myself. And we'd go over his house for dinners here in Buffalo. Everybody would always say, 'Booker that's your daddy.' And I'd say, 'Yeah you're right.' We'd been together for a long time."
Saban made sure he came to know his players, their interests and their personalities. But it wasn't only out of the goodness of his heart. He used that knowledge of each player, so when it was time to get the most out of them on the field he knew what buttons to push.
"He was a great motivator," said Rutkowski. "He had this unique ability to tap that special thing in each one of us as players to bring out the best in us. That was his forte as a head coach."
But Saban wasn't a screamer all the time. He expertly mixed praise with constructive criticism so his players always seemed to understand the purpose of his demands.
"Lou could be on you so hard at times and then in the next breath or next few minutes be patting you on the back and you don't even remember the negative that just happened," said Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw. "I don't think that he was there to rile you up. He was there to make sure that you capitalized on your pluses and you didn't think about the minuses in your game. I never remember him getting on me so hard that I didn't want to play for him. I wanted to play for him every minute and I wanted him to be proud of me because he took an interest in me. He did that with every player."
One specific example of Saban's motivational tactics was recalled by Rutkowski.
"When Elbert Dubenion got hurt and some of our other receivers were injured, Glenn Bass and I had to step up and start for a whole bunch of games," Rutkowski said. "And after practice one day Lou came up to me and put his arm around me and said, 'You know son, this whole game depends on you.' And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'You've got to have a hell of a game and if you don't we're going to lose this week.' So I was really nervous, but I did my very best and I had a pretty good game. And I later found out he said the same thing to Glenn Bass. So he knew how to get the best out of all of us."
While there was a balance to Saban's coaching demeanor he still demanded the most from every player on his roster and refused to tolerate unintelligent play.
"Lou was a perfectionist," said Shaw. "He let you know in a hurry when he felt like your play was not up to the standard that you are capable of playing. There were many times that he got into my ear for making a stupid mistake on the field that hurt a particular play or was one of the causes for us not winning a ball game. But you knew deep down that he wasn't doing that to demean you. He was doing that to make you better."
And Saban's desire to make his players the best they could be led to a mutual admiration that still exists even after his passing.
"You just had a tremendous amount of respect for him," said Rutkowski. "He was very intense and very focused, and knew what it took to win a football game."