How Bill Belichick and Nick Saban's Friendship Helped Them Rule Modern Football

A look back at an HBO documentary that explores their four-decade alliance

Bill Belichick and Nick Saban's football friendship
A shot from HBO's "Belichick and Saban: The Art of Coaching." (HBO)

Long before Nick Saban retired from coaching Alabama after losing the Rose Bowl and Bill Belichick was fired as the head coach in New England after leading the Patriots to a dismal 4-13 season, HBO and NFL Films examined the longtime friendship between the two football legends in the 2019 documentary Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching. Now might be a good time to revisit it. Here’s our story from December 2019.

Under the leadership of head coach Nick Saban, the Alabama Crimson Tide have made four straight appearances in the College Football Playoff National Championship game, winning it twice. In nearly the same timeframe, Saban’s former boss Bill Belichick has led the New England Patriots to four of the last five Super Bowls, winning three of them.

Though there are certainly other contributing factors, the success the Patriots and Crimson Tide have found on the field is due at least in part to the friendship their respective coaches have developed off of it.

That friendship began at a dinner in 1982, when Belichick’s father Steve introduced his son to Saban, an assistant coach he was sharing an office with at Navy. A new documentary from HBO and NFL Films called Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching, which debuted last night, captures that relationship and their mutual goal of football greatness.

Born just six months apart, Belichick — who was working as the linebackers and special teams coach for the Giants at the time — and Saban hit it off, and have remained close ever since.

Bill Belichick and Nick Saban's football friendship
Ex-Dolphins coach Nick Saban and Bill Belichick before a game at Gillette Stadium. (Getty)
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The twists and turns of their football lives — from coaching together with the Browns to facing off when Saban briefly coached the Dolphins to the annual meeting they share to discuss the game — are well-documented in The Art of Coaching, which was shot over the course of four hours at Saban’s office and home in Alabama.

The film’s opening segment sets the stage for what’s to follow as Belichick, after having asked director Kenny Rodgers and the rest of the NFL Films crew to leave Saban’s office so the two can catch up without a camera in the room, reacts to his friend complimenting him on winning his sixth Super Bowl.

“We were good for one-third of the season,” Belichick is captured saying by a single-shot camera that was left running in the room. “We were shit for two-thirds of the year.”

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It’s a funny moment, and one that typifies the brand of wry, unapologetic honesty most fans associate with the two legendary coaches. They’re both of Croatian ancestry, and joke about being related somewhere up the line. Much of the film consists of the two coaches talking about the thing they know best — football — from the way their fathers coached the sport to what it takes to win to how contemporary players use social media.

“Who cares how many likes you get from 2,000 people you don’t even know?” Belichick says as Saban nods his approval. “There are 53 guys in the locker room. Those are the 53 that matter.”

There’s also a good amount of footage from their days working together with the Browns in the early ’90s.

Must-watch material for Crimson Tide and Patriots fans, the film will also appeal to anyone who wants to get a glimpse inside the minds of two men who have been able to rise to the tip-top of their profession without letting their egos get in the way of a genuine friendship.

“When you get to the top of the mountain, you become the mountain,” Saban says at one point. “Because everybody is shooting at you, to be who you are.”

“But the great ones can get to the top of the mountain and say, ‘You know what? I can be even better,’” Belichick responds.

He would know — and his friendship with Saban is clearly one of the reasons why.

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