With the benefit of perspective, it can be fun to look back from a career’s peak to its early days - to appreciate when some of the biggest names in our sport were relatively unknown assistants, struggling to make a name for themselves. To think of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly riding the bus at Grand Valley State, or a young Urban Meyer as a fresh-faced Ohio State graduate assistant-
Heck, names we’ve come to know as titans of their industry turn up together in some pretty unexpected places. The 1999 Cincinnati Bearcats, who went 3-9 (including an 0-6 record in Conference USA play, and a win over #9 Ron Dayne-led Wisconsin), featured both future Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin as a defensive assistant, and future Texas Bowl-participating Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher as offensive coordinator.
I got to thinking about another such collection of talent this week, as I watched the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrate their fifth title in the last nine years.
It’s fair to assert that Nick Saban may well be the greatest college football coach of all time. He’s tied Bear Bryant’s record of six national championships (arguably surpassing the Bear when you consider several of Alabama’s title claims in Bryant’s tenure remain disputed, where only Saban’s first title with LSU is shared in any meaningful way). He’s won consistently and demonstrated a sustained level of excellence despite a constant outflow of assistants to rival head coaching jobs.
Prior to Alabama, prior to the Miami Dolphins or LSU or Michigan State, though, he was the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns from 1991 to 1994.
(The Cleveland Browns were a team that played in the National Football League from 1950-1995 before moving to Baltimore and becoming the Ravens. After a fan outcry, the team agreed to leave their name, colors and history in Cleveland, where they were sealed in a metal box and buried at the bottom of Lake Erie, never to be seen again. No football team has ever replaced them, despite cruel hoaxes that would suggest otherwise).
“Wow, Nick Saban as your defensive coordinator, you must’ve had a hell of a head coach!”
Well, yeah. The head coach on Saban’s Browns was none other than future New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest coach in NFL history, pictured here in a sweatshirt I would very much like to own.
Belichick has appeared in seven Super Bowls with the Patriots, winning five of them, with the team right back in contention for another title this year. Though his Cleveland tenure was rocky - marred by the dismissal of local hero quarterback Bernie Kosar in 1993 - and his characteristic unfriendliness with the media less readily forgiven without the cover his later success now provides, he would later ascend to consideration as one of the sport’s all-time greats.
“Wow, the greatest college coach of all time and the greatest pro coach of all time, coaching together on one team! What a collection of talent!” But wait - there’s more.
In the front office, the team featured former Browns and Crimson Tide tight end Ozzie Newsome, a player once described by Bear Bryant as “the greatest end in Alabama history and that includes Don Hutson. A total team player, fine blocker, outstanding leader, great receiver with concentration, speed, hands”.
After the Browns’ move to Baltimore, Newsome was responsible for the team’s first draft as the Ravens where, with his first two picks, he selected two future NFL Hall of Famers in UCLA’s Jonathan Ogden and Miami’s Ray Lewis. He would later be fully promoted to General Manager, making him the first African-American GM in league history. A member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player, he would likely be considered for induction as a pro executive based on his three decades of front-office work. (Officials in Canton have noted that individuals are inducted once, so he would not be eligible only by merit of already being in).
“Okay, so what’s your point in all of this?”
Well, mainly, I just wanted to step back and admire the immense collection of talent in one place, a collection that managed a 31-33 record and only one playoff win in four years, a time Saban would later describe as “the worst of my life”.
It feels incomplete, however. Y’know, you look at a team like the Avengers. You’ve got big-name heroes, figures who stand alone as memorable. Iron Man. Hulk. Thor. Each of them deserves recognition for their own long resume.
But in every team like that, there’s also another figure. A character with a long career of their own - decades, even! - who, you’re just not really sure what they do. They’re always there, but they’re never the name you think of first. In the Avengers, that’s Hawkeye.
He’s been a member of the Avengers since 1965, but really - what does he do? Hey, everyone run through what you bring to the team, would you?
“I’m a charismatic billionaire with a flying suit of weapon-heavy armor.”
“I turn into the strongest being on Earth when I’m angry.”
“I am an actual god.”
While Hawkeye has no superhuman powers, he is at the very peak of human conditioning. He is an exceptional fencer, acrobat and marksman, having been trained from childhood in the circus.
“Cool, you’re a god and all, yeah, I’ve been really into Crossfit...”
Anyways. The 1994 Cleveland Browns, the last good professional football team I ever personally rooted for, they had an Iron Man. They had a Hulk. They had a Thor.
Did they have a Hawkeye, too?
They sure did.