Saban was a year ahead of Pinkel. They're the coaching hotshots from a team that also included Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert. They both worked as graduate assistants under James, who went on to win a share of a national title with Washington in 1991.
"When we both became GAs, it was pretty evident to me that he could be a really, really good coach," Saban recalls. "So it's no surprise to me that he has been an outstanding coach for a number of years. We were both fortunate to have been exposed to Don James as players and as young coaches. Gary spent more time with him than I did. It certainly helped our systematic approach to how we do every part of our program, whether it's personnel, academics, developing players, whatever that may be. It doesn't surprise me at all that he's turned out to be a fantastic coach."
Pinkel said he remembers the two discussing going into coaching at the Kent State library.
"Obviously we're friends," Pinkel said. "We just kind of grew apart, because he went to a different part of the country. I think Don James had a big influence on both of us. He came to a program that was down and out and built a championship team."
That championship came more than two years after four Kent State students were killed and nine others wounded by Ohio National Guardsmen during an anti-war protest.
"Talk about a university that needed something tremendously positive to happen," Pinkel said. "Back then, we called them hippies — nice folks, a little bit different from me. But you know what? They came to games, and were into it, excited ... It united us."