College Football Playoff: Alabama's Nick Saban and the friend who helped show him the way

Former Tampa coach Dennis Fryzel was a mentor and close friend to Nick Saban.
Published January 6 2017
Updated January 7 2017

Gayle Fryzel treasures a photograph, snapped off a TV screen, of her husband, Dennis, and their friend Nick. It's from 1998, after the Michigan State football team, a heavy underdog, toppled No. 1 Ohio State. Dennis ran up to Nick, the Michigan State head coach, during an interview.

"Dennis couldn't help himself," Gayle said. "He grabbed Nick and planted a kiss right on his face on national television. It was the cutest thing."

It was Denny and Nick. It was the most natural thing in the world. They were buddies.

Nick Saban is the king of college football. The Alabama coach takes his undefeated Crimson Tide into Monday's College Football Playoff championship rematch against Clemson with a chance at a fifth national title in eight seasons.

You probably have never heard of Denny Fryzel. He died eight years ago. But his name, and boundless spirit, should ring a local bell. Fryzel was the last head coach for the captivating University of Tampa football program before it was dropped by school administrators after the 1974 season.

Behind all great coaches, there are the people who helped show them the way, shared their football minds and passion. That was what Denny Fryzel meant to Nick Saban.

"You got that right," Saban said.

Saban was on the phone from Tuscaloosa.

"He was a mentor I always trusted. He gave me advice that was in my best interest and no one else's. Most of us don't have a lot of friends like that in our lives."

• • •

They met as coaches at Syracuse in 1977. Fryzel was the defensive coordinator. He talked the head coach into hiring Saban to coach outside linebackers. Fryzel was 35. Saban was 25.

They were opposites in many ways.

Saban was reserved, quiet, serious.

Fryzel also was serious about his profession.

But he was Denny, gregarious, outrageous.

Fryzel joined Tampa in 1972, hired by coach Earle Bruce to be the Spartans' defensive coordinator. Fryzel had a nonstop motor. He was always teaching. He was a fanatic about technique. He did not live life. He wrestled it to the ground. Denny was the guy who butted players' helmets even though he didn't wear one himself.

Fryzel was on the UT staff when the Spartans won the 1972 Tangerine Bowl over Kent State, which featured future Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert and a senior defensive back from Fairmont, W. Va.: Nick Saban.

After Bruce left to coach Iowa State, Fryzel was Tampa's coach for the program's final two seasons. He was 30 when he got the job.

"Football drove his train," said Dan Lea, a lineman on those final two UT teams. "He got so anxious before games at old Tampa Stadium he'd go throw up before we ran on the field. That was Denny for you. We loved him. That energy. If he jumped off a building, you'd think he'd fly."

After the UT program was shut down, Fryzel tried the NFL, coaching special teams for the Bucs in 1976, the team's inaugural season. But his wild ways didn't sit well with coach John McKay. He kept telling Fryzel to calm down.

One game, Fryzel was chasing a Bucs returner down the sideline. They were stride for stride. Fryzel's legs became tangled in McKay's headset cord. It spun McKay's head around like a mower blade.

Denny Fryzel coached one season with the Bucs.

"He was a great coach and a tremendous guy," said former Bucs personnel director Jerry Angelo, who coached defensive line under Fryzel at UT and Syracuse. "If you didn't like Denny, you didn't like people."

Fryzel and Saban, so different, one outgoing, one enclosed, formed a bond at Syracuse.

"His energy, his enthusiasm, his ability to affect other people with his leadership," Saban said. "I just had a lot of respect for his knowledge. He had a philosophy on how he wanted things done. He believed in it. That's one of the things that struck me the most, that there are a lot of different ways to do things, but you've got to have conviction in what you believe. That's the indelible impression he left on me."

Said Angelo: "They really were joined at the hip."

"They just loved each other," Gayle said. "They both shared that passion and discipline. It was cute, really, because Dennis was so interested and involved and proud of Nick. He knew he'd be special."

The Fryzels became close with Saban and his wife, Terry.

"Terry and Dennis are the only ones who could make Nick belly laugh," Gayle said.

"He was such an outgoing person, fun loving," Saban said. "He was a guy who deep down was very serious about being successful. He really, and I envy this sometimes, he really knew how to strike a balance between having a good time, making people laugh, but still being focused on what he wanted to do."

• • •

Fryzel and Saban spent one season at Syracuse. They were reunited at Ohio State in 1980. Fryzel had joined Bruce's staff as defensive coordinator in 1979 and convinced Bruce to hire Saban to coach defensive backs.

They worked in Columbus for two season before being fired in a general purge after the 1981 season.

But not before Fryzel made a stand that would go down in Denny-Nick history.

Fryzel told his friend Bruce — they rode to work together each day — that, sure, fire me, but Nick Saban is the best coach on this staff. Don't fire him, whatever you do.

"Denny was a very loyal person," Saban said. "A loyal friend."

Fryzel never coached again. People thought he would be lost without competition. Instead, he and Gayle returned to Tampa, and Denny put his overdrive to use in the business world as a manufacturer's rep. In 1994, the Fryzels moved to an Atlanta suburb, and Denny became president of a struggling high-tech company that he eventually turned into a winner. Everyone at the office called Denny "Coach."

Fryzel never lost touch with Saban. He attended games wherever Saban coached, stalking the sideline with him.

"Sometimes you'd see him and Nick cross paths during games, Nick heading one way down the sideline, Dennis heading the other," Gayle said. "Dennis could never get the game out of his blood. Nick shared a lot with him. That meant a lot."

Fryzel was a trusted Saban adviser. They would disappear before games to talk. They would disappear after games to talk. Saban leaned on Fryzel as a sounding board.

"It's all true, very, very true," Saban said. "Almost in every career decision I made, I would always consult with him. I just respected his knowledge of the profession and always felt my wife, my family, my well-being was always first in his heart."

In 2005, Saban left LSU to coach the NFL's Dolphins. Nearing the end of his second season with Miami, his first losing season as a head coach, Saban was in Buffalo. The Dolphins lost to the Bills 21-0. Fryzel was with him.

"It was a cold, wet, rainy day," Saban said. "Denny might have mentioned something about, 'Is this what you really want to do? Is there something else out there?'

"Denny was a college football guy. I always thought he was partial to that being the best path for me."

Fryzel began talking up the Alabama job that Saban eventually took, 10 years ago this week. Denny, trying to get the jump, drove to Tuscaloosa with Gayle and began house hunting, looking at neighborhoods, not for themselves but for the Sabans.

The rest is college football history.

• • •

Denny Fryzel wouldn't live to see an Alabama dynasty.

"Denny was actually at the Sugar Bowl when he first got diagnosed," Saban said.

Alabama was ending its 2008 season, its second under Saban. Gayle and Terry were off to a parade, but Denny struggled to get out of the hotel bed. His back hurt.

It was kidney cancer.

Near the end, Denny and Gayle spent time at Saban's lake house in Georgia. At the very end, Saban visited Fryzel at home the day before he died. Denny was on the couch. Nick Saban pulled a chair close, until they were knee to knee.

"The last thing I said was thanks for being such a great friend," Saban said.

"They laughed together," Gayle said. "It was so sweet."

Dennis Fryzel passed on July 6, 2009. Eight weeks later, Alabama opened its season by beating Virginia Tech in Atlanta. Saban gave Gayle a game ball.

Alabama won its other 13 games, too, going 14-0 to claim its first national title under Saban. He sent a pendant to Gayle, the top of a championship ring. Saban has a photo of his buddy Denny in the Alabama locker room.

Gayle Fryzel remarried. Her husband, Rob, knew Denny. Gayle said Rob talks about Denny more than she does. That was Denny for you. Gayle and Rob will be at Monday's championship game. So will Denny, somewhere deep inside the dynasty builder pacing the Alabama sideline.

You got that right.