Skip Hall, a longtime assistant coach during the Don James era, coached Nick Saban at Kent State, and became close with Chris Petersen in Boise.
The cast of characters on the 1972 Kent State Golden Flashes football team was legendary.
There was Don James, future College Football Hall of Fame coach. There was Jack Lambert, future Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker. And there was Nick Saban, a sure-fire future College Football Hall of Fame coach.
Even more iconic was the cast characters that greeted the Flashes in the locker room at halftime of the 1972 Tangerine Bowl.
There was Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Goofy and Pluto, all dressing alongside the Kent State football team in their shared locker room at the Orlando stadium.
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Walt Disney World being nearby, the Disney characters were brought in for a performance at the bowl game. Their presence in the locker room only served to annoy Skip Hall as he huddled his Kent State players.
“I was trying to get real serious with our players and make some halftime adjustments,” said Hall, a defensive assistant coach, “and (the Disney characters) are sitting there watching what we’re doing. It was kind of hard to keep our train of thought.”
Hall chuckled at the memory in a phone interview Thursday. Story time with Skip turned into a half-hour conversation about his three decades as a college coach, about the qualities he saw in a young Nick Saban, about the qualities he saw in an experienced Chris Petersen in Boise, and the characteristics the two coach share as Alabama and Washington prepare for their Dec. 31 national semifinal showdown.
That 1972 season at Kent State remains the most successful in the history of the small Ohio program.
In James’ second season as head coach, the Flashes won their first Mid-American Conference championship, which to date remains the program’s only conference title. Saban was a senior safety on that team; Lambert the mean-muggin’ linebacker; and future UW offensive coordinator/Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel a tight end.
Hall was a young defensive assistant on James’ staff then, and he says there were early signs of the wildly successful coach Saban would become at Alabama.
“He was a good player,” Hall recalled. “Wasn’t real big, obviously, but he was tough, competitive. He refused to lose, basically.
“Even back then, he was such a detail-oriented guy and didn’t accept mistakes by himself or others very well. You could tell if he chose to do it and was willing to put in the time, boy, he could be pretty good (as a coach).”
After that ’72 season, James helped convince Saban to stick around the program as a graduate-assistant coach. In 1973, in addition to their duties coaching the varsity team, Hall was the head coach of the freshman team and Saban was the freshman defensive coordinator.
“The things he picked up from our program, the fundamental things from Coach James — the discipline; the attention to detail; sound, fundamental coaching — those things he learned at an early age, and he just built on them ever since,” Hall said.
Hall followed James to Seattle in 1975 and spent 12 seasons as UW assistant during the Huskies’ “Camelot Years,” as Hall calls them.
In 1977, James’ third season at UW, the Huskies won the Pac-8 conference championship and, led by Warren Moon, beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
And here the Huskies are now, in their third year of Petersen’s regime, and they’re in the College Football Playoff for the first time. Hall can’t say he’s surprised.
In 1987, Hall left UW to become the Boise State head coach. Now 72, he co-owns a financial-planning firm with his son in Boise, where he became close with Petersen. They attended the same church and did speaking engagements together; and Hall’s granddaughter, Jayden, and Petersen’s youngest son, Sam, were classmates and friends in Boise.
It was Hall who helped connect Petersen and the Huskies three years ago.
What qualities connect Petersen and Saban? There are several, Hall says, noting the “excellence and integrity” both strive for.
A few years ago, Hall planned a trip to Tuscaloosa to attend an Alabama-Tennessee game. He left a message at the Alabama football offices for Saban, hoping for a moment to stop by and say hi to an old friend.
Hall was taken aback when Saban personally hosted him and his party for a first-class tour just a few hours before the game.
“He had us come into his office and we had a nice visit, took some pictures, told some stories, and then he gave us a tour of Alabama’s whole football facilities,” Hall said.
’Bama beat Tennessee that day, of course. ’Bama beats everybody. Saban has won five national championships in his career (four with the Crimson Tide, one at LSU), one shy of ’Bama’s legendary coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“When they’re comparing him in the same breath at Bear Bryant, that’s pretty good stuff,” Hall said. “But Nick puts everything into it. He doesn’t just dictate. He believes in what they’re doing and he’s doing it him self. He’s a good model that way. And that’s how Don James was too.”
Speaking of Bear Bryant, Hall introduced himself to the legend in 1969. Hall was a young graduate assistant at Colorado, which had just whipped Alabama in the Liberty Bowl. Back then, there was a big banquet after the game, and as Hall was about to walk into the restroom, out walked Bryant. Hall quickly built up the nerve to say hello.
“He shook my hand and looked me in the eye: ‘Skipper, how have you been?’ Like we’d known each other for years,” Hall said with a laugh. “He had that same characteristic that Saban has. When you’re with them one on one, they’re there, they’re with you, looking you in the eye. They have this great combination of strength and warmth.”
The Huskies, of course, are major underdogs against Alabama in the Peach Bowl. The popular theory — prayer? — around Seattle is, “If you give Chris Petersen a month to prepare, anything can happen.”
Count Hall among the theory’s subscribers. He knows Petersen, who has hosted Hall for a couple practices at UW the past few seasons. He also knows what it takes to pull off a major upset.
Hall was on the staff that devised a new wrinkle that helped vault the Huskies over Oklahoma in the 1985 Orange Bowl, one of the greatest wins in UW history.
“We were heavy, heavy underdogs and we devised a trap system. They had a nose guard named Tony Casillas that we couldn’t block,” Hall said. “So we’d chip block him. He’d start up field and then one of our tackles would hit him in the side and actually open a huge hole right up the middle. That buffalo’d ’em. It was simple but effective.”
Oklahoma had no answer to that blocking scheme. In fact, Hall said, several Sooners coaches flew to Seattle a few weeks later to sit down with UW coaches to find out exactly how they formulated that scheme.
Can Petersen and the Huskies come up with something similar before New Year’s Eve?
“I think anything is possible,” Hall said. “But they’re going to have to find something — because that Alabama defense is really, really good.”