MELBOURNE, Fla. — High school football in September, Florida style, comes with high humidity, a half-moon overhead, a pleasant Atlantic breeze cooling the temperature to 82 degrees.
The Martin County Tigers have bused up the coast from Stuart to open their season against the mighty Melbourne Bulldogs, the defending Region 6 AAAA champions who thrashed them by scores of 44-0 and 44-6 last season. Reporters are out in force--but not all to cover the game. They are there to cover a coach. An assistant coach.
Louis Henry Saban, twice the coach of the year in the old American Football League and the man who put O.J. Simpson's professional career in gear, has resurfaced in Florida. He will turn 65 next month and, as defensive coordinator for Martin County High School, has finally found a job he likes. Or has he?
You remember Lou Saban: the Marco Polo of coaching, the Sultan of Sayonara. Now you see him, now you don't.
For those keeping score, Saban held 11 head coaching jobs in 35 years, two of them with the Buffalo Bills. He was fired three times, but he resigned seven times. The other time, in his first job at Case Institute in Cleveland, the school dropped the program.
Once, at the University of Cincinnati, he tried being an athletic director. For 19 days. That time, he fired himself, but whatever way it happened, it was always toodle-Lou at the end.
Now, in the late summer of '86, he is far from the mainstream of his profession, with Martin County, playing tenaciously on defense, nursing a 6-0 lead at halftime. As the Melbourne County marching band plays "Rock Around the Clock," Saban is summoned to the press box for a radio interview on WMMB, "1240 on your dial." It isn't NBC but, hey, he's been there.
As the second half starts, Saban stands beside another defensive coach, Mike Lundgren, and quietly calls the defenses for Lundgren to signal in to Don Yocum, the middle linebacker. By the fourth quarter, Melbourne is threatening.
The Tigers stop one drive at their 30-yard line; then, on the next play, quarterback David Giunta throws a touchdown pass to Charles Mosley for a 12-0 lead. But Melbourne comes right back and scores on a long pass, making it 12-6, and soon is on the move again.
Saban's last football job was at the University of Central Florida, where Bill Cubit, who is half his age, was an assistant. When Saban left in the middle of the '84 season, Cubit took over, and Saban again went to work for his old friend, George Steinbrenner, as a scout for the Yankees in the Carolinas. He built a house in the hills near Hendersonville, N.C., fully expecting to settle down.
Then Cubit took the Martin County job this year and started looking for a staff. He phoned Saban for suggestions, but then the talks took a different turn.
As Cubit tells it: "I said, 'Hey, Coach, I've got a job for you. It pays $22,000 a year, and I'll let you drive my Firebird.'
"He laughed. Then he called back the same afternoon.
"He says, 'You serious?'
"I said, 'Well, yeah. I'm serious if you're serious.' "
Said Saban: "I decided, well, what the heck, scouting season was about over. I didn't want to sit up in a tree house."
Some people feared that Cubit had hired a fox to guard his hen house. Cubit differs.
"We've got a unique relationship," Cubit said. "The thing my wife said at first was, 'How are you gonna feel? Is it gonna hurt you?' I said, 'If I can get Lou Saban, I mean, gee, I'm an idiot if I don't do that.'
"When he first came down to coach, I'd look over at him and feel good about him being there. Hey, anything (publicity) he gets I'm happy for. I bring in every article. ESPN called today and I rushed to him and said, 'Hey, coach, this is great,' and he said, 'Well, if it helps our program I'll do it.' "
Cubit isn't concerned about his players becoming star-struck.
"When Sports Illustrated came, our kids got the biggest kick out of it," he said. "All of our JV kids were in the picture.
"A lot of good things are happening in this program. It puts Martin County on the map. We may even get some recruits out of it. Maybe they'll move into town. But they've gotta be 6-4 and 250. We don't have any of those kids."
Saban, who also does some teaching in the school's work experience program, another subject in which he seems to be qualified, has given the team a lift, even if most of the players had never heard of Lou Saban until this summer.
"We know now what a great coach he is," Yocum said. "I mean, when Sports Illustrated comes to your practice . . . "
Melbourne's Tom McIntyre, the rival coach, wasn't worried about Martin County having a ringer.
"I think it's a great thing, a man willing to help a program and some kids," McIntyre said. "This is what Lou Saban has done throughout his life. I don't look at him as a ringer. I think it's a big plus for high school football here."
If Saban ever had roots, they apparently have withered away.