It was a tender moment in Nick Saban’s week that few people saw.
Tender and Saban are not words that regularly appear in the same sentence.
The Alabama coach had just finished an interview session moderated by ESPN’s Jesse Palmer at the ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney.
It was a typical Saban interview. He didn’t want to be there.
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He would have rather been in some room breaking down tape or on the practice field polishing the game plan for Texas in the BCS National Championship game.
Instead he was stuck with a bunch of journalists in a fancy bar.
That led to exchanges like this one:
Question: “Is this fun?”
Saban: “You know, what’s fun for me is practice. I really enjoy practice. I really enjoy being around the players. I really enjoy the teaching part of it. You know, some of the other things, it’s an entertainment business, and I really do appreciate what you all do to make our sport, college football, and what our players do important and interesting, and you create a lot of interest for a lot of other people, and I do appreciate that. And it’s important to the game.
“So I’m having fun out of respect for what you all do. That’s about as diplomatic as I can be.”
As he finished the interview, Saban turned around and saw his daughter, Kristen.
This hardcore coach, melted.
“Hey honey, I didn’t know you were here,” Saban said.
He then gave her a big hug and she jumped into some of the pictures Saban and Palmer were taking.
I tell this story for one reason, and only one reason.
It illustrates that there is a side, a very human side, to Saban that few see. What most of us see is this steely eyed coach, so focused on winning that he doesn’t enjoy the world around him.
Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who coached for Saban at LSU, said as much during the week leading up to the game. He said there was a perception of Saban that did not match with the reality he knew from his years of working at Saban’s knee. What most of us see is the intensity that Nick Saban brings to his job.
In just three seasons, he led Alabama back to the top of the college football world. He did it in his time, and in his way. He did it with an intense focus that seems unmatched. How intense is he?
He was even intense getting the traditional Gatorade shower. But it was his own fault. Those same players to which he channels the intensity brought it to the victory celebration.
“I don’t know if you noticed, but our defensive players did a pretty good job of hitting, but they’re not supposed to hit you in the head with the bucket, either,” he said. “I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t thinking about it. So the intensity of the dump was the problem.”
That is the thing you most notice about Alabama football right now is the intensity. That intensity starts at the top. And the players see it, feel it and feed off it. Linebacker Cory Reamer was asked if he thought Saban was having fun in the buildup to the title game. His answer offers an insight into what drives the coach. Or at least what his players believe drives him.
“Someone asked that yesterday while we were at the park, and the response was, ‘He doesn’t have fun,’ ” Reamer said. “But I think he’s enjoying it. He does a lot more than we do as far as film and study and stuff like that.”
And the players see that small-town West Virginia work ethic.
“It was pretty funny when we were on the plane looking back and seeing him having a computer and watching film while we were flying out here, Reamer said. “He’s always working. That’s the way he is, and it’ll never change.”
That is why Alabama is where it is. Right now, Alabama is outworking the others. And that starts with Saban.
After winning the national championship Thursday night in the Rose Bowl, Alabama athletic director Mal Moore has said plans to erect a statue of Saban at Bryant-Denny Stadium are being put in place.
That’s a good idea.
But if Saban finishes what he has started at Alabama — and note that he didn’t finish the drill at LSU after leading the Tigers to the 2003 national title — the Alabama administration will be doing more than casting his image in bronze. They’ll be making some room next to Bear Bryant’s name at the top of the stadium.
Chuck Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org