TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Jog forward. Throw.
Jog back. Catch.
The routine was no different for Greg McElroy at Thursday’s first practice of the season. All was normal, except maybe for the television camera strapped to his helmet or the nearby film crew, which tediously documented each bead of sweat as it hit the grass.
Yes, the veil has been lifted.
Once the Kremlin of the college football world, the Alabama football complex is embracing a new brand of openness, which, until recently, would have sounded ludicrous. In the coming weeks, two behind-the-scenes film projects will hit the market that never existed in the first three years of Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa.
McElroy’s helmet cam is part of ESPNU’s “Alabama All-Access” program that will begin airing excerpts Monday before the full hour-long show hits cable Aug. 18. Nine days later, the feature-length documentary “Nick Saban Gamechanger” hits movie theater screens across the state.
Both projects took cameras, boom mics and producers deep inside the fortress off Bear Bryant Drive. They were in practices, coaches meetings, and even Saban’s Georgia lake house to tell the stories most didn’t know existed.
But where does the access end and the secrecy return?
Saban did, after all, turn “clutter” into the buzz word for media-related distractions in the weeks leading up to the BCS National Championship Game in January.
“Gamechanger” producers Grant Guffin and Trey Reynolds said privacy was requested only a few times in the two months they spent as a fly in Saban’s wall. For ESPN, its press release called the access “unprecedented,” but when asked to define any limits, network publicists offered none.
Saban offered some insight into the matter at Wednesday’s news conference.
“They’ve got rules and regulations like everybody else in this organization including me,” Saban said with a mic pack clipped to his shirt with a camera rolling tape a few feet to his right. “… Everything that we’ve ever done in a situation like this has been very professionally done. They’ve never violated any professional courtesy or rule that we’ve sort of suggested for them to follow.”
Guard Barrett Jones hasn’t taken offense to the roving film crews who’ve inhabited the complex for the past week.
“It’s definitely not something you can’t focus on,” Jones said. “If you focus too much on the cameras and not enough on what you’re doing, it definitely can become clutter. But I think it’s only clutter if you let it become clutter.”
Being distracted by a few strange faces is one thing, but wearing a few extra pounds on a helmet is requires a little more investment. McElroy laughed about his experience after practice, but admitted it was impossible to ignore.
“It was literally pulling my helmet down because in those first couple periods, you’re not buckling your chin strap,” he said. “… It’s not something that I would complain about at all. It was kind of a rewarding experience because it’s kind of cool for people to be able to see things from our perspective.”
The focus of “Gamechanger” differs greatly from the ESPN project that appears to be reminiscent of the popular HBO series “Hard Knocks” that follows an NFL franchise through training camp. The focus of Guffin and Reynolds’ project was squarely on Saban, not so much on the team.
Gaining access to Saban’s life wasn’t easy and their production company Flashlight Media was turned down when presenting the idea last summer. Then when filmmakers came from all directions after winning the national title, Saban came back to the Birmingham natives Guffin and Reynolds.
Filming spanned two months in the spring as the group shot hundreds of hours of film. Guffin said they weren’t sure if the project would reach completion given Saban’s distaste for any form of distraction while working.
Anxiety, both admitted, was high on the first day of filming.
“We didn’t quite know how he’d react with cameras being around,” Reynolds said. “We were like, well, how close can we get? Can we follow him around here? Can we follow him there? We just felt our way through the first three days in the office and practice. He just went about his business. He didn’t look at the cameras. If we wanted to shoot it, we’d better keep up with him because he was on the move.”
After Saban saw the non-invasive nature of the Flashlight crew, Guffin and Reynolds felt more secure in the success of the project that looks at all aspects of his life.
Soon enough, all cameras — helmet or otherwise — will retreat and the figurative walls will return.
This access can’t last forever.
Soon enough, McElroy’s routine will return to normal — free of helmet cams and boom mics.
On the net
Check out the Daily Bama Blog for complete coverage of Sunday’s Fan Day including photos and videos. Just go to decaturdaily.com for more.
Snippets will air all week beginning Monday at 6 p.m. on ESPNU. The full one-hour episode airs at 6 p.m. on ESPNU and at 7 p.m. Aug. 19 on ESPN.
“Nick Saban Gamechanger”
The feature-length documentary on Nick Saban will hit theaters Aug. 27 across the state and region including the Carmike 8 in Decatur.
Carmike 15 in Columbus, Ga.
Carmike Summit in Birmingham
Regency Square in Florence
Source: The official “Gamechanger” website.