An evening with Coach Saban

October, 16, 2009
10/16/09
9:41
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They come early and stay late.

They’re there to see the most recognizable face in the state of Alabama right now.
Marvin Gentry-US PRESSWIRE
Coach Nick Saban has Alabama off to a 6-0 start.

Nick Saban.

During football season, Thursday night at the Buffalo Wild Wings on McFarland Boulevard might as well be nirvana for the Alabama fans, who turn out in force for Saban's weekly radio show, "Hey, Coach!"

It’s their chance to see Saban, talk to Saban, get their picture made with Saban and reach out and touch the guy who’s returned Alabama’s proud football program to national prominence.

Even with security, Saban has a hard time getting into the place. They all want him to sign something -- older men, younger kids, soccer moms.

One guy wearing a crimson T-shirt that reads “The Bear is looking down” grins with pride as Saban takes his seat at the table. He gets there right as the show starts.

No, he’s not late, not Mr. Stickler for Detail. Rather, he’s in his car making one last recruiting call. With Saban, there’s never a wasted second when it comes to recruiting.

Maybe that’s why he’s usually right back on the phone after he navigates his way out of the restaurant when the show is over.

On this particular night, I’m the invited media guest on the show and get to ask some questions.

I think about asking Saban to compare this defense to last year’s defense or asking him to compare his talent now at Alabama to the talent he left behind at LSU or asking him if the program’s ahead of expectations.

Of course, if you’ve spent any time around Saban, you know all three are no-nos. He hates making comparisons, and the only thing he hates more is talking about expectations.

Pee Wee calls the show. He does every Thursday. So does Harold, who gives Saban a scouting report on what he needs to watch for in this South Carolina game.

Saban’s fired up, too, as fired up as host Tom Roberts has seen him in a while. As a precaution, they’ve got the delay on, just in case Saban drops a couple of swear words.

And later on, he does let a D-word fly in trying to drive home a point about being focused.

During the breaks, Saban works the room. His wife, Terry, and his mother, Mary Saban, are both in attendance and sitting at the table right in front of the stage.

Terry comes every week.

A female fan and her daughter present Terry with a carved jack-o-lantern with “The Sabans” carved into the front along with a big letter “A.”

Saban, who has a much better sense of humor than he’s given credit for, genuinely enjoys the evening. He’s personable with the fans, patient with them, poses for as many pictures as the hour will allow and cracks a few jokes.

And if somebody asks a bad question, he's been known to gig them.


He tells me to jump in any time I want, and I quickly tell him that he’s the one they came to hear -- not me.

I do ask him about some of the defensive numbers the Alabama staff charts and which ones he thinks are the most revealing. Saban’s answer is a long and detailed one. No coach I deal with explains the game better than Saban, and somewhere along the way after reminding everybody that the only role he plays on the defense is serving as defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s graduate assistant, he says that explosive plays and points allowed are what matter most.

The Alabama staff also does a detailed analysis on the impact turnovers have in a game, and Saban says the Tide’s analysis has shown that each turnover is worth 3.5 to 4 points in a game.

As far as how involved he is in the game plan (and everybody knows that he is), Saban joked that he might interject a few things during the week and occasionally even writes something down.

There is no detail too small for Saban.

On every question he gets from the audience or over the phone, he writes down the name of the person asking the question and what the question is about. That way, he can answer it fully.

One of the fans in attendance is headed to Afghanistan for military service in the near future, and Saban very sincerely thanks him for his service to this country and tells him that he may join him over in the Middle East next year to visit with the American troops.

Roberts, a veteran host, doesn’t bother with some of the questions. He knows better. For instance, somebody has e-mailed a question wanting to know about the pants Saban wears on game day and where he might get a pair like that.

I get the last question, and knowing what a good relationship Saban and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier share, ask him not about a matchup between the two on the football field, but a matchup between the two on the back nine at Augusta.

Both men have played famed Augusta National.

Saban laughs and is quick to point out that he doesn’t play any golf during the season.

As for who would win, Saban concedes that Spurrier is the better player, but adds that Spurrier plays a lot more, too.

Something tells me that Saban wouldn’t concede so easily on the course.

If he’s playing, he’s playing to win. Just ask the guys who are in his lunchtime basketball group during the offseason.

Anyway, the show’s over and Roberts is thanking all the sponsors. The hard part is about to begin for Saban, getting out of the restaurant. He signs everything from shirts, to houndstooth hats to footballs on his way out.

And finally, with the help of security and his trusted communications director, Jeff Purinton, he makes it to his car, which is sitting just outside the door.

From there, it’s back home … but not before he makes a few more recruiting calls.

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