- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOOVER, Ala. -- For better or worse, Nick Saban has a reputation. And after four decades of coaching, it's not likely to change.
He's gruff. He's demanding. He's hard-nosed, unrelenting and oftentimes furious.
He is, according to a survey conducted by ESPN, the most-intimidating coach in college football. Of the 58 recruits who responded to a survey, 22 selected Saban as the most intimidating coach they've spoken with. The next-highest on the list was Urban Meyer, who was selected only seven times.
What's maybe more telling: Among the 66 recruits who answered the question, "Of all the head coaches you've spoken with, who was the easiest to talk with?" none said Saban.
Amari Cooper gets it. He was once a highly sought-after recruit from South Florida, a Miami Hurricanes fan with no particular ties to the SEC or Alabama. He looked at Saban from afar and didn't know what to think of him. He'd heard secondhand stories and assumed that the man he'd meet in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, would live up to his unflattering reputation.
Then one day the promising young receiver went to camp at Alabama and made a name for himself. It was hot, Cooper recalled, but he was doing everything he could to show the coaching staff what he was capable of.
"[Saban] saw me run a route against a DB in one-on-ones and he looked to be surprised," he said. "He came up to me and shook my hand, started smiling and after that I went up to his office and talked to him and he offered me a scholarship."
Cooper accepted. Now he's a junior All-SEC receiver for the Crimson Tide. Now he understands the perception of Saban and how it doesn't quite match reality.
"I thought he would be intimating because that's what everyone else thought who were outsiders," he said. "But when you become an insider and you start to know him as a person, you see he wants what's best for his players. He's a good leader."
In other words, you have to get to know Saban first. Even commits who haven't played a down for the Crimson Tide are starting to understand Saban's warm and fuzzy side.
"Coach Saban might be this gruff guy on the outside, but when you talk to him with your family or one-on-one, he's all about preaching family and a family atmosphere," ESPN 300 Alabama commit Lester Cotton said. "That's the one thing that nobody ever really talks about with him. He's a family-first guy and his team is his family."
One former Saban staffer who was heavily involved in recruiting said he'd heard of other programs using Saban's reputation as ammunition against Alabama. He said one SEC school had gone so far as to cut up a video highlighting Saban's on-field antics and showing it to recruits: Saban screaming at refs, throwing his headset, berating his players. Saban's now-infamous slap on the behind of then-backup QB AJ McCarron in 2010 made the highlight reel as well.
Christion Jones might have seen that tape. As a four-star prospect in 2011, he was recruited by a slew of SEC programs but the Adamsville, Alabama, product wasn't swayed.
"Nah, he's not intimidating," Jones said of Saban. "He's not mean. People only know on the field what type of guy he is when you watch him on TV. But you can't judge him off that, especially if you've never been around him."
In fact, Jones went as far as describing Saban in an almost unimaginable way, considering his public persona: chill.
"He's a laid-back type of guy," Jones said. "You can talk to him about anything."
Alabama commit Shawn Burgess-Becker views it in a similarly cut-and-dried manner.
"I see him as a businessman," the four-star safety said. "Every time I'm there, we sit down and have conversations that are serious. We talk about my future and how they want to use me. I mean he's a little more laid back when it's just me and him, but he's still a businessman and pretty serious."
But maybe the most important part of the equation in all of this isn't the coach. Rather, it might be the player.
Saban might be demanding and intimidating. He might also be a comedian with a warm heart. It depends on the lens through which he's viewed. It also depends simply on whether the player can handle things.
When Jones was called to Saban's office the first time and the coach pushed a button to close the door behind him, Jones didn't flinch. He didn't catch a lump in his throat. "It was a pretty cool deal," he said, adding that he wasn't the least bit intimidated.
"He was letting me know what I had on the table: Here's your offer; you can take it if you want it, we're just letting you know we want you to be here at Alabama," Jones said. "That just lets you know he's real. He's not trying to sugarcoat anything. And since I've been here, he hasn't lied to me yet. So I think I made the right decision."
Landon Collins said his perception of Saban matched reality perfectly. The former blue-chip recruit could have stayed home in Louisiana and made his mother proud to wear the purple and gold of LSU. But Collins wanted a challenge. He wanted someone like Saban to shoot him straight and get the most out of him.
"My perception of him was he's a great coach, a straightforward coach," Collins said. "I never thought he was anything else but that. I thought he was going to be real with you and tell you what you don't want to hear."
Collins, already a national champion, finished second on the team in tackles and seems well on his way to meeting the challenge he wanted. But, he also understands why recruits could be intimidated. "Because of," he said before taking an interminable pause, "the way he stands." He couldn't find the right words, but it all came back to Saban's demeanor.
"He's just one of the best coaches and has been doing this so long," Collins said. "He has so many people in the draft as first-round picks. He has the most success rate with his players who are still in the league and still playing."
Cotton gets it too. He knows that it's part of the package of being one of the Crimson Tide: You'll get a coach who's tough, exacting and wants a certain standard, but a coach who also cares for his players.
"He would do anything for [his players]," Cotton said, "and that's something as a recruit, or somebody that wants to play for Alabama, you can't help but want to be a part of."
In a survey, recruits picked Nick Saban as the most intimidating coach. But those committed to him and playing for him know he's tough and can't be fazed by his perception.