TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nick Saban works the room, shaking hands with crimson-clad fans, posing for pictures and chatting amiably about Cajun food.
It’s mix-and-mingle time for Saban and Alabama’s fans, otherwise known as the commercial breaks during his weekly radio show. Sometimes aloof and always intense, Saban smiles, cracks jokes and is frequently interrupted by loud applause from the 200 or so fans packed into the local wing joint on that recent Thursday evening.
Saban pauses at one table for a friendly chat and a fan asks him about Boudin, a Cajun sausage stuffed with pork and rice that the coach favours.
“He talked to me like I was talking to a neighbour,” said Jerry Grimball, a Louisiana transplant. “Just easygoing.”
A few minutes later, the show is over, Saban takes his headphones off, puts his serious, almost angry-looking expression – call it his game face – back on and leaves flanked by security guards after obliging one more persistent group of fans wanting a photo.
Saban is successful and wildly popular among Alabama fans, who sport “S The Coach” bumper stickers on everything from pickup trucks to luxury sedans. He might be the state’s most-adored figure since Bear Bryant patrolled the sidelines in his houndstooth hat.
The way the two men compare gives Tide fans shivers and the way they contrast says something about the eras in which they coached.
Saban has the second-ranked Tide (11-0) in national title contention for the second straight year going into Friday’s visit to rival Auburn (7-4).
In less than three years, Saban has restored Alabama football, returning the Tide to its place among college football’s elite with a familiar formula.
Strong defence. Powerful running game. Physical football. Not unlike Bryant’s old teams that won five Associated Press national championships and 13 SEC titles.
Saban’s totals at ‘Bama so far: zero and zero. But his tenure has been short and, as athletic director Mal Moore says, the Tide is “headed in the right direction.”
Into Bear-ified territory.
“When I’m watching Saban, I think about the ways they’re alike more than the ways they’re not,” said Kirk McNair, who publishes “Bama Magazine” and was Alabama’s sports information director late in Bryant’s tenure. “They both believed in recruiting: Get the best players, you’ve got a chance to have the best team.”
Moore is a former Bryant player and assistant coach who also sees similarities in the coaches. He feels they share a confidence that rubs off on players and fans.
“Both he and coach Bryant were very smart men,” Moore said. “They believe in what they are doing and how to do it. They stick to those beliefs. I certainly think that is true of coach Saban. He’s a very strong defensive coach. He’s a very strong kicking game coach. That’s the way I think most championships are built.
“The most important thing is he has a strong belief in how to do this job.”
They are different, too. Not that it matters much to Alabama fans, who have watched Bear’s boys like Mike DuBose and Ray Perkins struggle to return the Tide to its former glory. Another of the Bear’s pupils, Gene Stallings, came close with a national championship in 1992 and a strong seven-year run.
Raised in West Virginia coal-mining country, Saban came to Tuscaloosa as an outsider, the former coach at rival LSU. He’s a homebody who would rather buy his wife an expensive grandfather clock for Valentine’s Day – which he did – than take her out to dinner – which he didn’t – and have to hold court for fans in his limited down time.
His taste steer more toward Italian food than sweet tea and fried chicken. But wife Terry says there’s a reason why they fit in.
“I think there are a lot of similarities between West Virginia and Alabama,” she said. “I keep bumping into people here who know friends of mine or know relatives of mine or who worked in coal mines with my father or some of my relatives.
“That thread of similarity, where we have coal-mining roots, is one big thing that draws us together. It has more to do with a hard way of life, of making a living.”
Bryant was a big farm boy from Arkansas who is still heard over the P.A. system before every game growling, “I ain’t never been nothin’ but a winner.”
“Bear Bryant looms so big in the sports world, that we were all affected by his presence,” Terry said. “We all in our little world marvelled at his success.”
Times are different. So are the approaches.
Bryant schmoozed and even played golf with sportswriters, back when there wasn’t nearly the horde of newspaper, TV and Internet reporters that cover Saban. Bryant had an open-door policy for the beat writers. “Whereas Nick Saban has none of the above pretty much,” McNair said.
“I always felt coach Bryant had a sort of sixth sense when he was being interviewed, he could see what that quote was going to look like in the paper the next day,” he said. “He hardly ever messed up. Coach Saban does his very best to intimidate and use the media to get his message out.”
Bryant would speak to the state in an hour-long Sunday afternoon TV show. The best way to make a Saban sighting outside the football complex is the radio show.
Bryant was fairly visible around town, frequently eating breakfast at one of his favourite spots and sitting around the 19th Hole at Indian Hills Country Club chatting. Saban starts his mornings at home with two Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies and a cup of yesterday’s coffee. He avoids restaurants but occasionally attends movies, basking in the anonymity darkness affords.
Saban arrives at church just as it’s about to start, sits in the back row and “probably beats the priest out the door,” said McNair.
But Saban also donates his fees for speaking engagements and endorsements to Nick’s Kids, a foundation he and Terry started at Michigan State. That’s a legacy from his own father, Nick Sr., who started a Pop Warner youth football program in West Virginia and shuttled kids from surrounding communities to practice and games.
Like Bryant, Saban has indicated he wants to retire at Alabama. Before his two-year tenure with the Miami Dolphins, the Bill Belichick protege said his goal was always to work in the NFL. When he got there, he said, “There was something missing.”
Now, the $4 million-a-year man said he wants to stay in the college ranks. The well-travelled coach signed a three-year extension in September running through Jan. 31, 2018, that assures he’ll be one of college football’s five highest paid coaches and offers a $5 million bonus if he stays put.
“I feel like Alabama’s committed to a standard of excellence that is as good as any place in the country,” Saban said. “If you have one of those jobs (that) why would you really want to go any place else?”
The players talk about the life-lesson they get from Saban. How he encourages them to get their degrees and be professional.
“When I’m in the real world and I have a meeting in the morning, I’m going to be the first one there,” cornerback Javier Arenas said. “I’m going to unlock the door.”
Arenas is familiar with the Saban game face and it took him a while to stop thinking, “Oh man,” when it was directed at him.
“Everybody’s afraid of him,” Arenas said. “My teacher said she’s afraid of him. They’ve got so much respect for him and they’re star-struck. It’s like he’s a rock star around here, Denzel Washington almost.”
Rock star? Defensive end Lorenzo Washington isn’t sure that suffices.
“Literally, Nick Saban is God,” Washington said. Or at least a modern-day version of Bryant, practically deified in this state.
“When I first came here on my (recruiting) visits, I really found out about how the Bear was respected and viewed across the nation as a great coach and a leader,” Washington said. “When Bryant came to the University of Alabama, the country and especially the South was going through some things. He brought people together.
“At least on Saturday afternoons, he brought the state of Alabama together. I think that’s kind of something that coach Saban does.”
John Zenor/The Associated Press