Saban: From the sidelines to the fairways
CLAYTON, Ga. – Nick Saban is late. And the first thing you learn when you meet the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide is this: Saban hates to be late.
“OK, let’s get it going,” he said to anyone within earshot. “We’ve got a program here.”
The first tee at Waterfall Country Club was open, and Saban was eager to join his foursome. Still, he dutifully agreed to pose for a few photos – he’s more media-friendly than his tough-as-nails image might suggest – before high-tailing it to the first tee.
“We got a game here or what?” Saban said as he pulled up in his cart. He immediately began lobbying his playing partners as if they were officials who had just flagged an Alabama cornerback for pass interference.
“You guys didn’t let me hit any balls, so you should give me three more shots,” he said.
They were unpersuaded. Saban may be the most powerful coach in sports, as some have written. He may be able to make Tide fans swoon. But here at his hideaway on lovely Lake Burton, he’s just one of the guys enjoying time with his golf buddies. And that’s the way he prefers it.
“I have to play two kinds of golf,” Saban told a visitor. “I play golf with people who are really friends. And then I play golf with people who are friends because I’m the coach at Alabama. I call it conditional love – it’s conditional on winning.”
On this early July day, Saban is playing with the Clayton chapter of the Football Mensa Society. His foursome includes Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who has family ties to the area, and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who drove over from Lake Oconee. Waterfall head pro Ray Davis, one of Saban’s close friends and favorite foils, filled out the group.
What was striking was that for all of the football brainpower in the group, there was no Xs-and-Os talk. But there was plenty of the trash-talking one would expect among friends. Davis, who looks like he could have played offensive tackle for Saban, took the brunt of the barbs.
After draining a 20-foot birdie putt from the fringe on No. 3, Saban started riding Davis like a freshman on the first day of fall camp.
“You want to wallow on that a little while, Ray?” Saban cracked after the pro yipped a short par putt on No. 4.
On the short, par-4 eighth, Davis studied the pin sheet before trying to drive the green, drawing a curious look from Saban.
“It’s not like you’re hitting a sand wedge,” the coach chided him.
When Saban recited the scores on the seventh tee, Whisenhunt seemed genuinely perplexed.
“I’m even through six, and I’m six bets down,” he said. “How did that happen?”
“It’s that football (math),” Davis said.
“The objective,” Saban clarified, “is to get in Ray’s pocket. Ray’s still got his First Communion money.”
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Saban, 58, is the son of a coach, but insisted he had “no aspirations” to coach when he graduated from Kent State, where he played defensive back and earned a business degree. He figured he would try to find a job with a car dealership after he graduated. But his college coach, Don James, offered him a spot as a graduate assistant in 1972. Since then, he has held more than a dozen coaching jobs.
Need-a-life commentators have invested countless amounts of ink and airtime discussing Saban’s itinerant ways, which hardly are unique in a profession in which coaches typically have one eye on game tape and the other on their next job. Saban’s fault is that he’s arguably the best college coach in the country, and with that comes more opportunities and heightened scrutiny.
Now in his fourth year in Tuscaloosa, Saban insisted, “The only way I’m leaving Alabama is if they start a team at Lake Burton.”
For the past decade, Waterfall CC has been the sanctuary for Saban and his wife, Terry. Clayton sits on the southern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the terrain reminds him of Fairmont, W.Va., where he grew up. The family spends a month here during the summer, with Saban riding his boat to the golf course many mornings. But he’s never far removed from the job. When he’s not playing golf, he often spends mornings breaking down tape of future opponents.
“The first week he’s here, he’s walking back and forth behind the tee, trying to hit,” Davis said. “You have to make him be still. The second week, he’s laid up in the cart with his feet up, wanting to know when it’s his turn to hit.”
Saban developed a homemade golf swing early in his coaching career but has gotten more serious about his game in recent years. In the offseason, he’ll spend 30 minutes beating balls at the Jerry Pate Golf Center on his way home from work, and Davis gives him pointers when he’s staying at Waterfall.
He’s straight and surprisingly long off the tee, good enough to have carded rounds of 76, 77, 78 in the past week. But on feel shots inside 100 yards, he gets as jumpy as a blitzing safety. When he split the 12th fairway, leaving only 83 yards to the flag, his anxiety was obvious.
He made his par, but admitted, “If I coached like this, we wouldn’t win very many games.”
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To the Alabama faithful, Saban is the true heir to Paul “Bear” Bryant. He’s the hard-nosed disciplinarian who lifted the Tide out of the darkness of Southeastern Conference mediocrity and NCAA sanctions and restored the fabled program to its rightful place atop the national rankings. That alone makes his eight-year, $32 million contract seem like a bargain.
Lately, Saban has been ubiquitous. He did a cameo in “The Blind Side,” filmed a promo for ESPN, consented to be the subject of a documentary called “Nick Saban: Gamechanger,” which was released last month, and allowed ESPN behind-the-scenes access to chronicle the Tide’s fall camp. The latter included a laugh-out-loud clip of ’Bama senior Rob Ezell’s spot-on imitation of Saban dressing down his players after a bad practice.
Prior to the Mississippi State game last year, the team captains requested a pre-release screening of “The Blind Side,” the true story of Michael Oher, a talented, but destitute, black athlete who flourished under the care of Sean and Leigh Ann Tuohy, an affluent white couple from Memphis. The movie included a scene in which Saban, playing himself, met Leigh Ann Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock, who purred: “I find him extremely handsome.”
“When I came on the screen, you talk about howling,” Saban recalled. “I got down as low in that seat as I could get.”
Saban initially was reluctant to participate in that project because it required him to reprise his role as LSU head coach. But the story resonated with Saban. His father, also Nick, formed a Pop Warner league in West Virginia and bought a school bus to transport kids to games, and he said his mother, Mary, always has urged him to live up to his father’s legacy. Nick’s Kids Fund, a foundation Saban started 12 years ago at Michigan State, has given away more than $1 million to Tuscaloosa-area charities since 2007. But the Tuohys’ story, and the memories of his father, left Saban wondering: “Do I do enough?”
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After the round, sipping an Arnold Palmer on Waterfall’s clubhouse balcony overlooking Lake Burton, Saban sounded less like the no-nonsense disciplinarian plotting another national-title run than a typical dad worrying about his kids.
He talked about the problems his son, Nicholas, has being, well, the other Nick Saban. And he recalled sitting on the swing at his boathouse the previous night with his daughter Kristen, an Alabama sophomore, who confided for the first time about the difficulties of being the coach’s daughter.
“She gets killed by the players,” he says. “If she’s not in class, (the players) call her and say, ‘Why aren’t you in class? I’m going to tell your dad.’ ”
A while ago, Saban told his players how he had taken away Kristen’s car after she had a party when the family was out of town. Saban meant it as a lesson on personal responsibility: If you screw up, there are ramifications. But all his players heard was: Coach’s daughter got grounded.
“She either got one of two calls,” Saban said. “They said, ‘You’re really in trouble for having that party.’ Or, “Why in the hell didn’t you invite me?’ ”
Then Saban politely asked his guests if they had any more questions or needed any more photos. It was only July, but his golf season was almost over. That afternoon, Saban had a conference call scheduled with the admissions staff, and in a few days, he would pack up and leave the blessed anonymity of Lake Burton for the 85-hour work weeks and white-hot spotlight of Tuscaloosa.