TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nick Saban wants you to know that he’s having a great time.
He doesn’t just want you to know it, but everyone in college football and recruits as well — especially recruits.
If you haven’t noticed there’s been a decided change in the way Saban is being portrayed by the University of Alabama, both in marketing and strategic well-being of the school that has grown leaps-and-bounds since the coach’s arrival.
“Happy Saban” may be going a little too far, but you’re definitely seeing him smile more.
What’s not to feel good about? He just won his sixth national championship. Another contract extension is done. Not only has Saban established the standard that every other college football program is trying to meet, but all-time as well.
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It’s training camp, so Saban is in his element. This is when the process is at its zenith, when there’s nothing but football and being around the game 24/7 for a month, from sunrise to long past sunset each and every day.
It doesn’t get any better than that for a football junkie.
“You’ve got to understand why you play this game,” senior linebacker Christian Miller said. “You play it because you love it or you play it for the lifestyle. If you play it because you love it, this should be a fun time of the year. All you’re doing is playing football, and if you look at it like this is the sport you played growing up that you love it shouldn’t be too hard. If it’s a job, it is.
“But as long as you maintain your body, you’re smart about it, you go in there with a good, positive mindset, it should be fun. You’ve got all your brothers around you. You’re in the dorms. It’s just a fun time — for most of us. As long as you love the game it should be fun.”
Miller gets it and his coach. He’s one of those guys who can go a whole day and never leave the football building, and that’s before the latest round of improvements including a dining area that’s nicer than most restaurants.
“I really love it when I hear players say something like that,” Saban said.
Think of it for a moment. Think of the thing you love more than anything outside of family, and then about what it would be like to be surrounded by it every day.
And then imagine that you’re the best at it.
What’s different this year is that the fans are being brought along more than ever before. Like a lot of other big college football programs Alabama has its own video department, photographers (the photo with this story was shot by someone from Alabama Athletics) and graphic designers who are capturing every moment behind the scenes.
It used to be that the only thing Alabama filmed was practice, so the coaches could better evaluate the players. Nowadays you pretty much have to assume there’s a camera on you.
"We don't even pay attention to them,” junior linebacker Anfernee Jennings said. “We just try to pretend they aren't even there and try not to let them be a distraction and do what we do."
What they’re capturing is a lot more than the human element.
Every time the public sees players working with strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran they’re also getting glimpses of the state-of-the-art weight room. Shots from the training room, the pools with the waterfalls, the stadium, the locker room, etc., show off the athletes, but also the entire program.
“I think there’s a lot of things about our program that may be brought to light that are real positives,” Saban said. “You know we have great people here. We have great players. We have a great support staff …
“We have a career development program. We have great nutrition program. We have a great medical staff. We’ve got a good group of coaches who do a great job of teaching and developing players, which is sort of been the history around here in terms of the number of guys that had great success here. There’s a lot of good things about that, and we don’t mind that sometimes it gets brought to light.
Of course the primary reason for doing so is recruiting, yet one of the added benefits is that Alabama has absolutely crushed the talk and speculation about how much longer Saban might coach.
Saban’s been telling people for years that he’s not close to giving it up. Now he’s showing them.
Ten years ago we never would have gotten a glimpse of Saban zipping around his driveway in a small go-cart. He’s allowed ESPN to film a Noontime Basketball Association game, one of his staples of the offseason. Nothing seems to be off-limits any more.
“I don’t really ignore it, which maybe is an issue because there may be some bleeps in there every now and then,” Saban said.
One of the great stories that’s been told behind the scenes for the past decade is about how much fun Saban has taking the freshmen out on his boat before the start of fall camp. If you were watching the first episode of ”Training Days: Rolling with the Tide,” you figured out that there’s a whole collection of swim trunks on the bottom of Lake Tuscaloosa from the players getting thrown from their innertubes.
It happens so often that the Sabans have a stockpile of swimwear that’s regularly replenished.
But the smile on Saban’s face told the story.
Playing football is fun.
The process is hard work, but is fun.
Winning is fun.
And no one is better at it.