San Jose, Calif.—It was the spring of 2014 and I was meeting with Nick Saban in his well-appointed office in Tuscaloosa.
Over the years our visits have basically taken on the same structure. For the first 15 or so minutes we talk about what I’m working on—the purpose of my visit. Then I close my notebook, turn off the recorder, and talk about what HE wants to talk about it. It’s usually some rule or practice that doesn’t make sense to him.
One year I asked him two questions:
“Did the tornado of 2011 change you?”
“Are you happy?”
For those who don’t remember, on April 27, 2011 Tuscaloosa was hit with the worst tornado in its history. Fifty people lost their lives. Thousands more were displaced as the storm did $2 billion in damage.
No Alabama players were lost but a member of the team, Carson Tinker, lost his girlfriend, Ashley Harrison, to the storm.
Saban immediately put his players into the community to help. He and his wife Terry would eventually build 17 homes through Habitat for Humanity.
A number of people in the Alabama football building had told me that Saban had changed after the tornado.
“I think it did,” Saban said. “I tried to be a little more empathetic. I thought it was important for our players to know how fragile life could be and to help others. I tried to be a little less closed off.”
Now Saban is still known for his laser-like focus on “the process” and that hasn’t changed. He is just as demanding as ever. He still loses his temper when his team makes a stupid mistake, as he did on Dec. 29 when he destroyed a set of headphones during the national semifinal game with Oklahoma.
What’s different now is what he does when the football game is over.
Nick and Terry Saban have been most generous with their time and resources. A 2016 story on AL.com points out that Saban had stepped in to pay the funeral expenses of a former player, Altee Tenpenny. Saban asked that no one be told that he had done it.
But at that time Saban realized that contributing financially would not be enough. He needed to be out in the Tuscaloosa community helping it heal.
“That has not always been an easy thing for me to do,” he said.
Before the tornado, Saban could be short at press briefings, which cut into his precious preparation time. Now he often shows his dry sense of humor. Yes, he still loses patience for what he considers a dumb question. But those seem fewer and farther in between.
At 67, Nick Saban appears to be a man at peace with his life and his legacy. A win over Clemson Monday night would give him his seventh national championship, breaking a tie with another Alabama legend, Paul “Bear” Bryant, who has cast a shadow on every coach that has followed him since 1982.
Saban, regardless of how much longer he chooses to coach, has to stand in no man’s shadow.
How much longer he’ll coach is anybody’s guess because the future of his program, regardless of what happens Monday night, still looks bright. His last four recruiting classes have been rated No. 1, No. 1, No. 6 and No.1. Barring any health issue—and he keeps himself in good shape—Saban will be able to walk away from the game to his home on Lake Burton on his own terms, something few coaches get to do.
In short, Nick Saban is happy. And as that great Western philosopher—Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire—one said: “You don’t mess with happy.”