TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Today’s the day that Nick Saban always calls his favorite of the year.
It’s when he gets to do his summertime version of St. Nick: The Alabama head football coach and his wife Terry hold a special luncheon and, through the foundation named in honor of Saban’s father, distribute the money raised over the previous year to youth organizations. It’s been more than $5 million since 2007.
“He always said ‘No man stands as tall as when he stoops to help a child,’” Saban always says during his brief time at the podium, before meeting everyone in attendance and having photos taken. Some say he smiles more in those couple of hours than in the other 364 days combined.
It’s also a favorite day among Crimson Tide fans as well, because the annual event is always held the same afternoon that players report for fall training camp. The long offseason is finally over; hope and thanks are the only things on the agenda and are in abundance.
Yes, this will be Saban’s 10th season in crimson and white, as it’s really been nearly a decade since he boldly stated, “We want to be a champion in everything that we do,” during his first press conference in Tuscaloosa. It sparked an unprecedented run that has exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations.
Saban’s won at least one championship ring, national or Southeastern Conference, during five of the past seven years and, if you include his time at LSU, has captured the national title in five of the last 11 seasons he’s been a college football head coach.
His chances of winning another this fall appear to be pretty good, as Alabama is expected to be No. 1 when the first of the official polls is released later this week. With repetitive top-rated recruiting classes as well, on paper this might be his most talented team to date.
Either way, Saban will be putting the finishing touches on arguably the most impressive 10-year stretch by a coach in college football history. Alabama’s marketing department is promoting it as a “Decade of Dominance,” and no one’s really arguing the point.
But just as remarkable to some has been that Saban finally managed to do something few thought he could: simply settle down. Since becoming a graduate assistant at Kent State in 1973, he had never stayed in one place for more than five seasons until landing in Alabama.
That, of course, led to two prominent reputations: that of being a master builder of programs, and someone who couldn’t be happy.
So the rumors flew and have really never gone away, but with different details. They transformed from “He’ll leave Alabama after a couple of years,” to regular speculation of returning to the NFL and, the latest, that he’s now getting too old (despite being just 64).
Instead, he’s proved them all wrong and is now close to becoming the dean of SEC coaches. Other than LSU’s Les Miles, who came extremely close to losing his job last fall, no one’s been at his school longer than Saban.
“If I had to do it over, I’d have just tried to stay in one place and establish a great program, not have all these goals and aspirations of things that eventually, you know, you weren’t happy doing,” Saban said in 2014 when denying rumors that he nearly departed for Texas.
“I’m very happy at Alabama. Miss Terry is very happy at Alabama. We certainly enjoy the challenges that we have there, the friends that we have established here. This is where we just choose to, you know, end our career someday.”
No one seems to doubt that now, finally, but everyone did in 2007, when the only things the Crimson Tide players knew about their new head coach was that he was very different from their last one and that they didn’t like facing Saban’s teams at LSU.
“I wouldn’t say scared, but nervous and anxious of trying to understand what it was going to be like to play for him,” said former Alabama safety Rashad Johnson, now with the Tennessee Titans. “We’d heard so many stories about how hard he is on players.
“Our first season, it was a tough adjustment.”
Compounding that was a textbook disbursement scandal that Saban inherited, resulting in the suspension of some key players. Even so, the program that returned to the Independence Bowl at the end of the 2007 season was very different from the previous year.
“I knew pretty quickly that there was a new sheriff in town,” former starting quarterback John Parker Wilson said. “There was an old way of doing things, and not that that was wrong, but there was a different way to do it now, and it wasn’t up for a lot of debate.”
That moment may have occurred during the initial offseason workouts under strength coach Scott Cochran, which are known for being especially rough. Wilson can now say with a laugh, “You’d think they were trying to kill us,” only now its everyone else who isn’t laughing.
A year later Alabama started to show what the Saban era would be all about with the big 34-10 season-opening win against No. 9 Clemson, the shocking way it dismantled No. 3 Georgia on its home field and reaching the SEC Championship Game.
“We just didn’t know how to win yet,” Wilson said.
Now no one is better at it, and no coach has made such an impact.
“He always taught us to make the best of our opportunities,” said wide receiver Kevin Norwood, now of the Carolina Panthers.
“Off the field, he does so much for the community and just stays so humble with everything around him, and everyone calling him ‘God’ and stuff like that. It’s just awesome just to be a part of that.”
This past spring some of those same players who started to lay the foundation for Alabama’s continuing dynasty decided they wanted to give something back to their former coach to mark the beginning of the 10-year celebration.
For a man of Saban’s resources, it wasn’t that easy to do. They settled on a personalized golf bag and club, which was presented the night before Alabama’s A-Day at the end of spring football, and started the talk of potentially another decade with the Crimson Tide.
“It was really heartfelt for me,” Saban said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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