Jan. 1, 2015
It appeared to be a moment of spontaneity from the man who preaches repetition and discipline, only Tom Roberts barely even flinched. So when Nick Saban hijacked his own radio show just two days before the Southeastern Conference Championship Game against Missouri, the host’s only response was: “Go.”
“All right, I’m taking over the show here for one second,” the University of Alabama coach said after the show’s second commercial break, which was the midway point of their hour-long broadcast. “This is our gift to Tom Roberts, who is retiring this year …”
He then had to speak up over the erupting loud applause from the fans who made up the audience: “After 36 years!”
“A helmet with a 3-6 on the side, that’s outstanding coach,” said Roberts, still being the veteran broadcaster and describing to listeners what was happening. “Thank you. Well that’s wonderful.”
With that, the retirement party was on, not just that night, but sparking a celebration that has been ongoing for weeks. Since late November, Roberts has received scores of calls, emails and texts from well-wishers, including former football player and coach Mike DuBose and Crimson Tide basketball legend Wimp Sanderson.
That last one came on the day of the Auburn game. It was in particular a good day after the 55-44 victory.
“It was the most unbelievable Auburn game I’ve even seen, obviously the most high-scoring Auburn game any of us have seen,” Roberts said of his final working Iron Bowl and favorite victory of the season, so far. “It has to rank right up there.”
For those who have missed out on the going-away specifics, Roberts is stepping down as Director of Broadcasting at Crimson Tide Sports Network, a role he’s held since 1999.
He’s held other titles as well, but over the years the popular personality became more than a fixture with Crimson Tide athletics. For football alone, he’s hosted the game-day broadcast, the pre-game and halftime shows, and been the man behind the microphone for both “Hey Coach” and “The Nick Saban Show.”
Moreover, Roberts had been running things behind the scenes for the network as well, but combined with still being a newlywed, he’s more than starting a new chapter in his life.
“I got kind of a preview of my retirement: Martha and I went to New York with her daughter, her husband and their four children,” he said. “We went there the day after Christmas, and I flew directly from there to New Orleans. So we sort of had a preview by taking them to plays, museums and such, and we had a ball.
“It wore us out because the little ones travel at a different pace than us older people do. But now that we’re here, I can’t wait to see what we’re going to do against the Buckeyes.”
Since 1966, when Roberts first started to become a regular in the Alabama press box, he’s seen more than his fair share of Crimson Tide triumphs. It includes everything from Alabama’s win over Miami for the 1992 national championship, to running over Notre Dame en route to the 2012 title.
Yet he’s also the man who made Saban comfortable doing something that isn’t natural for most people – be the subject of a 30-minute TV show and weekly radio broadcast – knowing that scores of Alabama fans are hanging on every word. It’s one of those things that can come across as effortless when it’s really anything but.
“Tom has been so supportive since he’s been here, and so helpful with TV shows and all kinds of things for me,” Saban said. “The one thing that I will say about him, that other people may not like, when I came here nobody was willing to change anything, but he was willing to do whatever I wanted to do. And that’s why I love him, and we’ve always gotten along great. I really appreciate it, and I really appreciate everything he’s ever done for the University.”
That first meeting Saban alluded to, Roberts actually went in fully prepared and even called some of his broadcast colleagues at LSU about what the coach liked and didn’t. They were more than helpful, but he still went in thinking it would probably be about a 15-minute session.
When he sat down in the coaches’ office, Saban hit the remote control for the door, which opens and closes it on the other end of the room in a way that can very intimidating.
“I was scared to death,” Roberts joked during the radio show, causing Saban to laugh at the memory.
The meeting went 45 minutes.
“The first year was a little rough here and there because of him getting used to me and myself getting used to him,” Roberts recalled. “It kind of all changed in the Tennessee week and the radio show leading up to that game. I said ‘You know for some of us this game’s a little more special.’
“He kind of grinned. Then, after the game, as we started to do his TV show, when he walked out he said, ‘All right, that one was for you.’”
The Volunteers were the perfect opponent for Saban to say that about, as no one may enjoy a win in the “Third Saturday in October” rivalry more than Roberts.
It’s almost hard to believe that was in 2007, or what’s happened since: All of the games, all of the championships, and all of the restaurants that the radio road crew has relished. They’ve helped sort of turn this final stretch into a victory tour, now playing in the city that might have the best food of all.
“The trip’s been wonderful,” Roberts said after Saban’s radio show at the Crimson Tide’s team hotel in New Orleans on Wednesday night. “I want to make one more.”
By that, of course, he meant Dallas, site of the upcoming national championship for the inaugural playoffs on Jan. 12. Maybe if the Crimson Tide makes it the “roadies” will make up some T-shirts for the final gig that would include one last radio show.
That would be tough to top, although Saban gave it a valiant effort during the show before the 42-13 victory over Missouri.
“He was unbelievable,” said Roberts, who is treating each win as a going-away present in addition to the helmet. “I really didn’t expect anything, and it was really nice to say the things that he did and give us the gifts that he did. The helmet will obviously be a keepsake for a long, long time.”
Additionally, as a final tribute, instead of closing that show with his usual speech to fire up the Crimson Tide faithful, Saban offered to give Roberts the final word.
For once, the broadcaster didn’t know what to say. It was unprecedented in show history.
“Ok, the final word is go to the Georgia Dome and finish,” Roberts started with, using one of Saban’s favorite coach-isms, and then asked fans going to the game to “scream and yell” for the Tide at the top of their lungs.
“That’s good,” Saban critiqued, and later closed with: “Thanks Tom, appreciate you man.”