This story was first told the other night before a University of Toledo basketball game. My audience was made up of media relations folks, game workers, and statisticians, many of whom have been around UT for years, including 1990, when Nick Saban made a brief, one-season stop in Toledo as head football coach.
They were so amazed to hear it that I thought, under the circumstances of Saban's BCS national championship with Alabama, it should be repeated here. Thus:
Local legend Jerry Keil was UT's play-by-play man back in the day and also hosted the coach's weekly radio show. It was an hour in length and considering Saban's three favorite answers to questions were yes, no, and get lost it was a very, very long hour for Keil.
Despite the team's success - the Rockets won nine games in Saban's lone season - the coach was business-like to the point of gloomy and must have appeared unapproachable to fans. Nobody showed up for the remote broadcast from a local restaurant and few if any called the show, so the hour was filled with pregnant pauses, Keil reading a bunch of public service messages, and Charlie's Dodge ads to fill the time.
Jerry and I did a two-hour, call-in talk show one night a week back then and he asked me after one of those programs if I'd come on the coach's show and help out. He was looking for someone who could talk, sing, dance anything to help fill the hour. His plan was cleared by the university and OK'd by The Blade and I'm guessing I co-hosted maybe seven or eight of Saban's radio shows over the remainder of the season.
I neither sing nor dance very well, but I can talk, so while I may or may not have made the show any better we at least got through each one. Saban would show up about 30 seconds before air time and be out the door 30 seconds after sign off. The vibe was that any non-family activity that took him away from his office or the film room was a waste of valuable time.
Then, one night, as he reached for his jacket, I
surprised Saban by asking if he wanted to stay for a beer. He surprised me by sitting back down.
What followed was a tremendously enjoyable hour. There was another the next week. The following week Saban's wife, Terry, showed up and we had dinner after the show. My wife, Sue, joined the group a week later and that hour turned into two, maybe three. To this day, Sue would tell you Nick Saban is among the most delightful men, give or take her husband (probably give), she's ever met.
Saban was personable, conversational, funny, gracious, and a story-teller extraordinaire. He might have been feeling his way as a coach - Toledo was his first top job - and being stand-offish and a tad paranoid around the media and public may have been a result. I got the impression there was shyness involved, too. But it seemed those weekly hours kicking back, everything off the record, were welcome by a new coach in a new town where he didn't know all that many people outside of UT's Larimer Complex.
Anyway, as everybody knows, Saban didn't stick around long, leaving for Cleveland and the NFL where he became even more of a no-nonsense workaholic as Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator.
His travels later took him to East Lansing, Baton Rouge, the Miami Dolphins, and now Tuscaloosa and I watched with amusement whenever his lack of personality was cited by the media in those places.
It was more of the same in advance of last week's BCS title game. Texas' Mack Brown was billed as the folksy, warm-hearted, good-humor man; Saban as college football's Darth Vader. Saban didn't necessarily dispute that with his on-field TV interview immediately after the game. He never once smiled. And he was the winner.
He was a bit more relaxed the next day and even smiled a bit, prompting Terry Saban to tell an Alabama newspaper that she expected "Nick will smile for a solid 24 hours, but not an hour more. Back to work."
That's not an act. Those full-speed-ahead blinders have worked well for him. Saban's college head coaching record is 124-50-1 and, coupled with a title at LSU, he has won two national championships in 14 years on the college level.
But there is far more to Saban than that, although only family and a close circle of friends might enjoy it.
Unfortunately, outsiders rarely do. Maybe they should offer to buy him a beer.
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Dave Hackenberg at: