On Thursday, waiting for Nick Saban to usher me into his dimly lit office, I expected one of several things: An ill-disguised control freak. A hyper-defensive, impatient force of nature. A difficult, if brief, confrontation over a question.
Instead, when Saban popped out of his door, shook my hand, spit out a quick greeting and beckoned me inside, I got something else entirely: A brand-new version of college football’s most successful head coach.
"Have a seat," he said, quickly taking his own on a large chair with flowers patterned across it. He wasted no time. Never has, never will. He looked up with that same Saban intensity, those same bright and suspicious eyes, and exuded that same message: Time is precious, young man. Get on with it.
But still, past all the football trappings (championship rings reflecting the room’s little light on the coffee table between us) and typical Saban manner (polite, but poised to strike), an overriding fact pressed down: Nick Saban, head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide and one of college football’s all-time most successful program builders, has changed.
Four years ago, in this same office, Saban sat with a world of baggage upon that surprisingly thin frame, much of it of his own making. In a similar interview, he was reticent, defensive, uncomfortable, wildly intense and even more impressive. At the time, he was transitioning from an ugly exit with the Miami Dolphins to almost as big a mess at Alabama.
He had just accepted $32 million to not just coach Alabama football for eight years, but to deliver it from the doldrums of the previous decade. Alabama was in the midst of the longest stretch in school history without a conference championship (it would reach a full 10 years before Saban delivered one in 2009), as well as its longest national-title drought (17 years when, in that same season, Saban earned himself a statue outside Bryant-Denny Stadium by doing what he does best: winning).
On Thursday, with all that success behind him and a No. 2 ranking in the Coaches Poll bolstering ‘Bama’s position heading into this season, Saban was decidedly different: Quickly at ease, surprisingly open and, most notably, quick to lay blame for the past squarely where he believes it belongs … at his own feet.
Some folks hate Nick Saban. Fewer (mostly in Alabama) love him. Almost everyone agrees he’s an incredible football coach and a remarkable program builder, even among the rarefied standards of big-time college football.
Four years ago, when I was a reporter for The Kansas City Star, I sat in this same room and pressed Saban on the pressure of being at Alabama, given his departure from Miami (ugly), the expectations cast by Bear Bryant’s shadow (massive) — particularly since the legend’s museum could be seen from Saban’s office window — and the money he was poised to make (a record-breaking sum for a college football coach).
This is what he told me back then: "I put pressure on myself based on who I am and what I want to accomplish and how I want to do it. I don’t need a museum someplace to do it for me. I don’t need money to do it for me. I don’t need any of that stuff. So, I don’t know what your point is here."
So, when I asked him Thursday in a rare one-on-one interview why so many people outside of Alabama have a sharply negative impression of him — and, boy, do they — I expected the obvious answer you’re accustomed to getting from a big-time football coach: Some variation of, "What kind of a dumb question is that?"
Instead, Saban rubbed his face, sighed, and said, "You know what, whatever it is, I’m probably responsible for it. Perception is reality in some ways, and the way I’m perceived, I’ve probably done things through the years to contribute to that."
This, it must be noted, was a wildly different Nick Saban than the one I sparred with in 2007.
"I don’t want to be perceived negatively, and I don’t think people — most people that know me and almost all the people who play for me, you don’t hear any of that about me," he said. "It always comes from somewhere else, and it’s created by something else. But I control what I do, and I guess I’ve created that in some kind of way through the years. Whether it’s the way I treated the media or whatever. And I’m responsible for that, and I’ve worked hard to try to make it better."
Yes, this is a new Nick Saban, from his words (conciliatory), to his manner (less coiled), to the way folks here see him (a likable guy rather than just a hired mercenary). He looks both older and, perhaps, happier. There’s an ease to him absent in the past. There’s now a healthy amount of candor and emotion kneaded into his words.
Even in Tuscaloosa, where Saban has reached mythical status, folks have noticed the change. Most point to the April 27 tornado, a beast of a twister that lingered on the ground for miles, destroyed almost 10 percent of the city, killed more than 40 people and offered a stark and searing reminder of just how serious life can look.
When the storm had passed, to many, Saban had changed. He still had that same intensity, that same drive, that same obsession — but now, if only a little, it was directed at more than football.
"We all go through our lives, we’re worried about our careers, we’re worried about how much money we make, we’re worried about these things where none of them are guaranteed," Saban said.
He paused. He was obviously talking about himself. The wall that always exists between football coach and the outside world lowered a little more.
"But the relationships we have and how people are affected by things, I think always affects your compassion," Saban said. "It does have an impact on you as a person."
Indeed it did, because in the days after the tornado Saban went out and met with folks, and that meant something. He sat and listened to them talk of trouble and loss. He was the big man in Tuscaloosa still, but he was sitting with them and taking in what they said, and it made for a much more meaningful connection to the head coach than the one that happens on Saturdays from the stands or your living room.
Saban went on, talking about how he sometimes focuses too much on the winning, on the program, on the obsessive and meticulous detail that’s made him a winner. He talked about how those things can take away from his focus on loved ones, friends and the world around him, about how the tornado helped change that.
This kind of talk, and Saban’s suddenly deeper connection to Tuscaloosa after the storm, has given way to a rising hope — it does indeed seem too soon to call it a sudden fact, given it is Saban — that Mr. Noncommittal Coach might just become a long-term fixture at the program Bear Bryant built.
"Oh, I think he is going to stay here long term," said Ken Gaddy, director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum. "After the tornado, hearing him talk, I thought it changed him. It changed his connection to the city."
Saban has never spent more than five seasons in any job during his football career, and this season just happens to be his fifth with Alabama. People now are openly talking about the man who kept leaving one place after another as the long-term heir to Bryant.
Maybe that’s why Nick Saban has changed. Maybe — just maybe — the man who never sat still has found a home, finally, he plans to settle into. Maybe he’s here for the long haul.
What is true is that when he first arrived in Tuscaloosa, Saban would have bristled at being asked about his long-term plans. Not Thursday.
"When we came here, we came with the idea that this is it, this is where we’re going to stay," Saban said.
"But I think all of the things that have happened since we’ve been here — the community spirit, the state, the welcome that we got when we came here — all those things contribute to wanting to stay more. Wanting to be a part of the way the people in this state, in the southeast, and in the United States, responded to help the people here is something you feel proud of as a part of this community."
Of course, there’s also the fact that Saban already has won a national title at Alabama and seems well poised to do so again this year. His team will have a grinding defense, and Alabama’s run-oriented offense should be just fine, even though the team has yet to settle on a quarterback.
Saban the control freak has things just as he wants them, and he’s still working long hours and doing all he can to outwork everyone else. He’ll make almost $6 million this year. He has the world — his world — by the horns.
But the man has changed, of that there seems little doubt. Fans here who used to root for him, but not necessarily like him, have changed their tune. Skeptical boosters who didn’t get enough attention (in their own minds) from the head coach have softened because of the attention he’s shown the folks whose lives have been turned upside down by the tornado.
Saban still goes on and on about not being complacent, about winning by instilling the right culture, about the difficulty of the SEC and the need to be ever vigilant, the coach speech thick and often. But there’s now a softness mixed in as well, and it’s interesting to behold it in a man known more for straight, sometimes too-candid, talk than touching thoughts.
When it was time to go, he apologetically told me he had things to do. Then he stood up and walked me out. When he did the same thing four years ago, he put his arm on my shoulder, squeezed gently and urged, after a mostly contentious interview, "I sure hope this is going to be a positive article."
There were no such request this time. Instead, Saban talked with genuine joy about the work his foundation’s been doing to help folks ravaged by the April twister.
This time around, Nick Saban wasn’t worried at all about Nick Saban. And that might be the biggest change of all.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.