TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- This is the headline I imagined on this story: Nick Saban is actually a human being. Honest.
Yeah, the Alabama football coach is a living, breathing bale of barbed wire. At 64 years old, he still moves like a coiled middleweight, poised to deliver a blow.
Yeah, he just got through being Coach Grinch, standing firm against Maurice Smith, the defensive back who graduated Saturday and wants to transfer to Georgia. Most coaches, when asked about it, would have thrown up their hands, said, "It's SEC policy," and shrugged. Saban, when asked a follow-up question, threatened to "go Bill Belichick" on the Crimson Tide beat writers.
Yeah, that's the guy, the unwarm, unfuzzy guy who has won five national championships, including an unprecedented four in the past seven seasons with the Tide. There is enough evidence of Saban operating with, as one Alabama coach put it, an "Attila the Hun-type personality."
The coach who said that? Nick Saban.
He said it referring to his dealings with the media, but the assistant coaches he used to chain to a desk -- and the rest of the football office that once quivered in his presence -- would also attest to it.
That guy hasn't disappeared. The two-dimensional public persona, the game face that has launched a thousand memes (and headsets), is here to stay, whether he goes Belichick or not. But that guy has moved over. The three-dimensional Saban has begun to emerge.
"On a scale of 1 to 10," said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, Saban's top assistant at Alabama until last January, "[with 10 being] just out-of-control, just manic, all ball when I first got with him, I really feel like that's toned down to an 8 or a 7."
A small example: You may have seen Saban's heat level approaching habanero when he appeared on College Football Live during SEC media days last month. Paul Finebaum bore in with questions regarding Cam Robinson and Hootie Jones, two Tide players arrested earlier this year in Monroe, Louisiana, with marijuana and a stolen gun in their car. When Finebaum pressed the issue, Saban lashed out.
Move along, nothing to see, Saban being Saban. But later that afternoon, as Saban rode back to Tuscaloosa, he called Finebaum and apologized for losing his composure. When Saban hung up, he turned to his media guy, Josh Maxson, and apologized if he had made Maxson's day more difficult.
Another small example: Saban did not attend the Heisman Trophy dinner, held two nights after Tide running back Derrick Henry received college football's biggest honor last December. The coach stayed home to celebrate his granddaughter Amelie's second birthday.
"My wife asked me several weeks ago to give her a night," he told Dr. Robert Witt, the chancellor of the University of Alabama. "And I gave her Monday night. So if I come up to this dinner, I'm going to be sleeping on your couch."
Witt, the university president when Alabama hired Saban in January 2007, said, "I think Nick has reached a point where he is more comfortable letting more people see him."
"Look, we're all responsible for the image that we have," Saban said. He talked about how, as a young coach, he fought anxiety, nerves, the fear of saying something wrong when he stepped behind a microphone. That's the same guy who today is paid six figures to speak to corporations, who appears entirely at ease on the College GameDay set.
His longtime administrative assistant, Linda Leoni, says his schedule-to-the-minute pace is as fast now as it was 20 years ago. He may not have slowed down, but he is smelling a rose or two.
"If you're asking me if he's any less intense as far as his competitive spirit? I say no!" said Terry Saban, Nick's wife. "That competitive spirit will always be there. ... That, you're never going to change. But to realize you could go home at a decent hour. ... You can take your wife out to dinner. On Sundays after work, you can visit with your granddaughter and enjoy life a little bit. So I see it as balance."
Saban watched his son, Nicholas, and daughter, Kristen, graduate from college. He watched them get married. He endured the death of good friends such as Denny Fryzell, with whom Saban coached at Ohio State.
"You start realizing," Saban said, "that the relationships you have with your family and your friends and the people that you know are much more important than a lot of the other things that you've always concerned yourself with, whether it was being the best defensive coordinator, or having the best defense, [or] proving yourself as a head coach. And then when you have a grandbaby, that takes it probably to another level."
A train whistle held onto a long note outside his office.
"I basically was so tunnel-visioned trying to do a good job, that I missed some of that," Saban said.
"He's kind of looking back at what's happened and appreciating that," said Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher, who worked for Saban for five seasons at LSU. "I think he's just so driven and scared of failing, that it pushed him. But Nick's always had a good heart, a soft heart."
Missing out on life is an occupational hazard of coaching, a business in which 80-hour weeks usurp six months of the year, in which the children you brought into the world take a backseat to the teenagers you brought into your locker room. Saban has figured out how to re-engage with his life and the world around him without losing games. His methods have proven successful, and he has the people in place to make them work.
"I think that helps take a little pressure off Nick," Terry Saban said. "He can relax a little bit. He can play golf once in a while. We can go to the lake (their vacation home in Georgia). He still has his phone. He still watches film. He still talks to recruits. But he doesn't feel this tremendous sense of guilt that 'I'm not in the office breaking down film' every minute. When, you know what? He used to."
Some of his friends say the tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa in 2011 changed Saban. He became more public in his charity because the town needed it. Alabama football shouldered the burden of keeping alive Tuscaloosa's spirit after the death of 52 people and the destruction of nearly 1,300 homes.
Nick and Terry Saban, through their Nick's Kids Foundation, helped rebuild 15 homes. They paid for and served meals in the homeless shelters. They even quietly bought $50,000 in $100 gift cards to Sam's Club and Walmart and discreetly handed them out to those in need.
"They didn't tell anybody," said Conrad Rafield, a friend of the Sabans. "They did it on their own. They could have made a donation to the fund and been done with it."
When Rafield told that story to a meeting of 250 Coca-Cola bottlers as he introduced Nick Saban, "He got pissed at me and I knew he would. I mean, you've never seen a dirtier look in your whole life than the one he gave when I was telling that. He was burning a hole in me."
The Sabans have given $1 million to the university to endow scholarships for first-generation collegians, as they were. They also have donated money and their name to the university parish for the $2.1 million Saban Student Catholic Center under construction.
For years, Saban has raised money for the Jason Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes youth suicide prevention through educational programs. The foundation has begun to push state legislatures to pass laws to fund these programs for high school teachers and administrators. An hour after foundation president Clark Flatt left Saban's office last year, Flatt received phone calls from state Sen. Gerald Allen and from the office of Gov. Robert Bentley.
Saban made two phone calls, and state government sprang into action. But Saban didn't stop there. In April, when the 2015 national championship team visited the White House, and nearly a year after Saban made those two phone calls, he lobbied Bentley for the bill.
"The governor said, 'We're doing all this stuff, getting ready for all these pictures," Flatt said. "'Coach Saban got me by the arm, took me over to the side. We spent almost 10 minutes talking about the Jason Flatt Act, and how important it was. So while we're at the White House, he's pulling me over talking about, 'We got to get this legislation through.' I just want you to know while we were up there, he was thinking about this type of thing.'"
Last May, Bentley signed a law that made Alabama the 18th state to pass the Jason Flatt Act, which requires educators to complete two hours of youth suicide awareness and prevention training every year.
"I talk to [people] about what he's been doing for us," Clark Flatt said, "and I've even had people look at me say, 'You're talking about Nick Saban, aren't you?' It's a shame. He is intense. He's the most intense person I've been around in my life. But what a wonderful side he has that the people don't know."
Saban's intensity is reflected in his coaching methods, what he has come to refer to as "The Process." He inculcates in his players the ability to master the task before them rather than be distracted by the ultimate goal. Execute this block, this catch, this backpedal, and victory will result. Do your job, to go Belichick for a moment.
The night before the Alabama spring game last April, the football program invited players from Saban's 10 seasons in Tuscaloosa to return for a reception. Cincinnati defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick, an All-American who played on Saban's first two national championship Tide teams, took the microphone with about 25 former players behind him.
"Coach, you changed everybody's life, no matter if you knew it or not," Kirkpatrick said, according to a video of the event. "I remember walking in, a young guy, and you helped me develop as a young man. You taught me certain things that my father couldn't. And that was about handling my business. And making sure I put what I have in front of me as my number one priority. And separating myself from certain things. And every guy up here can pretty much tell you the same thing, man.
"From the bottom of our hearts, we truly appreciate you, we truly love you [as] a father figure. Because to some of us, you were a father. We just want to let you know: we truly love you. We thank you. God bless you. Roll Tide."
New Orleans Saints tailback Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman winner, and former tight end Colin Peek also spoke. On behalf of their fellow alums, the duo presented Saban with an engraved wedge and a golf holiday. Alabama didn't hold the reception as a tribute to Saban. But his players decided to make it one. Saban's dumbstruck, goofy, surprise-party grin told everyone the depth of emotion his players stirred.
"He was more emotional with those last three or four teams," Smart said. "The one that won it with A.J. [McCarron] and C.J. [Mosley] down in Miami (2012). That was a team that was really emotional. He got emotional with Blake Sims' group (2014). You hear it in his voice, where, when I go back to the first years, and even LSU, there was never that emotional side. He would never let a team see that, where he choked up a little bit."
Fisher, watching from Tallahassee, believes that Saban has made peace with letting the public see more.
"It matters to him what people think. Make no mistake about it," Fisher said. "Human nature is, you can't keep the wall up all the time. He's more comfortable in his own shoes now, and he looks back and realizes how much good he has done besides just winning games."
Saban is sanguine about how the public views him.
"I used to complain to Terry about this," Saban said, "that I was being unfairly portrayed, if that makes any sense. And she used to always say, 'Well, it's your own fault.'"
He laughed. Nick Saban understands why you believe he's Attila the Hun. Yeah, that's not exactly the guy. Honest.