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THE MOST POWERFUL man in college football raises a skeptical eyebrow when he hears the question. His glare feels like it could crack one of the crystal trophies in his office. Two seconds of silence passes. It feels like two minutes. What is something Nick Saban thinks people get wrong about Nick Saban?
Finally, a hint of a smile creeps across his face. He removes his reading glasses and folds his hands in front of his chin, interlocking his fingers. "One of the things that has bothered me a little through the years is I don't think the perception that people have of me as a coach is really, truly who I am as a person," Saban says. "I'm always portrayed as the tough, grinding, working-hard guy. And I think those things are true. But there is more than that. And I don't think people realize that."
After winning 218 games and six national championships, after spending more than a decade as the man everyone in the sport is both chasing and trying to emulate, it would be easy to assume Saban, at 66 years old, does not see flaws in his own methods. But ask him if there is anything he wishes he could change about himself and he mulls it for a full beat. "I always pray that I won't get angry," he says. "Because most of the time when I get angry or emotional, I don't make good decisions. Sometimes I appear to be angry as a coach, but I'm not really angry. People don't remember what you say; they remember how you made them feel. I think I've gotten a little better at that, but there is definitely room for improvement."
The more questions you ask, the more it's apparent that, yes, there are things that people get wrong about Nick Saban. Yes, there are the requisite tales of Saban snarling at a player for missing a block, or at an assistant coach for what he believes was a boneheaded playcall. But those might be the least interesting tales anyone can tell about Alabama's mercurial coach. The best Nick Saban stories -- like the 14 that follow -- do more than illuminate. They offer context, complexity and humor to a story of a man so relentlessly focused on what's next, it's easy to overlook how he got here.
IT'S DECEMBER IN Ms. Helminski's eighth-grade music class in Monongah, West Virginia. With the semester winding down, all students in the class are required to get up and sing a solo as part of their final project. Saban, age 14, refuses. "I was so shy, I just wouldn't do it," he says. "I got a D in music."
Saban's father, Big Nick -- a stern, hot-tempered disciplinarian who has Saban working at the family-owned gas station every minute that he's not in school or playing sports -- tells Saban he is done playing basketball for the season. "I still remember my mom folding [my uniform] up and taking it back to school," Saban says.
But the real lesson is still to come. Monongah, like many tiny towns in West Virginia, is a mining community, and every kid who grows up around coal miners sees the toll the grueling work takes on the people who go down into the mines each day. One afternoon, shortly after Saban's grades come in, Big Nick arranges for a coal miner to take him and his son into a nearby mine. Saban's father waits until they reach the bottom to deliver the message: If you don't get good grades, this is where you're going to end up working for the rest of your life.
As they begin the slow elevator climb to the surface, Saban has one thought, and it has stayed with him all of his life. I'm never coming back down here again.
AT SOME POINT during Saban's tenure as Michigan State's defensive coordinator -- a job he holds from 1983 to '87 after assistant-coaching stints at Kent State (his alma mater), Syracuse, West Virginia, Ohio State and Navy -- he is on a recruiting trip in Youngstown, Ohio, where Bob Stoops (the uncle of the former Oklahoma coach) is the head coach at South High.
The two want to have a cocktail at the end of the day, to unwind and talk about football. They pick a dimly lit dive bar and start scribbling down formations, drawing up plays on napkins, arguing the way friends sometimes do. They are so invested in making their points that they don't notice when a man walks into the bar with a shotgun and robs the place. "They had no idea, never saw him, never paid attention and never stopped doing what they were doing," says Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, who relays the story he's heard passed down through the years. "A few minutes later, some police came in and started asking them: What happened? What did they see?
"They said, 'We don't even know what you're talking about.'"
THE YEAR IS 1988, and Hal Mumme is coaching football at Copperas Cove High School in Texas. His offense is throwing the ball all over the field, and he's tinkering with a philosophy that will one day break records at Kentucky, dragging the rest of the SEC out of college football's dark ages, and even occasionally frustrate Nick Saban. Mumme isn't much interested in defense unless it's figuring out how to exploit one. He and Saban are the same age but couldn't be less alike, in personality or expertise.
The defensive coordinator on Mumme's staff, however, considers Saban a genius. Saban, a newly hired defensive backs coach with the Houston Oilers, hasn't been a head coach yet, but word has gotten around in the coaching community. The coordinator writes to him for months, asking to watch film with Saban, to pick his brain for a bit. Mumme doesn't understand all the fuss.
"Saban finally calls my guy back and says, 'OK, I'll meet you such-and-such Saturday in April,'" Mumme says. "Well, it's the Saturday before Easter. My defensive coordinator comes in and he's just crushed. 'Coach, we've had this family trip planned forever, I can't go. But how about you go? I'll give you the list of questions! You go to the meeting, write down everything Saban says and we'll be a lot better on defense.'"
Mumme agrees, somewhat reluctantly. Saban meets him at the door of the Oilers' facility. "I have no idea what I'm doing," Mumme says. "I have a list of questions on a yellow legal pad that I think should take about 30 minutes. Well, we watch film for four hours. Four! He doesn't know me from the defensive coordinator who was idolizing him. I'm just some high school coach. But he was still so patient."
After, as Saban locks the door to the facility, he grabs Mumme by the arm and says, "Don't tell anybody we did this because Mr. Adams [the Oilers' owner] will fire me."
"I'm like, 'Don't worry about it -- your secret is safe in Copperas Cove,'" Mumme says.
AFTER SABAN SPENDS 1990 at Toledo, he jumps to serve as Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator with the Browns until he takes over at Michigan State in 1995. He takes the LSU job at the end of 1999. By 2001, the Tigers have improved but haven't yet grown into the team that will go 13-1 and win a national title two years later. Saban brings in Dr. Kevin Elko, a motivational speaker and author, who talks to the players and coaches about appreciating one another, how essential it is when you're striving to achieve an important goal. When he's done, the room is quiet. It's clear to Will Muschamp, now South Carolina's coach but then an assistant with the team, that everyone is taking in what Elko has just said. Finally, Saban breaks the silence: "Well, I guess I'd better start appreciating you a--holes."
SEIMONE AUGUSTUS IS the No. 1 women's basketball recruit in the country in 2002. The Baton Rouge native has narrowed her choice to two schools: LSU and six-time national champ Tennessee. "In our staff meeting, Coach [Sue] Gunter said, 'Why don't we call Nick and ask him if he can find some time to speak to the family while they're here?'" says Bob Starkey, then an LSU assistant coach. It's a couple of weeks before LSU's spring football game, so they don't want to get their hopes up. But Saban says he's happy to help, insists they invite Augustus and her family to a closed practice and promises to drop in and say hello.
"The next day he called and said, 'Hey, I need all the info you have on her,' " Starkey says. "We sent him about five pages. We later found out he made copies and gave them to his entire staff at a staff meeting and went over it. He told his staff, 'This is the No. 1 player in the country and she's a Baton Rouge kid. When you see her during her visit, I don't care what you're doing, you stop and you go over and introduce yourself. You tell her you want her to be a Tiger.'"
Augustus ends up picking LSU, where she goes to three consecutive Final Fours. "To me, Nick Saban meant so much because of LSU football," Augustus says. "It was cool to experience who he was in person after experiencing from afar all the success he had."
Says Starkey, "When it came to helping other sports, Nick was unbelievable."
LSU HAS JUST won its first national championship in 45 years. The New Orleans Marriott Hotel on Canal Street feels like Mardi Gras on Jan. 4, 2004. It's a sea of blissful fans draped in purple and gold, with music blaring and liquor splashing, and the ballroom upstairs feels like a once-in-a-generation party. Nick Saban is in a chair just outside that ballroom, by himself. He's making recruiting calls. No one dares go near him. Thirty years of coaching had been building to this moment, Saban's first-ever championship, and now he is celebrating, alone, by preparing for the next season.
IT'S 2006, SABAN'S second year as head coach of the Dolphins, and quarterbacks coach Jason Garrett is nervous. He wants a day away from training camp so he can attend the Hall of Fame induction of his good friend Troy Aikman. He waits for a day when the defense plays great in practice, figuring Saban will be in a good mood. But Garrett launches into a mealy-mouthed plea, and after three minutes, Saban cuts in: "What the hell are you asking me?"
Aikman's going into the Hall of Fame, Garrett says. We played eight years together. Is it OK if I go?
"Saban looks at me and says, 'You just don't get it, do you? You don't think we can survive without you for the day? Trust me, we're going to be OK. Do you like the guy? He's a good buddy? Go to the Hall of Fame.'"
SABAN'S PLAYERS AREN'T sure what to think of him in 2007, his first camp at Alabama. He wasn't that great of a coach in the NFL, a few grumble among themselves. (He went 6-10 in his second season.) How tough can he be? They find out in a hurry. The days feel 10 degrees hotter, the practices an hour longer, the film sessions more grueling. Attrition is rampant. Early on, offensive lineman Mike Johnson listens as Saban addresses the team with a warning. "The guys that were here before, I can't replace you right now, but when I can replace you, I will," Saban says. "I promise you won't be here."
IT'S JANUARY 2010, and Alabama has just defeated Texas 37-21 to win its first national title since 1992. Quarterback Greg McElroy is bouncing around the locker room, holding the championship trophy, organizing the after-party, when Saban marches into the room and asks for everyone's attention. McElroy recalls what Saban said: "To you seniors, I just want to thank you for everything you did. Absolutely amazing, everything you put into this program. You didn't choose us as a coaching staff, but you bought in when we got here, and you've been rewarded. We're grateful to you for that contribution. For those of you coming back, that's not the way we play in the second half, and you know that. I'm proud of you too, but we're going to get that stuff figured out when we get back together in a couple of weeks."
A FAVORITE SABAN memory? Lane Kiffin, who served as Saban's offensive coordinator from 2014 to 2016 before becoming Florida Atlantic's coach, offers something both too short and too good: "Coach Saban having my kids over for Easter and then he led the Easter egg hunt."
NICK SABAN LOVES pickup basketball. He's the commissioner of his own staff mini-leagues. His teams are always stacked. It becomes a running joke among his assistants. Saban's team is the Globetrotters; the other teams are the Washington Generals.
Jeremy Pruitt, who will go on to coach Tennessee, is twice a member of Saban's staff. He plays well when he first joins the game, scores a few baskets, blowing by the man guarding him. Suddenly, Saban stops the game. He points to the assistant guarding Pruitt. "You and Jeremy swap," he says. "Jeremy is on my team."
KIRBY SMART IS an assistant under Saban at LSU in his late 20s, working long and grueling hours. One day, Saban calls his staff together. Something is bothering him, and it's not the game plan for Florida. He wants to offer some advice to his coaches. "All you young guys had better hurry up and figure out who you're going to get married to because if you're not careful, you'll be sitting on the porch alone when you're 60," says Saban, who's been together with his wife, Terry, since they were in high school.
The lecture sticks with Smart. When Saban leaves to coach the Dolphins, Smart takes a job at Georgia, where he meets Mary Beth, a former Bulldogs basketball player working in the athletic department. They get married a year after they start dating. Smart rejoins Saban in Miami the same year, then moves with him to Alabama.
After nine seasons with Saban, Smart becomes the coach at Georgia. In 2017, the Bulldogs defeat Auburn in the SEC championship game, earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. Smart is on his way to watch tape when his phone rings. It's Saban, calling to congratulate his protégé. Smart is stunned.
"I thought it was very thoughtful that he did that," Smart says. "I'm sure Miss Terry made him do it. That's OK too."
IT'S BECOME A tradition for the Sabans to bring Alabama's freshman football players to Lake Tuscaloosa. Saban delights in whipping his boat around the lake, attempting to flip the players off the inner tube that drags behind. "We have guys who have never been in the water, and we have guys who have been tubing since they were 8 years old," Saban says. "There is strategy involved."
There are countless stories of players who tried, and failed, to hang on with Saban behind the wheel. But there's only one player who's ever been able to triumph over Saban, and the Legend of Terrence Cody's Tubing Prowess only continues to grow.
"Terrence was 400 pounds as a freshman," Saban says. "You try to create waves with the wake so the tube comes up in the air and the guys fly off. Well, you couldn't get him in the air. He was also a really good athlete, so he just hunkered down too. I tried, but I just couldn't get him off."
IN JULY, THE Sabans are hosting their annual family reunion at their lake house, three generations gathering together. It has become the one place where Saban can have genuine, mindless fun, where he can relax and enjoy a book (though usually in only a five-page stretch) or watch a TV show (lately he's been working through "Yellowstone," the new series with Kevin Costner).
Saban finds himself feeling unusually reflective. He thinks about how much he loves having so many young kids around. At one point in the gleeful chaos, as the kids take to cannonballing into the lake, Saban stands at the end of his dock, taking in the scene. This too is a Nick Saban story.
"I counted them up and there were 14 kids," Saban says. "I realized I'm responsible for these cats. In the early years, I didn't know how to relax. I think now, mostly through my family, my grandchildren, my wife, I've learned how to separate things a little bit better. We all know that someday we're not going to exist. We're in a minute time frame in terms of the evolution of man over time, from the first speech to all the things that have happened since. So you start to wonder: What kind of person were you? How did you treat other people? What kind of relationships did you have? How are you going to be remembered? Because that's all we've got."
Todd Archer, Hallie Grossman, Chris Low, Alex Scarborough and Mechelle Voepel contributed to this report.