I had a conversation with Nick Saban on Wednesday. It was short.
On the Southeastern Conference coaches’ teleconference, I asked the Alabama football kingpin how he felt about being called a curmudgeon. I’d read it from another writer in reference to Saban about a month ago, and I’d thought it myself about Saban maybe 200 times prior to that.
"I don't know what that word means,” Saban responded flatly.
I’m not sure I believe that, because Saban seems pretty smart to me. But I gave him the Dictionary.com definition anyway: “A bad-tempered, difficult person.”
“I don't think it's accurate and I'm not sure I care, and I didn't really even know that,” he said, without rancor. “I appreciate the insight.”
I don’t think he appreciated it much, but I like sarcasm as much as the next guy.
“I don't think that people that know me would say that,” he continued. “I don't think the players here would say that. I don't know if that's something that gets created somewhere outside of here. It's not especially complimentary, I wouldn't think.
“I understand the words that I understand. I didn't really understand that one. I've learned a lot today."
So we had a wonderful educational interlude, and then Saban was on to a few other questions before his 10 minutes on the call was over. Then he went back to his football bubble, and to the task at hand: figuring out how to beat LSU on Saturday in another massive clash between the two SEC powers.
In other words, he went back to being a curmudgeon.
For the record, I have nothing against curmudgeons. In fact, I consider myself one as a writer. I’ve included the word in my Twitter profile since I started the account 3 ½ years ago.
But my take on a curmudgeon differs a bit from Dictionary.com’s. I’d call a curmudgeon someone in touch with his negative side, and unafraid to voice it. Someone allergic to doling out empty platitudes and pleasantries. Someone who will say something mean if it’s the truth, and won’t say something nice if it isn’t the truth.
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So while Nick Saban might interpret being called a curmudgeon as uncomplimentary, I don’t necessarily look at it that way. I’d say there is an element of genuineness in it, an avoidance of fakery, if you will.
If you trespass inside Saban’s football bubble, he will not be happy to see you there. And he will not fake it.
Thirteen months ago, I was assigned to do a quick, two-question TV interview with Saban the day before Alabama played Florida in Gainesville. The interview was to be shot when the Alabama team bus arrived at their hotel. I wanted to be ready for my interlude with Coach Curmudgeon.
Knowing that Saban has no tolerance for fools who ask bad questions, I consulted with Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean. He knew Saban from their days as coaches at Michigan State in the 1990s.
Crean gave me some good pointers on what to ask, but when the ‘Bama team busses pulled into the hotel parking lot and Saban got off, we had about a 50-yard walk into the hotel before we shot the interview. So I had to make some small talk that I hoped would put him at ease. (Mistake. Saban is rarely at ease around the media and rarely wants to be at ease around the media.)
So I told Saban that Tom Crean said hello.
“Oh, how’s Tommy?” he said pleasantly enough.
I said Tommy was fine, and launched a small soliloquy in response to that question. By the time I finished talking, we were nearly at the hotel.
Saban did not say a word in response. He did not look at me. He simply walked in the hotel and I followed. They stuck a microphone in my hand, I asked my two questions, he gave me two acceptable answers, and then he was on his way back into the football bubble.
Lesson: Saban doesn’t do small talk. He wasn’t going to waste a moment’s breath or energy in engaging in banal pleasantries that had nothing to do with helping Alabama knock the crap out of Florida’s quarterback.
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He wasn’t even going to feign interest in what I was saying. He wasn’t going to indulge me with a response, courteous or discourteous, lest it might lead to even more small talk that cluttered his bubble and destroyed his focus and thus destroyed his soul.
So that was that.
It reminded me of something I once heard Jimmy Johnson say in the run-up to one of the Cowboys Super Bowl victories. Johnson said he didn’t go to dinner parties, lest he be seated next to “some woman with a bouffant hairdo who doesn’t even know who my quarterback is.”
As if not knowing the quarterback of the Cowboys is the most mortifying social faux pas imaginable.
Well, maybe it is in Dallas. And that’s awfully similar to the football mindset in Alabama. No wonder Saban has been such a good fit in Tuscaloosa.
Another old friend, Tom Izzo, told me last year that Saban really does have a heart and a human side. Others have said that as well. But the coach must fear letting most of America see that side, because he keeps it so deeply hidden.
The side we see is the tightly-wound achievatron who did not even crack a smile when the final seconds ticked off in the 2004 Sugar Bowl for Saban's first national title at LSU. The side we see is the control freak who berated the Alabama media in September for daring to write glowingly about the Crimson Tide after its blowout of Michigan to open the season. (Seriously, has any coach ever blown up the media for being too positive?)
The side we see is the imperious, impatient legend-in-residence who is always hustling to the next task, the next duty, the next item on The Process Checklist.
That’s the Saban that Jim Dunaway worked with on the coach’s TV show. Dunaway is a longtime TV and radio personality in Birmingham, Ala., who was the host of the Alabama coach’s TV show for six years – one year with Dennis Franchione, two with Mike Shula and three with Saban.
Franchione and Shula taped their shows on Sundays, part of a day of exhalation after playing a game the previous day. Franchione was into the show, Dunaway said. Shula was very laid back.
Saban does his show on Saturdays, right after the game. When he’s done with media obligations, they set up chairs on the field and shoot the thing right then and there. That allows him to get on with contacting recruits after the show, and to get on with the next week’s gameplan on Sundays. There is no exhale.
The postgame shows are, unsurprisingly, all business.
“Whenever I was around him, it was 30 minutes after a football game and that’s when he was most intense,” Dunaway said. “When he’s at work, there are no soft edges at all.
“He wanted [the show to be] good, but as quick as you can do it. I thought I was pretty good at it because I was pretty quick and didn’t say a lot of words. Maximizing his time is No. 1 on his list.”
The fact that Saban’s time is more important than yours is a commonly accepted fact in Alabama. The fact that he will occasionally berate media members who annoy him is perfectly acceptable as well. He is The Coach, and thus he is given a wide berth in the interpersonal relationship department.
“I remember as a kid seeing Bear Bryant chew out a female reporter during a national TV broadcast,” Dunaway said. “Alabama fans to this day still blame the reporter for that. As long as you’re winning like Bryant, it doesn’t matter how nice you are. And this guy is winning football games.
“I know he’s not a Wal-Mart greeter or hostess. But he doesn’t get paid to be that.”
Nick Saban turned 61 Wednesday.
He forgot it was his birthday, according to an interview he did with ESPN. His wife reminded him Wednesday morning.
At the Alabama football facility, players wished him happy birthday. The response was what you’d expect: momentary tolerance of the frivolity, then quickly back into the football bubble.
"He did a little smile,” cornerback Dee Milliner told AL.com, “but he’s Coach Saban.”
He’s a classic curmudgeon.
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