It took 38 excruciating days. Stressful, exciting, painful, miserable–it was all of it. Waiting for Alabama to finish its coaching search in 2006, watching every movement, tracking private plane tail numbers, sending interns to the Tuscaloosa Airport just to sit there in case Nick Saban arrived, those were some of the hardest days I’ve ever had as a reporter.
I had to step outside into the cold air during my future wife’s graduation party to talk to sources about the impending hire.
And finally, on Jan. 3, 2007, the Crimson Tide announced it had hired the former Miami Dolphins coach. Bama got Saban. And I remember surveying an absolutely bonkers scene at the Tuscaloosa Airport, with thousands of fans screaming their heads off in celebration of Saban’s hire, and thinking, PHEW. We did it. Now I can relax.
Covering Saban was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It was game-changing. Literally. When he retired on Jan. 10, it caused me to reflect on the unbelievable impact he’s had my life.
When he was hired, I was about to be 27 years old, an up-and-coming reporter who the college football world had barely noticed. I’d been covering a really bad Mississippi State team for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger about five months earlier, and had just begun at The Birmingham News. I had done fine. But I definitely was flying under the radar.
Then Saban happened. When people ask me how I got here, how I landed at NFL Network or even how I landed at the Boston Herald before that, the story starts with Saban. Suddenly, the entire country was reading my stuff. But that wasn’t all. My blog, The RapSheet, was getting hits from all over the world.
Saban was the single most all-consuming, attention-grabbing figure in sports. Regular, post-practice news conferences were broadcast live.
Reporters would show up and their jobs were easy, because the guy was so colorful that all they had to do was to write what he said. Because that was the only thing that mattered. What did Nick say? I called him, Nick, by the way, because that was his name. But holy cow, was that a subject of debate! Every question I asked would be a topic on “Tider Insider,” the main message board, mainly because I had the gall to call Saban by his name rather than Coach.
And the fans never got used to it. But Saban didn’t mind. What he did mind was my sitting in the front row asking him every question he didn’t want to answer. I would try to ask the first question every time. And he HATED it. He would interject and ask, “Why doesn’t Cecil (the elder, tenured journalist) get the first question?”
I asked my hard-edged questions, and he answered in his hard-edged way. And that was always a fun joust. He never ducked a question. But every once in a while, a question would cause an eruption. And that was the lead story on every local news show in Alabama.
SABAN LAMBASTS LOCAL REPORTER.
Because everything he said was news. He’d punctuate every statement with “a’ight,” and when he got going, he would jingle the change in his pocket. How quickly could you cause him to erupt?
When he finally settled in, you saw the Saban they hired. The first year was all about cleaning out the program. The second year, they started 10-0 and made the SEC title game. I’ll never forget watching Tim Tebow carve their hearts out in the fourth quarter in Atlanta, and then going on to win the national championship while leaving Alabama to a lackluster bowl game.
By then it was 2009, and my life was changing. Saban and I were friendly. We’d reached a point where annoying each other for theater wasn’t that fun. We had a meeting, put it all out on the table, and reached an understanding of coexisting. It was great. And he had the team rollin’.
He set his recruiting sights high and surpassed them. And oh man did they win. Six national titles, and it seems like they won more. Nine SEC titles. Two Coach of the Year awards and he could’ve won it every year. And endless wins, the kind of domination college football has never seen.
I moved on to cover the Patriots for the Boston Herald and then to NFL Network. But covering Saban never disappeared from my life. I would run into him at the Senior Bowl in Mobile every year and exchange pleasantries. And I would hear certain phrases or repeat certain phrases he said, because when you cover him, you live his words.
When I think back, there were so many interactions. I will never forget my final goodbye to him on the beat.
It was 2009, and I was leaving to cover the Pats. I pulled him aside at the SEC Media Days to let him know I was leaving. I said, “I’ll be covering the Patriots for the Boston Herald, and writing about Bill Belichick. Hey, you mind putting in a good word for me? Maybe tell him I’m a good guy?”
Saban looks at me incredulous and I can see him start to smile. “You want me to call up my best friend in the world and (expletive) lie to him?” And he cracked himself up and walked away.
Rye resident Ian Rapoport is NFL Network’s Insider. Follow him on Twitter @RapSheet.