Sending emails and opening bills: Inside Nick Saban's 'new reality'

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The stress level of former Alabama football coach Nick Saban is down exponentially these days, though there are some harrowing moments.

Like when his 3-year-old grandson, James, joins him on the golf course.

“The challenge is keeping him out of the sand traps,” Saban said. “He likes to play in the sand. That’s about the most stress I’ve had.”

The legendary coach’s meticulous attention to detail and unmatched work ethic during his 17 seasons in Tuscaloosa produced six national championships (after he won one at LSU), 123 NFL draft picks — including 44 first-rounders — and a new standard in college football.

But it left little time for anything else. Remember, Saban once reportedly complained about the national title game costing him a week of recruiting time.

So how has Saban adapted to his new life? It’s something his closest confidants, family members and Saban himself are still coming to grips with.

“When you’re in a rat race like he’s been, you could never really step away and appreciate what you’ve accomplished,” said Alabama head athletic trainer Jeff Allen, the only football staff member Saban brought to the Tide who was there for his entire tenure.

“You just never could because in this business as soon as you take a breath, you’re getting beat. He wasn’t going to take a breath.”

Not only is Saban now taking a breath, he’s seeing the world outside of football. He’s experiencing things he never had time for in the past. He’s actually relaxing, a word that previously wasn’t really part of his vocabulary.

“The biggest change for me as a person is that I lived my whole life for the last 50 years being in a hurry,” Saban told ESPN. “It was, ‘Hurry up to go here. Hurry up to go there. Don’t be late for this meeting. You’ve got another meeting in an hour. What are you going to say to the staff? What are you going to say to the team?’

“I mean, it was just deadline after deadline after deadline. Even when I was driving to the lake to go on vacation, I’d be in a hurry, and for what? But that’s just how you were built.”

‘The Ten Commandments of Retirement’

THERE WAS NEVER any debate about who was in charge of Alabama’s football program, but Saban has often joked that his wife of 52 years, Terry, was the family member most proficient at giving orders.

The day after he retired in January, Saban said he had a note from Ms. Terry, as he refers to her, sitting on his chair. It spelled out “The Ten Commandments of Retirement.”

Terry wouldn’t share all of them, but near the top was the decree that Saban wait for her to sit down at the dinner table and to slow down when eating. She also told him it was polite to leave a little something on his plate when eating at a restaurant.

“So at our first dinner at home, he brought his plate to me with half a pickle on it and said, ‘To be polite!'” Terry said.

Another commandment calls for Saban to alter his behavior when they are settling in on the couch. For years, when Terry would get a blanket for herself, she always picked one up for Saban.

“Now, I’d appreciate the same courtesy,” she wrote.

Terry has enrolled Saban into her own version of a “Tech 101” class.

“He’s actually texting and reading his own emails and sent his first-ever email,” Terry said. “He even took his first trip to the pharmacy to pick up his first prescription. He’s actually quite proud of himself.”

To be clear, Saban has hardly become a homebody. He doesn’t hang out watching television, though he admits to being a big fan of “Game of Thrones.”

“I can’t stand sitting around now any more than I could stand it when I was coaching,” Saban said. “I want to stay busy. I think everybody looks at me like, ‘This guy’s a ball coach and that’s all he does.’ I’ve got businesses, I do speaking stuff. I’ve got my TV job now with ESPN. I like to play golf. I’ve got tons of stuff to do. So I’m not retiring to quit working.”

Saban is part-owner of multiple car dealerships, including a Ferrari dealership in Nashville and a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Birmingham. He has a stake in a boutique hotel, The Alamite, in downtown Tuscaloosa.

“What’s so exciting for all of us, especially him, is that he kind of has a blank slate now that he can play around with,” said Saban’s daughter Kristen, who lives in Birmingham. “It’s really nice to see him not have this big stressful thing hanging over him. He’s accomplished so much that I don’t think he feels like he’s leaving anything behind. He’s leaving with no regrets and stepping away with a lot of gratitude and a lot of relief at the same time.

“He’s in a relaxed state of mind that I haven’t really seen him in, and it kind of puts everybody else at peace too.”

Now that Saban is home more, he has been doing the kind of mundane household tasks most don’t even think about but that weren’t part of his routine. Imagine being the delivery driver who finds himself face-to-face with college football’s greatest coach.

“It’s funny to see people’s reaction when he opens the door because for 17 years he has never been there to answer it,” said Terry, who has had as much fun as anybody reveling in the changes in her husband’s lifestyle.

She joked that Saban has now learned where all the light switches are in the house and has taken to getting the mail. He even opens up some of the bills now.

“Sometimes ignorance is bliss,” Terry said.

Kristen is confident her dad will continue to evolve and adapt in retirement, much as he did when he was coaching. But don’t expect him to show up on social media.

“No chance,” Kristen said, laughing. “People have said they want him on it, and I’ve said it’s just not going to happen. He just learned to text and email. How’s he going to tweet something?”

Kristen promises to post a few pictures of the retirement version of her dad from time to time on her social media accounts.

“But could you imagine him doing an Instagram selfie or something somewhere on the golf course?” she said. “We can hope, but it’s not going to happen.”

And don’t expect Saban to make many grocery store runs, as Kristen and Terry learned their lesson a few years ago when the family was at their old home in Boca Grande, Florida. They sent Saban to the store to restock the fridge with ketchup, mustard and other condiments, and to fill the car with gas. But the perfectionist in Saban quickly became a problem.

“He was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I can do it,’ and he’s not even in the store for five minutes when he calls and says, ‘There’s a hundred bottles of ketchup and mustard on the shelf. Which kind am I supposed to get?'” Kristen recounted.

Saban was persistent: “Is there a specific brand or size?”

Kristen, who laughs as hard now as she did when the grocery store excursion occurred, said the general response from her and her mom was the same.

“God forbid he grabs the wrong bottle,” she said. “We were like, ‘OK, just grab whatever.'”

A windowless office and lunchtime golf

THE SABANS HAVE a new home in Jupiter Island, Florida, not far from where Tiger Woods lives. They’ve been there for most of March, and though they will spend plenty of time there in the offseason, they will remain based in Tuscaloosa. Saban wants to be close enough where he can be a resource for the university and will also have more time to join Terry in her philanthropic work.

“I want to bring the least amount of attention to me being around here as possible,” Saban said. “So I want to be supportive. I want to be helpful, but I don’t want to be looking over anybody’s shoulder.”

In other words, don’t expect him to be walking around the hallways at the football complex and poking his head in meetings. He’s talked multiple times with new coach Kalen DeBoer and even had a conversation with new defensive coordinator Kane Wommack, but Saban will steer clear of the day-to-day football operation.

He will keep an office on campus, but not in the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility where it had been for the past 17 years. His new office is located above the south end zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium, the opposite side from the Walk of Champions and Saban’s statue, so he won’t have to walk past the 9-foot bronze likeness of himself. His office is modest in size with no windows, and his desk is the same one he had at the football complex.

“It’s just a hell of a lot cleaner,” Saban said.

When he’s heading to the office, Saban leaves the house about the same time he always did, just before 7 a.m. Depending on what he has going on, he may head home around 4 p.m., or he may leave at lunchtime and go hit golf balls. He’s not naïve and knows there will be some football withdrawal as he settles into retirement life.

When Saban was nearing a decision about whether to retire, he spoke with Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, who has a house in the same area of Jupiter Island. Parcells is in the thoroughbred racing business and cautioned Saban not to fall into the same trap as some of the jockeys he’s seen who keep riding into and beyond their 50s because it’s in their blood and they just can’t give it up.

“It’s a hazardous occupation, and I’m talking about screws just holding those guys’ chests together, and they’re still taking every mount they can get. There’s no way they’re ever going to quit,” Saban said, relaying his conversation with Parcells. “Coaches are like that, too, because as a coach, you think you’ve got to keep coaching, you’ve got to keep teaching, that you can’t do without it.

“But Parcells’ analogy was a good one for me, because you step back and realize that you can.”

Mark Dantonio, who was Saban’s defensive backs coach at Michigan State in the 1990s and was later the Spartans’ head coach for 13 seasons, remembers getting a call from his old boss about two or three days after Dantonio retired in 2019.

“He called just checking on how I was doing, and then two days after that call, he called me back again to check on me,” recalled Dantonio, who is part of the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2024. “When you retire in this business, you’re jumping off a fast car. There’s no landing place. You go from working 365 days, 24 hours a day, to being retired. There’s going to be other things that replace that, but nothing like you’re used to. So there’s quite an adjustment.”

Football will always be a part of Saban’s DNA, whether he’s lending his voice in an attempt to help ease the current chaos in the sport, as he did earlier this month when appearing before a congressional committee in Washington, D.C., or breaking down a matchup on ESPN’s “College GameDay,” which he will be a part of this season. Saban has been working overtime watching tape and researching players — many of whom he coached, coached against or recruited — in preparation for ESPN’s NFL draft coverage.

His desk is surrounded by a stack of boxes filled with notes going back more than 20 years. He’s in the process of consolidating his notes from some of the talks he had with coaches and players.

“It’s taken forever because they’re not in order,” Saban said. “I was looking at a talk today, for instance, when I was with the Dolphins before we played the Oakland Raiders. I want to be able to remember what I said to the players, the points I was trying to make, some of the things you want to get across when you’re talking to some of these groups about leadership.”

Joe Pendry was one of Saban’s most trusted confidants in football, and they go all the way back to their West Virginia roots. Pendry, who was Saban’s first offensive line coach at Alabama, offered his longtime pal a very simple piece of advice.

“‘Turn that phone off and leave it off,'” Pendry said he told Saban. “It’s never easy when you’ve done it as long and as well as Nick has and then walk away and not undergo a little bit of a debriefing process. He’ll get there. It just might take him some time, especially on those dates like preseason camp starting and the season starting. As much as anything, he’s going to miss practice because nobody loved being out there coaching and teaching those players more than Nick did.”

Enjoying a ‘new reality’

Saban promised Terry he would walk away from football while their quality of life would still allow them to do things they’ve wanted to but couldn’t because of his schedule. That may mean more trips to their home in Lake Burton, Georgia, where they have a group of friends who don’t bombard him with football talk. Saban has celebrated his birthday (he turns 73 this year) the past few years with those friends. And since his birthday falls on Halloween, usually during an open date on Alabama’s schedule, they don’t gather to watch football, but occasionally dress up in costumes.

Last October, Saban dressed up as explorer John Smith from “Pocahontas.” Other costumes included Thurston Howell III and Lovey from the old television show “Gilligan’s Island.”

“We all are enjoying this new reality of more time, more choices and less stress,” Terry said.

And more time to play golf.

Last month Saban played at a celebrity tournament in Florida with rappers 50 Cent and Travis Scott. When Kristen caught wind of that, she couldn’t resist needling her dad.

“I said, ‘Do you understand who you’re playing golf with right now?'” she asked. “He goes, ‘Yeah, they’re rappers.’ I told him they’re not just rappers, that 50 Cent was the biggest rapper of my generation and Travis Scott is one of the biggest of the current generation. I was like, ‘You have no idea the people you’re in the presence of,’ and he really didn’t.

“He could meet the Dalai Lama and not realize who it was.”

On a typical workday, Saban ate lunch at his desk, the same salad, with turkey slices and cherry tomatoes, day after day. His new office on campus is just steps away from Rama Jama’s, an iconic area restaurant that is a virtual football museum filled with helmets, jerseys and other memorabilia. On the day Saban moved into his new digs, Allen pointed to Rama Jama’s and said, “Coach, now you can walk across the street and get you a hamburger for lunch.”

Saban looked quizzically at the restaurant and said, “Yeah, what is that place? Has it been there for a long time?”

Allen, who had a front-row seat for Saban’s singular focus for 17 seasons, could only laugh.

“Yeah, Coach, for decades,” he responded.

Saban nodded and said that he might try it sometime.

“I just want to be there when he walks in and orders a hamburger,” Allen said with a laugh.

So does Kristen.

“We all do,” she said. “Seeing him sitting there and eating a hamburger in the middle of the day might be the surest sign yet that he’s really retired, and he deserves every bit of it.”

Saban smiled when asked how long it took for a sense of relief to set in after telling his players he was retiring.

“Really as soon as I did it,” he said. “Now, I had to adapt. People would call me and ask me questions. Players would call and ask what they should do, and I would commiserate on it and tell Terry that so-and-so is calling about this or that or whatever.”

Terry’s response was always the same: “It’s not your problem anymore.”

“I had to get used to that part of it,” Saban said.

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