It doesn’t get more intense than Nick Saban on a gameday. Before and after his team competes, you might see him a handful of times: A pregame interview with ESPN, the Walk of Champions, his post-game press conference. All the while, Saban remains focused on finishing the job, yet there’s a moment of lightheartedness from the hyper-serious coach you can spot mere minutes before the Tide kicks off.
We’ve seen Saban cut loose plenty of times, not to suggest the man is incapable of experiencing joy. Alabama fans know better than anybody the coach is a pretty funny guy via his weekly radio show, his annual lake parties or hilarious mic’d up clips. It’s just when it’s time to put the pads on for games or improve at practice, he dials up the intensity.
But throughout the years, we’ve amassed several pregame photos of Saban seemingly at his most easy-going mere moments before kickoff, when everything is at stake for his program. Focus on midfield where Saban appears genuinely glad to have a brief conversation with another head coach and usually shares a big smile with that day’s opponent. Saban seems his most relaxed during those conversations, even when he’s with a perceived rival or the coach of a “cupcake” team. You catch a glimpse of two head coaches sharing the experience leading their teams to compete after a week of preparation. Maybe he just likes talking ball with someone who does what he does, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Ahead of the Alabama-Ole Miss game in 2021, Lane Kiffin gives Paul Finebaum and the college football-watching world an explanation of what actually is said during those on-the-field, pre-game meet and greets between coaches. “They really are irrelevant,” Kiffin said of the pre-game chats with opposing coaches. “Both people are ready for the game. It’s really just some tradition that they have.
“You go out there and he’ll say, ‘Welcome,’” he said of his talks with Saban. “Talk about the weather. How’s everything? (I’ll ask,) how’s Miss. Terry doing? That’s about it.” He continued: “I mean what do people really think we talk about out there? ‘Hey, we’re really gonna work on your safety with some double moves today.’ I mean there just isn’t a whole lot to say.”
In the gallery above or the photos below, take a look at the images documenting the famously focused coach taking a moment to relax and enjoy what he and his contemporary do for a living.
For starters, we’ve already seen this from Saban in 2022, with opposing coaches like Steve Sarkisian (his former assistant) of Texas, or Terry Bowden of Louisiana-Monroe.
He may have a hundred cameras on him at all times on a gameday, but Saban manages to cut loose before kickoff, even with former assistant and Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher. The two notably exchanged opinions on how NIL impacts recruiting, with Fisher getting especially heated, but they each insist it’s water under the bridge. We’ll look for a similarly cordial encounter on Oct. 8, when the Aggies visit Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Who wouldn’t share a giggle with Lane Kiffin, Saban’s former offensive coordinator and new rival in the SEC West? As mentioned above, Kiffin insists coaches don’t discuss anything particularly important during the pregame meeting, but what makes Nick Saban crack up like this? Perhaps it’s just Kiffin, one of the funniest personalities in college football.
Even Saban’s biggest “rivals” draw a rare twinkle in their eye, with coaches like Gus Malzahn, Gene Chizik, Les Miles, Hugh Freeze and Ed Orgeron chortling with the iconic coach.
It doesn’t appear to bother Saban if and when another coach gets the best of him on the gridiron, the way Dabo Swinney did (twice) on the biggest stag as Clemson coach or Kevin Sumlin did when he brought Johnny Football to Bryant-Denny .
What’s really on display is the level of respect Saban and his opposing coaches have for each other, and the resumé doesn’t matter. Coaches have a lot in common and can share stories for days, each knowing what the other experiences on a daily basis in building a program and leading a group of young men at critical periods in their lives. But you see the reverence Saban has for coaches like David Cutcliffe, Frank Beamer and Mark Richt. Or the joy he might feel competing against former assistants like Jim McElwain and Will Muschamp. Or the parallels he can draw with leaders of smaller programs like Mark Spier at Western Carolina (or Terry Bowden at Louisiana-Monroe, above).