Saban intense and demanding ... personable and funny?

by | CBSSports.com College Football Insider
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NEW ORLEANS -- During Nick Saban's 29-year coaching career, he has been described a lot of ways: demanding, intense and driven. Also he's been called a liar for how he left the Miami Dolphins for Alabama and a dictator. And those were some of the nicer things.

The perception of Saban is that he's as approachable as a porcupine.

The reality, his Alabama players, say is much, much different.

"When the cameras are on, he's really intense," Alabama left tackle Barrett Jones said. "He's a very intense coach at times. What people don't see is how personable he is behind closed doors. He's real easy to talk to -- he really encourages his players. Any time you have an issue you want to talk about you come to his office, he kind of has an open door policy.

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"He does joke around in practice, especially at the start of practice before things get heated up. He really has a different side to him that you don't really see."

A win Monday against No. 1-ranked LSU would give Alabama and Saban his second BCS national title in three seasons. Despite Saban's public persona, Alabama running back Trent Richardson said Saban is very down to earth.

"He jokes with us all the time," Richardson said. "He keeps us happy, man. We love for playing for Coach Saban. He says crazy stuff. He tells us we're being soft. Tells us funny jokes."

Saban also has a generous side. When he was an assistant with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s, he used his first playoff check to purchase his father-in-law a Cleveland Browns jacket. Inside one of the pockets, Saban placed the deed to his in-law's house, which he had paid off.

At Michigan State, Saban and his wife, Terry, started the Nick's Kids Fund, which they have continued at Alabama. It has raised millions of dollars for disadvantaged children. Saban made it a priority to help in the recovery efforts after the deadly tornados hit Tuscaloosa.

Saban also can let his hair down -- well, kind of. There's the YouTube clip of him dancing even if he isn't as limber as Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy.

And when Saban was at Kent State, where he was a quarterback, he would write his future wife these wonderful letters quoting poetry and music.

Nick Saban: a jokester, dancer and poet? What's the biggest misconception about Saban's personality and coaching style?

"Well, I think that, first of all, there's certain things that we think are important to being a champion," Saban said. "And hard work is one of those things, a tremendous commitment to the goals and things that are important to you.

"But I also think it's important that people learn how to be responsible for their own self-determination, which is accountability. And to have that in an organization, any organization, you have to define what the expectation is of the people in the organization.

"And I find that players and people in our organization really feel good about the fact that they know what the expectation is."

Saban said he learned it's about "doing your job and the responsibility and the accountability that goes with that" when he was Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns from 1991-94.

"But as a leader, make sure you define what that is. And we believe that it's important to be very positive in your approach to doing that, which I think is where the misconception probably starts. You know, you don't have to be negative to do that. "And I think that's probably what our players think. And that we are positive in our approach to what we do. But it's also defined, and the expectation is defined for them, and we expect them to be responsible to it. And it's really the only way you can have a team, because for people to trust and respect each other, which is important to togetherness on a team, they have to all buy into the same things and you can't have one guy saying, well, he did this but I'm not allowed to do that, because that creates divisiveness, which is never going to allow you to have the togetherness that you need to be successful in difficult circumstances.

"So those things we believe in, and I think that it's the way we do it that there's a misconception on because it's done in a very positive way."

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart says he appreciates the demands Saban puts on his coaches and players.

"When you say 'demanding,' to me: the definition of demanding is they require you to do what you're supposed to do, when you're supposed to do it and how you're supposed to do it," Smart said. "That's what he does. So is he demanding, yeah, he requires you to do your job.

"And I appreciate that. That gives me job security knowing that everyone in the organization is held accountable. And he holds everybody accountable. When he's demanding, he's usually right."

When Saban became LSU's coach before the 2000 season after five seasons at Michigan State, Saban admitted it was his fault for the way he was portrayed.

"I don't blame anybody for it," Saban said in a 2000 interview. "I'm amused by it. But I also take responsibility for it. Maybe I missed the boat. I think my role as a head coach trying to have a class program is to represent the program with professionalism and class. In doing that, maybe I haven't been as amusing as I should be. Maybe I haven't tried to make everyone think I'm a happy-go-lucky, easy-going, don't-care-about-anything guy.

"I don't think there's very many guys who coach like that who have much success. Maybe I represented, not as a person, but more how I feel a coach should be. Maybe that hasn't been a true reflection of my personality. Therefore, I do shake my head and laugh about it. My wife does too."

So do his players.

"Coach is a wonderful guy on and off the field," Alabama wide receiver Marquis Maze said. "A lot of people just see him hollering. The media catches him hollering and intense. At practice, he's more laid back, he talks to us. We can talk to him anytime.

"He approaches everything as a business approach. That's how you know. That's what the NFL is a business. That's how we practice and we go about doing things."

Saban said he gets satisfaction and enjoyment out of getting his team ready to play each week.

"It's very challenging," Saban said. "So that's my enjoyment. Now, maybe your perception of enjoyment is you go out and have a party. Well, that's not my enjoyment of this experience. We have been to the Sugar Bowl four times, and I really do enjoy the relationships that we have with the people here at the Sugar Bowl. "So in my own way, as the coach, I enjoy this. Putting the team together, putting the plan together, to have an opportunity to play against a great team and see if you can be successful, that's my enjoyment.

"So that's my fun. It may not be other people's fun. So I enjoy it. In my own way I enjoy it. This is what you work for, to have these kinds of opportunities."

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