Here come the elephants as Alabama football set to open fall camp
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nick Saban had one job Wednesday afternoon, and he wasn’t going to screw it up.
It was to introduce his wife, Terry, at the annual Nick’s Kids Foundation giveaway luncheon, which is now entering its second decade of serving as the final event of the University of Alabama offseason.
“When we came almost 11 years ago the room was much smaller, and our donations were smaller,” she said. “But since that time everything has gotten bigger, better, happier and I truly know and feel like I have friends in the audience now.
“That’s a very special thing and a very unusual thing in a coach’s life, to say that you’ve lived somewhere long enough to have real friends.”
While the coach calls this his favorite day of the year, it’s also the one day in which he tries to take a step back and talk as little about football as possible. The calm before the storm is an appropriate phrase because the event is held on the eve of the Crimson Tide’s first practice of training camp.
The regiment is everything with Saban, even an event like this. For example, he makes sure to eat before walking into the packed North Zone, a spacious large hospitality area at Bryant-Denny Stadium that overlooks the field, so it doesn’t distract from shaking hands, meeting kids and having a photo taken with every group in attendance.
Even giving out money is done with maximum efficiency.
“I’m so excited that we set a record,” Saban said of the $500,000 distributed to more than 150 organizations, as the foundation named in honor of his father claimed to top $7 million total over the years.
He didn’t mention anything about senior defensive end Da’Shawn Hand’s status following his weekend DUI, sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts’ development or if anyone might be limited during the initial days of camp. The one exception he made was to comment on the passing of Notre Dame coaching legend Ara Parseghian, whom he had met a few times.
“I had a lot of respect for him,” Saban said, as Notre Dame had a “unique” relationship with Michigan State back when Saban was the head coach of the Spartans (1995-99). With the win to secure the 2012 national championship he improved to 4-0 against the Fighting Irish.
Otherwise, football could wait another day. A group of players including Hurts, senior center Bradley Bozeman and junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick were on hand to offer support and sign autographs for kids, but then took off to enjoy their last few hours of summer.
It’s similar to what Alabama has been through since it last played Jan. 9, the 35-31 loss to Clemson and Saban’s first in a national title game. Everyone sort of took a deep breath and then went back to work.
“Right after the championship game I said, ‘My season starts on the 10th,’ and, on the 10th, coach Saban got in touch with me and was like, ‘OK, this is what we need to improve on,’” Hurts said in the spring. “We’ve been working on it ever since the 10th of January.”
That’s normal for Alabama, just like Saban watching game film on the flight home from every game, even the national championship, and his legendary attention to detail. Understanding those concepts and that they’re applied to every aspect of the organization are the key to getting what Saban calls “The Process.”
The first day of camp will be what’s next, then the next day and so on. This year’s theme of “Don’t waste a failure” is already entrenched, and when the players hit the field Saban will be doing what he always does, like wearing his straw hat while throwing passes to his position group, the defensive backs.
“He’s full on energy,” Bozeman said. “He’s always out there.”
Alabama is considered the overwhelming favorite to win a fourth straight SEC title despite half of the 2016 starting lineup no longer on the team.
There’s also a new offensive coordinator who has previously never had that role on a college team (but three times in the NFL). After years of dominating the recruiting scene, the Crimson Tide only have seven players committed to the next recruiting class. Alabama is among the last SEC teams to open training camp, as Mississippi State has been practicing since July 25 and Arkansas began on July 27.
But then you look at the talent-rich roster, plus the program’s success over last 10 years, and know that everything’s pretty much business as normal in Tuscaloosa — just as Saban wants. It’s even being seen on the academic side as the National Football Foundation announced Wednesday only four teams in the nation have more graduates who are playing this season while pursuing a second degree than Alabama’s 12: Northwestern (18), Coastal Carolina (14), Cincinnati (13) and Toledo (13).
Keeping everyone on course is what the coach is best at, and without saying a word they all got the message Wednesday that the break’s over. In the spirit or Alabama’s mascot, Big Al, who was named after a fan’s comment when Wallace Wade put his best players in a game during the 1930 national title season, here come the elephants.
“All of the guys on our team are competitors,” Bozeman said. “They want to win. That’s part of it. You wouldn’t be at Alabama if you didn’t want to win, if you didn’t want to continue what Julio [Jones], Barret [Jones], you name it, started. It’s part of our lifestyle. It’s part of us.”