ATLANTA — It was a surreal moment, something in the comparable realm of Man Bites Dog.
After accepting the National Football Foundation ‘MacArthur Bowl’ trophy on Friday afternoon, commemorating Alabama’s most recent national championship, head coach Nick Saban stepped out of character and spilled the beans on a trade secret.
A media trade secret.
While addressing the red-and-white-clad, pro-Crimson Tide group at the College Football Hall of Fame, Saban thanked everyone who put the ‘MacArthur Bowl’ event together. He then congratulated ESPN announcer Brad Nessler (Friday’s emcee) … on his hush-hush move to CBS sometime this summer.
It was an endearing, laugh-inducing moment. It also brought a rarely seen shade of rouge to Nessler’s face.
Imagine that, the normally tight-lipped Saban breaking news to an audience that might not spend countless hours reading media-insider blogs.
“That’s a big thing out of the bag by Nick,” said Nessler, wearing a wide smile. “I’m not really supposed to talk about it.”
Since 1981, Nessler has been an entrenched part of American sports broadcasting. After calling Georgia Tech basketball (1981-85), along with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons (1982-87) and Minnesota Vikings (1988-89), he made the life-changing jump to network TV — CBS (1990-91) and then ESPN (1992-present).
“I got my start in television 27 years ago,” says Nessler, a prominent voice with college football, college hoops, the NBA and NFL. “That was with CBS, and now according to Nick (Saban), I’m going back.”
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Saban has grown accustomed to ‘going back’ to the National Football Foundation’s trophy ceremony. The intensely driven coach has claimed five national championships since 2003 — four with Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012, 2015) and one with LSU (2003).
“Looking at the film (honoring previous teams who’ve won the MacArthur Bowl trophy), and all the great coaches … and I’m thinking, ‘(Saban’s) won more than all these guys,'” marvels Nessler. “Nick’s a phenomenal coach, maybe the greatest coach college football’s ever had … including The Bear.”
For the record, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant has six national titles to his credit, one more than Saban. As such, both coaches have larger-than-life statues outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
So, does that bode well for Saban’s successor, whenever the notion of retiring hits the supremely focused coach?
“I know (Dabo Swinney) signed a new contract at Clemson that goes on forever, because they thought Dabo would go to Tuscaloosa. …
“You didn’t want to follow Bear Bryant (in 1982). You didn’t want to follow (basketball legend) John Wooden (in 1975). They’re guys you just can’t replace … and I wouldn’t want to follow Nick, either,” quips Nessler.
Which brings us to this: If/when Nessler rejoins the CBS family, there are whispers of him succeeding the avuncular Verne Lundquist for the “SEC Game Of The Week” broadcast (3:30 p.m. window on Saturdays).
It’s perhaps the most plum assignment in college football broadcasting.
“Virtually every week (at ESPN), we’d look at the SEC schedule and figure out what game CBS would take, and what we’re going to get,” recalls Nessler. “It’s the best game from the best conference in the country.”
After receiving an assignment, Nessler then goes full-bore with the play-by-play preparation. “It starts on Monday and goes until (Saturday) kickoff for me. … The sport of college football is ever-changing. You lose guys like (Heisman Trophy winner) Derrick Henry or (linebacker) Reggie Ragland, and Alabama just plugs (new) guys in. It’s a lot of (preparation) time.”
Superstar SEC players come and go. Thankfully, we’ll soon have Nessler and Saban in place, in the wake of such change.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.