SI 60 Q&A: Rick Bragg talks Alabama football, his Nick Saban cover story
In the spring of 2007, Nick Saban hadn't coached a down for Alabama, but that didn't stop 92,000 folks from gathering in Bryant-Denny Stadium to watch a scrimmage. It'd been 15 years -- an outright eternity -- since the Crimson Tide had won a national championship, and everyone in Tuscaloosa was eager to see what the new coach could bring. To Rick Bragg, that spring of anticipation was about more than a new coach -- it was about the history of Alabama football, and about the people of his home state.
After a long career as a journalist, during which he won a Pulitzer Prize with The New York Times, Bragg was writing books and teaching writing at the University of Alabama when Sports Illustrated came calling and asked him to write about Saban and the culture surrounding football in Tuscaloosa. When I called him to tell him his story was being featured in the SI 60, he was so excited that he talked for 15 minutes straight.
RICK BRAGG: This is a true story, and if you wanna use this in your story, you can.
I've lucked into some books that sold a few copies. And you can work three years on a book. And people will be very kind to you, and they'll come out by the hundreds to pick up a signed book. And thank goodness that has happened, so that I could have a writing life. But you write one story about Alabama football, and you live in Alabama, you can't go to the Winn-Dixie anymore. If I walk around the square in my hometown or go to Publix, a few people know my face, and they'd say, "I just want you to know how proud we are of you." And I'd think, that's nice, they're my books.
But no, with Roll Tide and War Eagle on every breath, people still walk up to me and say, I remember that story you did on Alabama and Saban. And they'd want to know more. You kind of hate to tell them, I used everything I had. There wasn't anything else to tell them.
SI: You've written front-page stories for the New York Times, you've won a Pulitzer Prize, you've written several best-selling books. Is it weird how well known you are for this one story?
BRAGG: It's very odd. I've gotta be honest -- in my life as a whole, because so many of my readers are outside the state, I can't say that the SI story eclipses All Over But the Shoutin' in my legacy -- but it came damn close. It was funny, everybody wanted a copy of the magazine. My kinfolk, if I wrote a book, they'd be nice to me and ask for a copy and read it. But for this, I was schlepping from grocery store to grocery store to book store to try to get a handful of them. I only have one left, and it looks like someone roller-skated on it.
I use it in my class to show how to write with images. I love writing about history. I'm not an X's and O's man. I might be able to tell you the kind of defense someone is running, but probably not. I know what the wishbone looks like because I grew up watching. I know what a lot of the antiques look like. I like writing about the sociological things and the history. A look at the great Alabama society.
SI: Did the magazine approach you for the story, or was it something you'd wanted to write?
BRAGG: They approached me, and I was glad they did. You develop contacts over the years, and this is how the conversation goes: Let's keep in touch, and we'll have you do this, this and this. And invariably, when it is the least convenient, that's when it happens. I like to do a long sports heave a couple times a year because I am a sports fan. I'm a Braves fan. I'm an Alabama football fan. But I was never an Auburn hater. I am a big Jacksonville State football fan -- go Gamecocks! -- they play a great brand of football. When I was 8, my uncles would take me to see these games -- these guys that were heroes in my hometown. Running backs like Boyce Callahan, and quarterbacks like Ralph Dieter Brock who went up to the CFL and threw for like a million yards. I've always been a football fan.
But if I'm going to write about it, it's going to be history or culture.
SI: What was the reporting like for the story?
BRAGG: It was fun. I wasn't sure how it was going to play out. I knew he was a tough interview. I think no matter what you're looking for, he's tough. If you ask about a game, he certainly won't give anything away. If you ask him about gentler things, he's kind of slow to give away that kind of personal information. I was tickled to death to get as much as I did.
I've interviewed suspected serial killers. I've interviewed suspected terrorists. I've interviewed people who went to prison for killing men. I've interviewed a bunch of scary people, but Saban made me nervous.
The AD said, you have 30 minutes. I can't even collect my thoughts in 30 minutes. He's not quite as terrifying as I'd been led to believe. But there's a point where he looks at you with them drill-bit eyes. In your head, every question sounds stupid as it comes out of your mouth. I've seen very few people who could make you feel that way.
I knew that a decent story couldn't hang on what he was going to give me. He hadn't coached a down yet in a game. But I knew a fella in Tuscaloosa. A true, devoted Crimson Tide fan and alum named Ken Fowler. I'd known him for years. He's just one of those people who knows how to tell a story. I knew that he had suffered -- oh man, he had suffered -- through the old days before [Bear] Bryant. And he had that perspective. And he'd been an Alabama fan all of his life. He was able to capture that hope. He had that wonderful perspective of having seen that before -- seen that hope and recognized that sound. He recognized that sound at the start of the story. His stories made the story.
I still remember that quote from him: "People used to stare at him on the sideline like he was about to turn a stick into a snake."
I've always said, if you're going to write a good story, find yourself a person with a crease or two in his face. He eats up SEC football, loves the St. Louis Cardinals. He was born in Jacksonville, Alabama, my hometown. He's a successful businessman and could have lived anywhere in the world, but he picked Tuscaloosa so he can go to lunch with his bodies.
SI: Was it difficult to get Saban agree to give you access and time? He's not known as the most media-friendly coach in the world.
BRAGG: I understood that things had changed. When I was a sportswriter as a young man, 30 years ago, you had to go through the AD. I don't think I ever was part of an era where you could call up the head coach. And I wasn't a veteran guy he knew. Saban didn't know me from Adam. So I called sports information, and Mal Moore -- I'd known Mal for a couple years. I sat in the box for a couple games. I saw us beat Florida in the Shula era. I saw one of the small Florida teams beat us at home.
I had known Moore, and he'd always been kind to me. We had mutual friends. He'd read my books. I approached him first. And so I had that going for me. I'm sure Mal kind of blocked for me. Because, at the time, it was really tough to get time with Saban -- 10 minutes, 15 minutes or "no thank you" was standard. SI swings a lot of weight. And Mal helped arrange it, too. What I had to have from Saban was just to get him to speak to those traditions. But he's gonna say what he's gonna say, no matter what the question. It's safe to say, he's going to say less than more. I actually spent a couple hours with him. And quite frankly, that was enough. I knew that much of the piece would come from other places. I knew I wasn't gonna get anything earth-shattering from Saban.
SI: Did he read it?
BRAGG: You think, in your mind, you'll walk across the quad one day, see Saban and chat for two minutes in mid-stride. Oddly enough, that has not happened. The kind of piece it was -- it was more about the society, this great society of Alabama football and less about the Xs and Os. His milk and meat is the game. I was more interested in everything that swirled around it. I didn't anticipate a problem. I didn't think he was gonna come and slap me upside the head. I've certainly had some coaches voice displeasure over the years.
I haven't seen him. I've sat next to his wife, and she's a very sweet lady.
SI: The lede of this story is stunning. "They say college football is religion in the Deep South, but it's not. Only religion is religion." How did you land on that lede
BRAGG: I try to teach that if you begin a story with a scene, then you've got the reader. You don't have to be clever. But if you begin with a scene, just about always, then you win.
And I broke that rule with Alabama. I had that scene of Mr. Fowler climbing up to hear that sound. I had a great scene. But I kind of wanted to set the stage with a little graf of pure color. It's always made me mad when people say football is religion in the deep south. But really, it's more and less than that. Anybody's that's ever seen a river baptism knows that it cheapens that a little bit to compare that to a football game. That's where that lead came from and get beyond the cliche. I don't know if we did or not, but I took a stab at it. This would be the forum to do that. I think, if anything, that fervor has only gotten stronger.
SI: There's another memorable line from the story, that Nick Saban's contract paid him so much money he could "burn a wet dog." Where did that come from, and what do you think that he now makes almost twice as much?
BRAGG: I had a call from some lady who was mad at me. "Why would you advocate the burning of a wet dog?" she asked me. I didn't say go out and burn a dog. It was something that my people say. It was something you'd say about a farmer who went out and got himself a new pickup or a new tractor. I can remember them standing there, everyone with tools in his hand and work boots on. The young men wore blue jeans and the old men wore khakis with oil stains on them. One of them would look at man with a new tractor and say, "He has so much money, he could burn a wet dog." You wait 40 years to use a line like that. But it just seemed to fit.
That story allowed you to get away with a little because there was so much hyperbole that it made it more fun.
SI: You grew up an Alabama football fan, and when you wrote the story you were -- and still are -- a professor at Alabama. How do you think that affected the story.
BRAGG: We had an understanding. I tried to write the story without sounding like a homer. I think it was purely third-person. And even with that, tone might creep into it. I don't think that story looked different because I was an Alabama fan. If they'd asked me to do a piece about Auburn or Tennessee or LSU, it would have looked the same. I would have just had to do more research. I knew about the Rose Bowl train. I knew about the wasteland before Bryant. I knew about the more recent history, which was difficult.
All kidding aside, I loved the chance to do it. I had a good time doing it. I wrote it when I was still pretty new there at Alabama. Everyone that I interviewed was right there at my elbow. Jim Fowler I'd known for years. It was cherry-picking, which is always easier.
It's funny, I remember when I was at the St. Pete Times, I wanted to go to Saudi Arabia. This would have been Operation Desert Shield. I wanted to go, I really wanted to go. I was young and stupid -- stupider. About four or five days before deciding who to send, I bought a Florida hat and wore it around the newsroom because our managing editor, Mike Foley, was a Gator. I'd never worn a damn Florida hat in my life. There's a picture of me in a Florida hat that the St. Pete Times has to this day, and it surfaces from time to time. I'm sure it could result in my termination. Foley -- he knows it.
SI: Do I remember reading that one of you and one of your brothers have a grudge over Alabama football?
Bragg: Me and my brother Sam and sister-in-law Teresa often watch Alabama games if they're on TV. I watch Alabama-Auburn at their house. I love to see if it in person, but it's kind of nice to sit there and eat some chicken and enjoy the game. But the last two times I've watched in their house, Alabama lost. So they're kind about, but I'm banned. They're too kind to ban me, but I mentioned banning myself, and they were more than happy to go along with it. There are a lot of Auburn people in my extended family. I was a sportswriter for a long time, and when you're a sportswriter you have to choke down that sports fan in you. I think I pumped my fist at a Jackson State, and the veteran writer gave me a look that changed me forever.
SI: What do you think about the story now looking back?
BRAGG: I often do talks around the country. One of the talks I do every year is to the spouses of the board of trustees at Alabama. And they have a very elegant lunch -- elegant being wasted on me -- at the president's mansion. I sometimes do that in back-to-back years. Fowler, who is not a trustee but he is a friend of the university, came to hear me talk to them one year. I gave this impassioned talk about writing. It was just stuff I care about -- especially about writing about my people. You know, you can tell by looking at people, if you have them or not. And people were kind and nodding their heads. And I thought, I've done what I wanted to do. I talked about writing and the importance of it to this room of very important people. When I was done, I said, "Are there any questions?" Fowler raised his hand and said, can we run the ball on Florida's defense?
I've been at Alabama going on 10 years. And I don't think I've seen Saban since that piece ran. But I get compared to him sometimes still. I had a pretty good year a few years ago -- a book of mine did well, and I won a few awards. And someone came up to me and told me, "You had a pretty good year. Just not as good as Saban."
I can walk through the Wal-Mart in my hometown and people know who I am and are very kind to me. He could walk through the Wal-Mart on Neptune and get noticed.
It is a fact that people still ask me for a copy. And I'll do a book signing, and not just in Alabama -- I'll do a book signing as far away as Seattle, and I probably sign one of those copies of SI, even now, every two or three book signings I do. People have saved it. They've put covers on it. It's precious to people. I think I got lucky. First of all, having Saban coach your football team, then you know things are going to happen in it -- and they'll probably be successful.
But I think I got lucky in how quickly it turned around. If people go back and read the story, I don't make many predictions. I just showed what Alabama people were feeling. They were feeling Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.
SI: Will you make a prediction now? What do you think of Alabama's chances this season?
BRAGG: I'll tell you what, brother, it's going to be tough. I don't think it'll be tough to win games. It'll be tough to guess. If you don't have a pass rush, and your backs have a hard time in coverage, that would seem to be a troublesome year. I'm sure that they'll find a solution for that. But I think it's one of the most interesting years to be an Alabama football fan. If you're an Alabama football fan, you're spoiled with winning. And winning may not be everything, but it's certainly the ambition. I think most fans would take a guaranteed win over a good game. I think we'll have games where we'll literally sit on the edge of the seat. I think on offense we'll have great surprises. From what little I can tell, we have a hard time getting to the quarterback and a hard time covering people he throws to, and that may be something that will fix itself or the coaches will iron out. Alabama usually gets better as the game goes on -- to a point. It's funny, there were periods over the past few years when we wouldn't finish the game. Now, I think we have to.
I don't think we can afford to not to finish. I think it's gonna be an interesting year and a tough year. But I don't think you can say that we won't be there at the end of the things. That's not a good bet to make. Not with the people who run this program and the athletes that they have. It's gonna be fun.