Saban: "It's important for us to keep the kids engaged"

Tony Barnhart

 Nick Saban needs a haircut.

“This is the longest my hair has been in a long, long time,” said the head football coach at the University of Alabama. “Maybe I’ll just let it go and pull it back.”

Just imagine, if you will, Saban showing up for practice in his trademark straw hat with a pony tail sticking out the back.

No, let’s not. Some things are better left un-visualized.

In Saban’s normally ultra-structured existence, the haircut would have been scheduled a month ago and would have been squeezed between the end of a spring practice and some recruiting calls. There would have been a carefully carved out place for it.

But the existence that college football coaches and players are living in now is anything but normal. The coronavirus has shut down life as we have known it, and that includes football.

There are no classes on campus. There is no spring practice, no spring game, and no collective workouts. The only team meetings that take place are on Zoom. It is a new world and we don’t know when—or if—our old world is ever going to come back.

“There is just a lot of uncertainty and that creates anxiety,” Saban said when he talked on Friday from his getaway home at Lake Burton, about 100 miles north of Atlanta. “We just have to wait this thing out and do what the experts tell us to do.”

Football coaches, by their very nature, are linear problem solvers: They identify a problem, come up with several possible solutions, and then they choose the best option. When the tornadoes devastated Tuscaloosa in 2011, there were bulldozers working the next day on the rebuild. Saban and his wife, Terry, were responsible for building 13 Habitat of Humanity homes.

“When the tornadoes hit we knew immediately what the need was,” said Saban. “This is different.”

Saban has done a couple public service announcements urging Alabamians to follow the stay at home guidelines and social distancing. He plans to do a couple more. His Nick’s Kids Foundation made a “significant contribution” to the United Way of Alabama whose crisis fund identifies those in need.

He won’t speculate on when things might return to normal.

Saban and his coaching staff have not seen their players in person since March 13 when they were sent home for spring break. Knowing they might not be back after the break, the players were given a number of tools in order to simulate training exercises.

They were also given an Apple watch, which would allow a conditioning staff member to monitor their training.

“At times like these we have to think outside the box,” said Saban. “It’s about doing what’s best for the kids.”

Some coaches, however, think using Apple watches might be a little too far outside the box when it comes to monitoring the players.

“We don’t need an Apple watch to know that our guys are doing the right thing,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN last week.

Alabama has said that only one member of the conditioning staff will have access to the data that comes from the Apple Watches. Alabama said the SEC is aware of the issue.

This debate will be continued.

Saban meets with his coaching staff each morning at 7 o’clock using Zoom. Last Thursday he was the only staff member in the football offices while holding a media teleconference. The rest of the coaches stayed at home. They meet with the players on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, also via Zoom. He makes recruiting calls in the afternoon.

Saban, as have other coaches, is already planning for the day when the all clear is given-whenever that is. A lot of models of how to resume football practice—if it happens—have been floated. Saban’s model would be to create a separate summer workout—monitored by the coaches-- to compensate for the loss of spring practice. There would no pads and no contact in this extra session.

“What you can’t do is simply expand Fall camp and make it longer,” said Saban. “There is a lot of teaching that needs to be done with the young players.”

There are discussions going on behind the scenes over possible scenarios of how and when to start the season should conditions ultimately make it safe to do so. Some of those discussions have the college football season being played as late as next spring. Anything is possible.

Saban said his primary focus right now is the physical and academic well-being of Alabama’s players during an unprecedented event in their lives.

“It’s important for us to keep the kids engaged,” said Saban. “Football is the thing that draws them to do what needs to be done”


Tony Barnhart