HOOVER, Ala. — His image is evident in the mall adjacent to where SEC Media Days is taking place, his influence is evident in his former assistants who have become head coaches, his success is evident in how his team sets the standard for everyone else. Nick Saban may not descend on SEC Media Days until Wednesday, but the Alabama head coach has been a presence here from the very beginning.
Part of that naturally stems from this event being in the Yellowhammer State, and dominated by Alabama media, who understandably try explore every potential aspect of the five-time national championship head coach. The crowds in the lobby of the Wynfrey hotel will never be bigger than when Saban and his three Crimson Tide players parade through on their way up to the ballroom where the media events are taking place.
It’s all Saban, all the time, particularly when one of his former assistants is at the podium. Florida head coach Jim McElwain, once Saban’s offensive coordinator, was asked about him Monday. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, once Saban’s defensive coordinator, was asked about him Tuesday. South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, an assistant to Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins, will surely be asked about him Thursday.
McElwain was asked four questions about Saban. The Florida head coach still refers to his former boss as “Coach.”
“He only asked a couple of things: work hard and be complete in what you do. If you think about it, all of us kind of live by that. We have a pretty good chance to be successful. That’s something I’ll always take,” McElwain said when asked about Saban’s influence.
“And yet, when I was heading off to Colorado State, he pointed something out. He said, ‘Whatever you do, you got to do it your way. You’ve got to be you. You can’t be someone else.’ And I think that’s a piece that I probably tried to take with me, because he’s one of the best, and a guy that I consider a friend. A guy that I can lean on at any time.”
McElwain worked four years for Saban at Alabama before becoming head coach at Colorado State, his stepping stone to the Swamp. Smart worked 11 years for Saban, one at LSU, one with the Dolphins, and nine at Alabama, the last eight as defensive coordinator. Of all the Saban disciples who are now head coaches in the SEC, it’s Smart who seems most like his old boss — right down to not allowing the media to interview his assistants.
“The biggest thing for me is recognizing the difference ... between a team and a program. That’s where I want to put my stamp on the University of Georgia, is the difference between a team and program,” Smart said Tuesday, in his first Media Days appearance as a head coach.
“A team is a group of young men playing together. The program is the entirety of that, what goes into that, how do we support these student-athletes off the field, what things can we give them from a nutrition standpoint, strength and development, their wellness, psychological development, everything we can do for the team and for the entire program is the stamp that I’d like to put on it.”
The first question Smart received wasn’t about his uncertain quarterback situation, wasn’t about injuries to top running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, wasn’t about the transition from long-time assistant to first-time head coach — but about Saban. The guy casts that kind of shadow, understandable given that once you walk out of the hotel and into the adjacent Galleria, there’s one framed photo of Saban hoisting a national championship trophy at the Collegiate Warehouse store, and another at the High Tide kiosk.
It’s all a precursor to Wednesday, when Alabama arrives at Media Days and everything ramps up to a different level. The 64-year-old Saban has the Crimson Tide humming along after last season’s victory over Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship game, and even after losing 11 starters off that team including quarterback Jake Coker and linebacker Reggie Ragland, nobody expects Alabama to take a step back.
“He’s driven to be the best. And I think that’s what makes him different,” Smart said. “... I’ve learned so much from him as a coach, as a person, as a man, as a leader. But he will coach for a long time. I do believe that. Because he likes it. He’s passionate about it. He’s very healthy. He takes care of his body. He hadn’t slowed down a bit. I promise you that.”
“I think he can go forever,” McElwain added. “That’s just the way he’s wired. When we were around each other that week of the SEC Championship Game, I didn’t see one less bounce in his step, anything like that. And, you know what? The guy’s something special.”
Indeed, given how the Alabama head coach has dominated the first two days of SEC Media Days. Just imagine what it will be like when he actually gets here.