Opinion: My memories of the best to ever do it

Published 9:49 am Friday, January 12, 2024

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

As a graduate who attended the University of Alabama during the peak of the Nick Saban era, it feels weird to admit, and probably crazier to you reading, that my favorite memory of the best college football coach in the history of the sport comes away from the most famed gridirons in the country and on a different playing surface—the golf course.

After the famed head coach announced his retirement on Wednesday, Jan. 10, it brought back a flood of memories for many, but for me, it was his appearances locally at the Regions Tradition each year.

Covering the 2017 Regions Tradition Pro-Am, I was star struck. It was my first year as a sports reporter here at the Shelby County Reporter and here come all of these big-time college football coaches that I had dreams of covering.

As a local reporter, I had one job—get him to talk about this big event happening in Shelby County.

I quickly realized, I was a naïve rookie who knew nothing.

Instead, the walls of media representation closed in around me as local and national media covering Saban popped up their cameras, their phones and their microphones while I tried to squeeze my hand in my pocket to grab my phone just to record the interview.

The typical questions he hears on a daily basis about his football team, the offseason, expectations, recruiting, etc. were all asked and we got the same scripted answers we hear on a daily basis from a coach that may have been the most strategic ever with his words.

But then, near the end, he got asked about his golf game and the excitement of the day.

A smile popped onto his face for the first time.

Saban talked about just trying to get the ball air born and his athleticism and laughed in the process.

It was a side of the coach I had never seen before after spending the previous three years as a student at every home football game.

In that moment, I knew what I was going to ask him the next year.

Sure enough, at the 2018 Regions Tradition, I got to ask what the event means to him with all money going to charity, and more specifically, Children’s Hospital of Alabama.

He, again, smiled when talking about how great the event is for the area and what it means to be able to be a part of an event that benefits such a great cause.

Over the years, we got to see him open up more and more at the event, the most special of which was engaging with the children on the first tee and having a normal conversation with a smile, while always making someone’s day.

It was a stark difference from what we got to see on the football field most years or inside the press room at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Those were the days, despite being a fan rooting for a national championship, that I appreciated most from him, something I didn’t see coming as a former hater of the Crimson Tide.

When Saban got the job at Alabama 17 years ago, I would have probably been as happy as the Auburn fans rolling Toomers Corner after he announced his retirement.

A Georgia fan my entire childhood, I despised Alabama growing up and still remember losing my mind watching the 2007 game between the two that Georgia won in overtime when Matthew Stafford connected with Mikey Henderson for a 25-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone to win it.

The dog pile that ensued in the corner of the end zone inside Bryant-Denny Stadium was glorious.

Little did I know, just three years later, I would be in the student section as an Alabama student.

It took a year or two for me to buy in, but literally buying in with my money going to the university, I became an Alabama fan first.

Thus began my wild and emotional ride as an Alabama fan during the Saban era, watching the Crimson Tide win national championships during the 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2019 seasons, while I also saw the heartbreak of the Game of the Century, the Kick Six (two weeks after watching the Prayer in Jordan-Hare, but that’s a whole other story), national championship game and playoff losses and other heartbreaking moments.

All of that was special and led to memories of a lifetime thanks to the best to ever do it.

I’ll never forget the ride Saban took me on as a fan, what he did for the city of Tuscaloosa, the impact he had on the state and the University of Alabama, and even the impact on high school football across this state, which is now one of the top states for recruits in the country.

The wins speak for themselves, but his impact across the game and beyond the game is often loss and is something we should all be grateful for.

But, to me, it remains those moments at the Regions Tradition where we saw a glimpse of a personable Saban, moments we got to see more of over the final couple of years at Alabama, that will always stand out to me.

Now, he’ll likely have that smile across his face more often, not only as he hits the golf course more frequently and as he spends more time with his family, but as he continues to impact the game in a less stressful way each year.

Thank you, coach Saban. What a ride!