‘Woodstock without the LSD’: Looking back at Nick Saban’s Alabama airport arrival, 15 years later


NICK SABAN HAD mixed emotions as he left his home in south Florida on Jan. 3, 2007 and headed for the airport. Initially, he hadn’t been interested in leaving for Alabama, and had said so publicly. He was committed to being the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. He loved and respected the team’s owner, Wayne Huizenga, and despite finishing his second season at 6-10, he wasn’t looking for an out.

But then Mal Moore, Alabama’s athletic director at the time, came over for dinner. Saban slept on what he’d heard, and after some soul-searching, he’d had a change of heart, calling that morning to accept Moore’s offer to become the next coach of the Crimson Tide.

Word got out quickly, and the public backlash was intense. Never mind his reasons for going back to college — he was better suited to it, preferring recruiting and development to the NFL draft and free agency — Saban had gone back on his word. And for that, fans and the media were outraged, calling him a snake and a liar.

Speaking to ESPN about that tumultuous time 15 years ago, Saban called Jan. 3 “one of the most stressful days in my life.”

“Not because I was arriving in Tuscaloosa but because I was leaving Miami,” he said. “People were not pleased.”

Changing jobs had always been difficult for him. When he left his first head coaching job at Toledo, he said it felt like he was “bailing” on the players. It took him a year to come to terms with it.

But was there ever really a good way to quit? He admitted that, “Sometimes there’s a little roadkill from any decision you make.”

Still, it weighed on him during the roughly two-hour flight to Tuscaloosa.

“And then we got off the plane,” Saban said, “and there was a huge throng of people there that were so excited. It was like a spiritual uplift.”

Saban laughed.

“That was a surprise,” he said, “but it was very welcomed and probably needed at the time.”

Thousands of people came out to the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport to greet Saban on that overcast day. It was like a scene from the return of a conquering hero. Fans waved pennants and pompoms and posed for pictures with the special edition of the Tuscaloosa News that declared: “SABAN TIME.” Whatever lax security presence existed, fans ignored, cramming into the tiny terminal building as Saban tried to maneuver his way to a pair of SUVs waiting in the parking lot.

Jon Gilbert, an associate athletic director, had to be careful not to get crushed. The best way he could describe it, he said, would be to imagine traveling to O’Hare Airport in Chicago in the 1990s when someone announced over the loudspeaker that Michael Jordan had landed at the terminal.

Gilbert watched a woman grab Saban around the neck and plant a kiss on his cheek.

“And you see Nick making a grin and you can tell his eyes cut towards [his wife] Terry going, ‘What have I gotten myself into here?'” Gilbert recalled.

Fifteen years later, we take a look back on the colorful day that launched a dynasty that will seek to win its seventh national championship with Saban as coach (vs. Georgia; Monday; 8 p.m.; ESPN/ESPN App) — what was at stake in the courtship of Saban, why the outpouring of emotion was so intense and how a coaching search can impact people in strange ways.

EVEN AS MOORE sat in front of Saban’s home, waiting to take him to the airport, he couldn’t be sure what was real. A month ago, he thought he was hiring West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez only to be left at the altar. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier turned him down, and for the longest time, Saban wouldn’t even talk to Moore on the phone, let alone meet in-person.

Sitting in the limo, Moore called his special assistant, Steve Townsend.

“I think it’s a done deal,” Moore said. “We’re on our way to the airport to fly to Tuscaloosa.”

Moore had won championships as a player and an assistant coach at Alabama, but his tenure as AD had been rocky, earning him the nickname “Malfunction.” After falling short with previous hires Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula, Townsend said Moore “understood the enormity of the situation” trying to secure Saban, who had won a national championship at LSU.

“I don’t think he felt good until the plane was off the ground,” Townsend said of Moore, who died in 2013.

Moore then called Ronny Robertson, Alabama’s athletic director of development, with instructions: Grab Gilbert, borrow two SUVs from the local dealership and drive out to the airport to pick everyone up.

Everything seemed normal until Robertson and Gilbert turned onto Airport Road.

Cars lined the street, hundreds of them.

“We thought there might be some people standing at the fence or, you know, trying to catch a glimpse of Coach Saban,” Gilbert said. “Little did we know the number of people that would show up.”

It was bedlam. Gilbert and Robertson parked and got out. Some of the people had been waiting all morning.

Robertson turned to Gilbert and said, “Can you believe this?”

Robertson shook Saban’s hand after he got off the plane and locked eyes with Moore.

“You did it,” he told Moore, pulling him in for a bear hug. “I am so proud of you.”

Television cameras swarmed Saban, who was wearing a light purple shirt that looked like a holdover from his LSU days.

“It was very hectic because, again, we were not prepared, the airport was not prepared, the athletic department was not prepared, the police department was not prepared for the amount of people there,” Gilbert said.

The result, as Gilbert put it, was “unprecedented access to Coach Saban.”

“Well,” he said, “you know the root of the word ‘fan’ is ‘fanatic.'”

A few police officers did their best to surround Saban, but fans got as close as they wanted, pulling the coach in every direction.

“When the lady grabbed him and tried to hug him and all that, it was just out of nowhere,” said Kent Gidley, a photographer with the university since 1986. “I don’t think [Saban] realized what was fixin’ to happen.

“I mean, it was just pandemonium and starstruck all at the same time. It was just like a rock concert. People just went crazy.”

Robertson said he was thinking two things.

“These people are crazy and this is why Alabama is so good,” Robertson said. “We have the most loyal, dedicated fans in the world. Here they’re coming off a 6-7 season with Shula, there’s a new coach coming in and they’re treating him like he’s already won the national championship.”

David Wasson, the sports editor at the Tuscaloosa News at the time, called the decade between Gene Stallings and the arrival of Saban the “Dark Ages.”

Alabama was knocked down a peg when Franchione left unexpectedly for Texas A&M after the 2002 season. Then Price was fired before he ever coached a game after reports of excessive drinking and a trip to a Florida strip club. Shula tried to clean up the mess that was left behind, but never managed to climb out of the cellar of mediocrity.

A once-proud program that had claimed 12 national championships had fallen on hard times, complete with NCAA violations for improper use of textbooks.

“That’s why the hiring of Saban was so important,” Wasson said. In a football-rabid state — one without any professional sports franchises to suck up attention — the outsized reaction to Saban’s arrival was impressive but not necessarily surprising.

Wasson carried the bundle of special editions of the paper celebrating Saban’s arrival to the airport himself. More than 300 copies were gone in minutes, and they wound up printing thousands more in the days that followed.

Wasson compared the joyful scene that day to “Woodstock without the LSD.”

“People showed very visceral, emotive responses to what they rightly saw as a savior of the program coming to help them,” he said. “That sounds like it’s religious. That sounds blasphemous. That sounds wrong. But at the same time for people who have never been in and around Alabama football and in and around the state of Alabama on a Saturday afternoon in the fall, God bless you, you just don’t get it. Because it is religion.”

RANDY GAUT, who had spent more than a decade working at the airport, was told in no uncertain terms to stay away from the plane when it landed. This wouldn’t be like the time he said he shared a beer with Jimmy Buffett.

Gaut was skating on thin ice with his boss, so he steered clear. Surrounded by a few co-workers, he was content to sit on a tractor off to the side and wait for the crowd to clear before getting back to work.

“Well,” Gaut said, “Saban gets off the plane and he’s walking toward the crowd and stops and he looks over at us. He walks straight toward us and I said, ‘Oh, hell no.’ He shook all of our hands.

“I leaned over the tractor and said, ‘Welcome back to the SEC.'”

A die-hard Auburn fan, a picture of that moment is the only piece of Alabama-related memorabilia he owns.

“He’s been a character with me over the years,” Gaut said of Saban. “He’s seen my Auburn stuff in my office and joked, ‘I don’t want him on my plane.’ The year they came back after the 2012 championship, I was the first one with the door open and I said, ‘Welcome back, Coach.’ He said, ‘Oh, f— you.’ It’s been fun.”

And to think, none of that back-and-forth would have happened if he had been out of a job.

Meeting Saban in 2007 was something of a full-circle moment for Gaut, who somehow managed to have the drama-filled Alabama coaching search rub off on him a month earlier.

People who work at local airports sometimes know things before the general public. Before there’s a report online or in the newspaper about John Smith being in town, they’ve already seen him with their own eyes. What’s more, in small college towns like Tuscaloosa, they wind up working closely with the university. Get friendly with enough university pilots and assistant athletic directors and you get the inside scoop.

So while the whole world was reporting in early December that Rodriguez had agreed to become the next head coach at Alabama, Gaut knew better. He’d heard through the grapevine that they’d hit a snag, and the deal was sunk at the last minute.

Gaut then did what any self-respecting sports fan would do: He called into a sports talk show.

He was able to get through and found himself on the air with Birmingham’s Herb Winches. Providing only his first name to conceal his identity, Randy said of Rodriguez-to-Alabama, “That’s not gonna happen.”

Winches pressed Randy for details, trying to figure out how he knew that, and got nowhere. He asked who his source was and got nothing.

Fifteen years later, Winches remembers the call because it was so unexpected. He said it was “assumed” at the time that the deal was finished, recalling rumors that Rodriguez was already on campus.

“My job was to question, ‘How do you know what?’ Well, he said, ‘Trust me, I know that Rich Rod is not going to take this job,'” Winches recalled. “And lo and behold, it turned out to be true.”

The next day, Rodriguez officially backed out, and that’s about the time that Gaut got a call from his boss.

Someone at the university, Gaut said, had heard him on the radio, put two and two together and wanted him fired. First, Gaut said his boss tried to get him to give up his source. If he did, maybe he wouldn’t be facing the unemployment line. But Gaut wouldn’t say and was let go. The airport did too much business with the athletic department to risk keeping him on, he said.

Upset, Gaut called a lawyer he knew and told him what happened. Being in a right-to-work state — meaning he could be fired at any time without reason — he didn’t think he had any recourse. But Gaut said the lawyer was interested, telling him at one point, “This is news.”

After threatening to go public, Gaut said he got a call saying his job was safe. Not only that, he said he got his Christmas bonus early, two weeks off and use of a condo at the beach.

The only concession: “Just don’t call no more radio stations.”

ROBERTSON HELD OPEN the door of the SUV and skillfully boxed out any overzealous fans from attempting to jump in. Saban climbed inside, along with his wife, and they were off.

Robertson was nervous as he got in the front seat and drove them back to campus. There were enough people in the administration with connections to LSU that Saban’s reputation as a hot-tempered, demanding coach preceded him.

“The associate athletic directors told the assistant athletic directors and the assistant athletic directors told the staff people,” Robertson said. “It got through the whole building that, ‘Hey, it’s gonna be different than Mike Shula.’ Everybody was a little on edge.”

More fans greeted them as they drove through campus and arrived at the dormitory Bryant Hall, which had a suite for the Sabans to use until they purchased a home. Aside from Robertson and Gilbert going into a full-fledged panic when Saban asked for a cup of coffee, and they couldn’t find any filters in the kitchen, things went OK.

After giving Saban, his wife and two kids a few minutes to settle in, they took Saban on a tour of the facilities. Bryant-Denny Stadium wasn’t the palace it is today. The football facility was in desperate need of a remodel.

Saban was quiet as he took everything in. Every once in a while, he’d pause to make a note of something he’d like to change, like getting the locker room and meeting rooms on the same level to make things easier for players.

He stopped again at a landing area upstairs that was called the “Championship Hallway.” With the exception of Stallings’ 1992 squad, it looked like a shrine to a bygone era with many old sepia-toned images. Gidley remembers Saban saying how that was the past, and it was his job to build the future.

Saban wanted a more diverse representation from different eras — a not-so-subtle signal to recruits and current players that not all great things are in the past.

“He was not degrading at all,” Gidley said. “He was respectful. But he had a vision in front of him.”

Gilbert was impressed by how quickly Saban processed information, talking to prospective assistant coaches on the phone throughout the day.

But the moment that stood out most to Gilbert — and the moment that was a harbinger of things to come — came when Saban toured the recruiting offices, stopping at a large whiteboard that contained the names and information of that year’s recruiting class.

“As he looked at the board,” Gilbert said, “he started asking the staff and the recruiting coordinator, ‘What about this student-athlete? Where are we with this kid? Who’s reached out to this student-athlete?’ He knew about the best players, the best high school players at that time, and who he needed to talk to, in short order.”

Saban rattled off names such as Rolando McClain and Kareem Jackson — both future pros.

“He even knew players who weren’t on the board,” Gilbert said. “It really was a methodical approach in very short order.”

Alabama needed someone with a holistic plan to get back to the promised land, and Saban’s even came with a name: The Process. Paired with the program’s rich history and resources, a dynasty was possible.

Sometime later, Robertson doesn’t remember if it was after championship No. 1 or No. 6, he heard Saban make a comment that stuck with him and spoke to what that first day in 2007 represented.

“The table was set,” Saban said. “All I had to do was sit down and eat.”

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