TUSCALOOSA, ALA. — THE stifling heat is just beginning to show its teeth on a sun-splashed June morning when Nick Saban sees something he doesn’t like on the Alabama practice fields.
“Outside foot, outside foot. Pivot and scoot!” Saban yells as he bursts into the middle of a drill to passionately show how he wants it done.
A few seconds later, he grimaces and turns his ire on one of the assistant coaches.
“Hold it, hold it. We’re all messed up. We’re in nickel now,” he says, stepping forward with his arms restlessly crossed.
A voice over the loudspeaker, however, makes clear this is a different type of workout.
“Brent Lewis, report to the 50-yard line. We have your helmet.”
Lewis is one of the more than 1,100 kids, ages 8 to 13, who have signed up for the legendary coach’s youth football camp. Many are under 5 feet tall, and the vast majority won’t play Division I ball. But on this day, they all are getting the full Nick Saban experience — minus some colorful words, perhaps, and with a sprinkling of the innocence and chaos that comes with a group of kids of those ages.
“If these parents are going to pay the money for their kids to come to camp, then we owe it to them to give them the full Alabama experience, to teach them and coach them the right way,” Saban says during his only break of the day, a 10-minute respite during a marathon photo shoot that involved shaking hands and taking pictures with every camper.
The campers come from as far away as Germany. They came from Canada and all over the United States, from California to Massachusetts. The youngest son of movie star Matthew McConaughey, 10-year-old Livingston, is on hand to learn from the coach who has won seven national championships and produced 49 NFL first-round draft picks. McConaughey, a huge Texas fan, has been in Birmingham filming a movie, “The Rivals of Amziah King.”
The one-day, noncontact camp is intense, fast-paced and filled with meticulous instruction, as one might expect from a camp with Saban’s name attached to it.
And Saban is anything but a spectator or a figurehead who makes a 10-minute appearance and lets others do the dirty work. During the early portion of the camp, he hits the ground and does the stretching exercises with the kids, the same regimen Crimson Tide players do before practice. After having hip replacement surgery in 2019, Saban started doing the exercises with his own players to open practice.
— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) June 14, 2023
Straight leg rise series. Cut the grass series. Rocker series.
“He does them better than most of our players,” Alabama head athletic trainer Jeff Allen says.
And all the while, as Saban lies on his back and whips through the stretches like he’s still playing college football, he’s peering out into the mass of kids to make sure they’re not taking any shortcuts.
“It sure ain’t babysitting,” quips Ellis Ponder, Alabama’s chief operating officer for football and executive director of the camp.
THE DAY STARTS with a 7:30 a.m. staff meeting, some 30 people strong, including Ponder’s chief assistants: JT Summerford, Brandy Lyerly and Ashleigh Kimble. Every coach on the staff — even the coordinators making nearly $2 million per year — participates, working with their own individual groups. Saban passes out an 11-page packet and spells out why they are there in the first place.
“We’re here to promote the game, to promote team, which you don’t get a lot of in this day and age unless you play sports,” Saban says as he rocks back and forth in his chair. “We’re going to have to have patience. But above everything else, they need to walk out of here thinking, ‘I like football.’ Part of the reason kids don’t play is that they have a bad experience with a coach when they’re young and never play again.”
The camp is hardly a revenue producer; it costs just $50 per kid. The only uniform requirement is a helmet. Registration starts months in advance and no walk-ups are accepted.
“It’s important to me that every kid has a chance to come regardless of what their financial situation might be,” Saban says. “We’re not doing this to make money, and it’s not a recruiting tool. We have a responsibility to grow the game.”
Of course, in the realm of recruiting, you never know what might lead to landing an elite player.
Saban started his youth camp when he was at Michigan State, carried it over to LSU and then Alabama. When he visited highly recruited safety Landon Collins back in 2012 in Collins’ home in Geismar, Louisiana, he saw a picture on a mantel of himself and Collins together at LSU’s camp when Collins was just 9.
“He grew up right outside Baton Rouge, but told me, ‘Coach, it was always a dream to come play for you,'” Saban recounted to his staff.
Collins, ESPN’s No. 7 overall prospect in that 2012 signing class, went on to become an All-American at Alabama and a three-time Pro Bowl selection in the NFL.
The first time Saban addresses the campers, he does so in Alabama’s indoor practice facility and before they are split into two groups according to age. The kids ages 8-10 stay inside (where it’s air-conditioned), and ages 11-13 go outside.
“I’ll ask you guys the same thing I first ask our players: ‘Why did you come to Alabama, and what do you want to accomplish? What do you want to do?'” says Saban, his voice echoing throughout the indoor facility, with parents standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the artificial turf field.
“Your goals aren’t any different. It’s important to have goals and aspirations because that’s what gives you a sense of purpose.”
Saban isn’t much into reflection, but he says his thoughts typically drift back to his late father every year when it’s time for the kids’ camp. Nick Saban Sr. was heavily involved in Pop Warner football in their hometown of Monongah, West Virginia. He drove kids to and from practice in an old school bus, coached the team and did a little bit of everything to help the league.
“My dad loved me, but when I was 9 years old, he was hard as hell on me, and I’m glad he was,” Saban says, smiling and surveying the practice fields as the campers scatter to their different stations. “I’m going to be hard as hell on these kids too.”
AS THE MORNING session winds down, Saban calls several of the older campers together to take a knee. He places his customary Alabama straw hat on the head of one of the kids right in front of him and doesn’t mince words. They are dripping in sweat, and he notices many of them bending over and grabbing their knees during the middle of drills.
“Listen, about 90 percent of you are doing it the right way,” Saban says, his voice rising. “But what are you telling your opponent, the guy you’re competing against, when you’re bending over like that and grabbing your knees? You know what you’re telling him? You’re telling him, ‘You just kicked my ass.’
“Stand tall, always, no matter how tired you are.”
Several parents sit in lawn chairs and lean in to hear every word. Others stand eight to 10 rows deep on the sideline to get a glimpse of Saban coaching their kids. Most are gathered under the shadow of Bear Bryant’s old coaching tower.
Allen, the head trainer, is the last football staff member remaining who Saban hired in 2007 when he took over the program. After all these years, he knows to brace for the onslaught of campers, as the 50 athletics trainers on site will go through 2,000 pounds of ice, 1,400 gallons of Gatorade and 3,600 bottles of water. And it didn’t take Allen long to figure out what the camp meant to his boss. Allen accepted the job on a Friday and asked if he could wait until the following Tuesday to report. He needed to get some things settled.
Saban’s response told Allen everything he needed to know: “No, we need you here Sunday. We’ve got kiddie camp starting.”
Saban spends most of his time with the older kids, but he ducks in to check on the younger kids. Right after Saban speaks to the whole camp, a kid wearing a No. 17 Jaylen Waddle jersey plows through the crowd, runs right up to Saban and boldly asks for his autograph.
“Not right now. It’s time to get to our stations and focus on why you came here — to get better,” Saban says, patting the kid on his head.
Some of the youngest kids don helmets that seem to weigh more than they do. Dustin Owens watches his 8-year-old son, Hayden, from the sideline in the indoor facility. They drove from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and even though Hayden is dwarfed by the other kids in his league, he plays with a ferocity that makes his dad proud.
“I know I would probably get killed for saying this around here, but I don’t really give a s— about Alabama football,” Dustin says. “I’m more a process, energy and military-style guy and love how [Saban] coaches, demands excellence and makes them men. That’s why we’re here.”
For the record, little Hayden plays nose guard on his youth team.
It’s a stressful job for the coaches trying to keep up with the 8- and 9-year-olds. Former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, an offensive analyst for the Tide, sees a tiny kid wandering around and looking lost. Mettenberger leans over, and the kid tells him, “I play running back.” Mettenberger saves the day by getting him back to his position group.
Coaches are constantly counting as they move their kids from station to station.
“I’m missing four,” one coach says frantically.
One Alabama staffer looks over at Saban as he walks out of the indoor facility where the focus, not surprisingly, is starting to wane with the younger kids.
“I’m glad Coach isn’t in there right now,” the staffer says in a hushed voice. “He might have an aneurysm.”
AFTER HAVING A box lunch, the campers go by bus to Bryant-Denny Stadium. They line up around the ramps leading to the upper decks and eventually make their way down through the stands to the field. They’re naturally excited, the younger kids a bit rowdy, and all of them waiting for their chance to meet football royalty.
Jeff Allen and Bob Welton, Alabama’s director of player personnel, have perhaps the hardest jobs. They usher the kids through in rapid-fire fashion, keeping a nearly two-hour photo shoot from becoming even longer.
“Tuck your shirts in. Firm handshakes,” tight ends coach Joe Cox bellows.
Before the photo shoot, Saban asked the kids to tell him their names and where they’re from when it was their turn, but many are so starstruck they can’t spit out anything.
One camper looks up at Saban and says, “Coach, can you get me an NIL deal?”
Saban, who has been outspoken about how name, image and likeness deals are being used as a guise for pay-for-play in college sports, tells the kid to come back and see him in a few years.
“I mean, the kid’s only 9 years old, and he’s already hitting me up about NIL,” Saban says with a wry smile, shaking his head.
Another 9-year-old, Sam Phillips, from Hoover, Alabama, walks away from his picture with Saban shaking his right hand in amazement.
“I’m never washing this hand again,” Phillips beams as he glances over at his position coach, new Tide offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
Rees playfully asks Phillips what he would do with his hand when he showers if he’s never going to wash it again.
“I’ll put a garbage bag around it and tie it up,” he says without missing a beat.
FORMER ALABAMA WALK-ON offensive lineman Jackson Roby, who is from Huntsville, Alabama, wouldn’t miss working the camp for the world after attending multiple times as a kid.
“I’ve seen this camp from every perspective,” he says. “It never gets old.”
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie’s daughters, Nola and Sadie, are right there front and center among the boys. Nola, 12, plays tackle football in one of the boys’ leagues in Tuscaloosa. Her team, the Stampede, won the state championship last season. She plays running back just like her dad did.
One camper who stood out physically was 11-year-old Alex Randolph, who has deep Alabama ties. His older brother Kendall was a senior offensive lineman on last season’s team. Another brother, Levi, played basketball at Alabama and is now playing professionally overseas.
Saban watches Alex spin a tight spiral during one-on-one drills, nods approvingly and says, “Nice throw.”
Saban had joked with his staff earlier in the morning that 600 of the 1,200 kids think they’re quarterbacks and “so do their parents.”
Alabama safety Malachi Moore makes a brief appearance, points to Alex and his size, and jokes with his coach that he had all the talent on his end of the field.
Saban shoots back, “It’s called recruiting. That’s part of the game too.”
Saban’s camp duties end right around 5 p.m. He takes one final look at the defensive backs — he never strays too far from the defensive backs during Alabama practices — before briskly walking off the field. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele fills in for Saban to address the campers one final time before they depart.
The last meeting of the camp ends with a raucous “Roll Tide!”
But Saban’s day isn’t over. He hurries to his house to spend the evening with a group of his senior leaders. They are hitting the lake on boats, floats, jet skis, a little bit of everything. It’s an annual outing for Saban, who loves boating and loves to see who he can shake off the float when he’s driving.
For someone who will turn 72 in October, Saban’s energy is boundless. He’s going 100 mph (almost literally) on the water as 11- and 12-year-old kids drag themselves off the practice fields to find their parents.
“I’m not sure he’s ever yawned,” Ponder says. “If he has, we’ve never seen it.”
For Jody Wade, whose 9-year-old son, Dax, attended the camp for the first time, the whole day was a reminder of why Saban has won more national championships than anybody to ever coach the game.
“I guess I shouldn’t be amazed at how well it’s run. Anything Coach Saban touches, it’s going to be that way,” says Wade, who is from Mobile, Alabama, and was a Crimson Tide cheerleader but graduated right before Saban arrived in 2007.
“My favorite part, as I told one of my friends who’s with me, is that they don’t let up. The standard is the same, the same standard they have here with the Alabama players.”
In Saban’s world, it’s the only standard.