Editor’s note: On August 6, ESPN’s own Marty Smith will publish his first book, NEVER SETTLE: Sports, Family and the American Soul, a funny, poignant and true glimpse behind the scenes into Marty’s journey. The book is replete with wisdom from athletes and coaches, including Nick Saban, who is featured in the excerpt below. In it he discusses lessons learned from his father, Nick Sr., about life, education and football. For more stories from Tim Tebow, Tiger Woods and (most importantly) Marty himself, you can purchase a copy of NEVER SETTLE on Amazon or wherever books are sold.”
Time is the rarest resource. While the drop of rain and the morsel of food cycle through its prism-returning again and again in alternate forms-time itself cannot be manufactured, recreated, retained, or corralled.
The clock’s every tick is a moment then a memory.
Time is relentless, which we cannot grasp in the moment. Granted, we try. But we cannot. Because it’s not until we stumble upon context — our oldest child’s baby picture deep in a closet, or a gray hair staring us down in the mirror — that we truly consider time’s passage.
And as long days give way to short years, the memories of our moments flicker in a filmstrip of snapshots, providing an emotional bridge from what is to what was.
No matter how much time we have, we always want more.
I was reminded of this on a humid November day in 2015. The air in west Alabama was sticky and still, muggier even than normal for a fall morning in Tuscaloosa, so thick you’d swear you were watching microscopic droplets of moisture bounce through the beams of the sunrise, just as microscopic beads of sweat formed on your brow.
It was like being in a bathroom with the hot shower cranked.
I was standing in Nick Saban’s driveway, just outside his garage. The door was open, and his black Mercedes sat patiently while my crew crawled around its tan interior, installing a pair of GoPro cameras in the upper corners of its crystal clear windshield and stationing a sound pack in its backseat.
That may be the only time anyone ever touched that backseat.
The boys worked with great efficiency, considering every moment with care and respect for Saban’s time. Saban doesn’t do inefficient. So anyone hoping for his time better not do inefficient, either.
I was concerned about even crossing the threshold into the garage, and thereby crossing the threshold of his privacy. I’d never met the man. (Most folks around these parts would write that sentence differently, like this: I’d never met The Man.) I had no concept of what to expect, and I didn’t feel comfortable assuming I was welcome in his space.
It was a Wednesday, sometime around 7 a.m. CT.
And it was LSU Week.
Les Miles’s Tigers were unbeaten and second-ranked among college football teams in America. Saban’s Tide were ranked fourth, having lost just once, in week 3 to the Ole Miss Rebels. If Alabama lost to LSU four days from now, any shot at a Southeastern Conference Championship — let alone a National Championship-would be over.
Saban had a lot on his mind.
He lives some fifteen minutes from the University of Alabama campus, where the college football empire he’s built is considered by some as history’s greatest, better even than the only man in the debate with him-and from the same school, no less- Bear Bryant.
To Bama fans, Nick Saban is a god. He extracted them from years of college football exile and marched them toward a certain promised land. And like Bryant before him, he is most certainly worshipped.
Make no mistake: Alabama football is religion.
On the ride into town that morning I noticed the line at the Waffle House. It was out the door, winding past the plate-glass windows boasting “Roll Tide” in crimson and white script with the school’s mascot, Al the Elephant, peering on.
That struck me: Nick Saban’s football team is the heart of this town — and at least half of the state — pumping life to the farthest tips of its appendages. I already knew that. But until I saw it firsthand, I didn’t know.
To folks Saban doesn’t know and doesn’t yet trust, he can be intimidating. Abrasive. Anybody who tells you different is lying. He doesn’t suffer BS. Ask anyone who’s ever worked for him.
You’re either great or you’re gone.
But conversely, he respects fully and engages completely in preparation and thoughtfulness. If you show up prepared and passionate, he’ll reciprocate. That trait is nearly universal. Fundamentally, it’s the Golden Rule: Treat me in the way you want to be treated.
I didn’t yet know all of this about Saban when he emerged from the side door of his home and said hello. But I did feel prepared for what was about to happen.
He asked what we were doing, even though he already knew. Saban knows. He was told we’d hop in the Benz and ride to the football office at the Mal Moore Athletic Complex on the Alabama campus, chat along the way, and make some television.
We got in the car. Just Saban and me.
I felt like I was in the car with my new girlfriend’s dad or something, not exactly sure what to say to this guy I’d just met and desperately wanted to impress — and who more than likely felt that I was encroaching on his territory. That would have been a fair emotion.
The goal was to produce a self-contained five-minute interview, which would require no editing and roll directly on‑air, as is, on ESPN’s SportsCenter program.
One shot, kid.
My philosophy toward initial meetings with interview subjects is to take a fan’s perspective — Ask what interests me. It’s a thirty-thousand-foot view, not insider depth.
At the time, when I thought Saban, I thought the Process. Well, what the hell was the Process? I wanted to find out, from the source. But first, I wondered aloud how many times a day he heard the Bama battle cry: “Roll Tide.”
I mentioned to him that I’d seen it on that Waffle House window. That was my icebreaker with the new girlfriend’s dad: “Hey man, honored to meet you. I saw the Waffle House had Roll Tide painted on the windows. How many times a day do you hear that?”
Hell of a first impression.
For whatever reason — probably pity at just how stupid the question was — it worked. He laughed. So I laughed. From there, we just chatted. My second question was about the Process. He explained — and this is paraphrased — that it’s the emotional and physical development of each individual player to become the most prepared, most accountable version of himself, so that the man beside him might become the most prepared, most accountable version of himself, and that man‑by‑man, individual‑by‑individual, the evolution toward personal excellence becomes a movement toward an unyielding standard of team excellence.
The Process is another fundamental life lesson: The greatest in any field are almost always those willing to be coached-in other words, those always willing to accept guidance in the effort to improve. The greatest lead by example. The weakest follow the greatest-and they either adapt or they get gone.
The final topic I wondered about was focus. Saban’s is legendary. While preparing to meet him, I’d read an article about his agent, Jimmy Sexton, in which Sexton described Saban’s focus.
He said if Saban was driving down the street and a bomb went off, and no shrapnel hit his car, Saban wouldn’t know the bomb went off because he’s so laser-focused on football.
I told Saban that exact story, and I asked how he would describe his focus level. He laughed again. Big ol’ grin. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh this time.
He told me a story.
When he was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State many moons ago-this was in the mid-1980s-he was out recruiting in Youngstown, Ohio, and had lunch with legendary high school coach Bob Stoops. This was Uncle Bob Stoops, not his nephew Bob-the former University of Oklahoma head coach who led the Sooners to the 2000 National Championship.
So Saban and Uncle Bob were in a bar, eating and tossing back a couple of beers, engaged in an intense football debate. They were drawing up plays on napkins, that kind of thing. Suddenly, the door busted open and an assailant blew in with a shotgun and robbed the bartender clean.
Minutes later, the authorities arrived to file a police report. Asked his perspective on what happened, the bartender pointed at Saban and Stoops and said, “Don’t ask those two a-holes. They’ve been so busy messing around on those napkins they didn’t even know the robbery happened! Probably still don’t!”
Saban cracked up retelling it. There you have it. The most applicable depiction of Saban’s football focus, directly from the source.
That was it. Interview over.
Which was also when the conversation got interesting.
There were still ten or twelve minutes remaining on the commute, and after a brief silence Saban asked me where I grew up. I explained that I grew up twenty miles west of Blacksburg, Virginia, where Virginia Tech is located, in a little farm town called Pearisburg. To my surprise, he was immediately intrigued.
Around this same time, news began to swirl throughout college football that legendary Hokies head football coach Frank Beamer would soon be relieved of his duties, or mutually agree to retire, or however you want to define that-so, soon, there would be new blood in Blacksburg.
Saban asked me how the Hokies’ diehards were reacting. I explained that it was the natural, twofold response, that odd intersection where excitement meets nostalgia.
Coach Beamer built an empire. He took a proud football program, which in its history had largely underachieved, and ushered it toward being a national brand. Beamer Ball was a platform that a bunch of rural farm people could embrace and be proud of.
People from Carolina to California know where Blacksburg, Virginia, is. Frank Beamer is the overwhelming reason why.
But then there’s the other side: It was time. Coach Beamer was getting older, and fair or not, folks had questioned for a couple of years if he was dedicated enough to extend himself to the utmost to ensure the program’s competitiveness.
I kept talking.
In retrospect, I figure if we’d been anywhere else on earth other than Saban’s car, I would probably have stopped the story right there. But we were driving. He didn’t have anywhere else to go and I was on his time, so I explained to him why that intersection at which most VT fans found themselves did not apply to me.
To me, Frank Beamer was bigger than wins or losses or regional pride. For me, Frank Beamer was an extension of my father. Frank Beamer played an integral role in my relationship with my dad.
When I was young we weren’t wealthy. We weren’t poor, but we bought the 2‑for-$2 ground round at the Food Lion every Saturday. My dad worked a lot. He wasn’t around much in those days. So time with him was rare and fleeting. That made him mysterious, almost mythical, to my sister and me. But there were some rare Saturday mornings when he’d blow into my room, rustle me awake, and say, “Boy, get dressed. We goin’ over the mountain.”
That was code. That meant we were headed to Blacksburg to scalp a couple of five- dollar tickets, climb to the highest reaches of the west grandstands in Lane Stadium, and watch the Virginia Tech Hokies play football. It wasn’t great football. Beamer hadn’t built that empire yet. He was still laying bricks.
But none of that mattered to me. What mattered to me was spending time with Daddy, doing something he loved and seeing him from a unique perspective that erased some of the unknowns, while simultaneously adding to the mystique.
I rarely saw him loose and smiling. But when I was drinking a fountain Coke and eating a Reese’s Cup, and he was yelling at the top of his lungs at the referee or the opponent, I swore I could touch the sky.
I had Daddy’s attention. I felt his love and hoped he felt mine.
It was magical and important, and it forged an eternal bond yet to be broken.
Daddy died in 2008. I feel closer to him in Lane Stadium than I do anywhere else.
When I finished that testimony, Saban said nothing. A few moments later he hit me on the leg.
“I’ve lived it,” he told me.
Saban was raised in Monongah, West Virginia. Marion County. The coal mines. Blue collars and dirty fingernails. Good people with good souls, good intentions, and proud last names. Food was on the table most nights. Not every.
In that area, hard work isn’t appreciated. It’s expected. It’s just what you do.
Saban’s old man, Nick Sr., owned a Gulf service station, just west of Monongah proper at Helens Run, where West Virginia Route 218 dead-ends at US 19. Nick Sr. used that gas station to fill tanks and hearts and bellies all over the region.
And he also used it, Coach Saban says now, to teach his son how to work hard and be kind when nobody was watching.
Years later, during one of the many championship media days at which Coach Saban was the star attraction, he described how his father used that town and those mines-and the principles they produced-to drive home a lasting lesson.
“Ms. Helminsky was my music teacher, and if it wasn’t for her, I might not have been successful in life,” Saban said during the 2018 National Championship media day in Atlanta, Georgia. He stifled a grin at the thought.
He continued: “Because she gave me a D in music when I wouldn’t get up and sing, because I was shy. And my dad made me turn my basketball uniform in for getting a D. And he took me to the coal mines in West Virginia, and we went down 527 feet, and he said, ‘This is where you’re going to end up if you don’t get an education.’
“So I made up my mind after that, that I’m going to do better in school.”
That brought us back to the ride to work. He explained to me that once a year, his father would load the family in the station wagon and drive up State Route 19, which turned into Pennsylvania Avenue when they arrived in Fairmont, continuing on parallel with the Monongahela River until it became Main Street in Rivesville.
They would hook a left on First Street, which became Fairmont Road, and drive toward Westover before eventually arriving in Morgantown. There, they watched the West Virginia University Mountaineers play football.
He then said the sentence that will forever define him for me, this coaching titan who has achieved historic dominance:
“I don’t remember those football games . . .”
He paused, looking straight ahead out the windshield, tapping the steering wheel with his thumb.
“But I remember that time with my dad.”
Nick Sr. died when Coach Saban was twenty-two years old. For his entire life, he wanted nothing more than to make his father proud.
The moment struck me, because I’d spent every day of my life trying to make my father proud. And it wasn’t easy. He wasn’t easily impressed.
So here I was, in this impossibly rare moment of fellowship with this mythical figure-about which I’m certain my father would demand every detail and be indescribably proud. And I’m certain he’d tell me so, too, because he would feel vicariously linked to Saban’s greatness.
That would make him proud.
When I told Saban this, he nodded again. The air was quiet. It was a moment of vulnerability you’d expect from old friends, not a couple of guys who’d been acquaintances for twenty minutes.
It was bigger than either one of us and silently stripped any veneer from us both.
It was the power of a father’s impact.
And for the lucky ones, like Saban and me, it is eternal and it is universal.
When we arrived at Saban’s office, we exited the car and he scurried into Tuesday preparation for LSU.
And I wanted to call my dad.
Just one more time.