The following is excerpted from the new book Saban: The Making of a Coach, by Monte Burke.
Nick Saban left LSU and took the job as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins on Christmas Day in 2004. The NFL had changed in the decade he’d been away. Free agency, in its infancy during Saban’s time as the defensive coordinator with the Browns, had grown into full maturity. The players were now empowered, and they weren’t afraid to show it. The college game was—and remains today—about the cult of the coach. In the pros, the players now reigned. In the 2005 off-season, Saban discovered quickly—and rudely—just how different things had become.
At the Miami Dolphins’ annual rookie talent show, Matt Roth and Channing Crowder—the second- and third-round draft picks, respectively, that year—decided to team up for their act. Instead of trying to sing or dance or tell jokes, they opted to go with something a bit bolder. With the coaches, players, and staff gathered in an auditorium at the Dolphins’ headquarters, Crowder called the rookie head coach up to the stage, which had, as a prop, a single chair. “I looked out into the crowd and said, ‘Hey, Coach, we just appreciate you giving us the chance to play in the NFL, and we want to show you some love,’ ” says Crowder. With that, he pointed to the chair and invited Saban to sit down.
Saban, somewhat reluctantly, obliged. He sat facing Crowder and Roth. At that moment, Kay-Jay Harris, an undrafted free agent who had been signed by the team, was supposed to start playing some loud club music over the speakers, but he couldn’t figure out how to get the CD player to work. The “surprise” that Crowder and Roth had in store for Saban didn’t wait for her cue, however. From behind him, a stripper—dressed in high heels, a very small bikini, and a Jason Taylor Dolphins jersey—pranced out of a door and onto the stage. She touched Saban’s back. He flinched. When she walked around to face Saban, he shot straight up in his chair. Harris still couldn’t get the music going. The auditorium was instead filled with shouts and catcalls coming from the seats. The stripper moved in front of Saban and began to dance provocatively. He sat completely still for one more moment, then abruptly stood up, walked off the stage, and hustled up the stairs. The room went silent. “There were like 30 stairs,” says Crowder. “All you could hear was the click, click, click of his shoes, then the door creaking open and the boom when it shut behind him.” The room exploded in delirious peals of laughter. “It was pretty immature on our part to include Saban in the skit,” says Crowder. “But that’s why we did it.”
In “organized team activities” (OTAs) that spring, Saban had the entire team line up for sprints. He blew his whistle, and everyone took off ... except for Keith Traylor, a nose tackle who weighed at least 350 pounds. According to some of his teammates, Traylor—then a 14-year NFL veteran and winner of three Super Bowls—had a clause in his contract that relieved him of conditioning duties. So, instead of sprinting with the rest of the team, Traylor set off on a leisurely jog. When he realized that Saban was eyeing him, Traylor began to taunt him, yelling, “Hey, Nick! Hey, Nick!” Traylor knew, as the rest of his teammates did, that Saban hated being called “Nick” by his players. He wanted them to address him as “Coach” or “Coach Saban,” just as his college players always had.
Zach Thomas and Nick Saban in 2005. Photo via Getty
Traylor kept yelling, “Hey, Nick!” Finally, Saban snapped and told him to shut the hell up and run.
Traylor responded: “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” and ambled over to the sideline and stood and watched as his teammates ran their sprints.
Later that off-season, during an intra-team scrimmage, Zach Thomas, a hard-nosed and, at times, crusty nine-year NFL vet, got into a shouting match with one of the Dolphins’ assistant coaches. Thomas, because of his experience and talent, was a leader on the defense. He got a kick out of occasionally switching a Saban-called play in the defensive huddle, something his coach had begun to notice. Saban’s face contorted into rage when he heard Thomas yelling. He stopped practice and ran over to Thomas and told him to “shut the fuck up.” Thomas told Saban to “shut the fuck up” right back, then yelled, “I’m a grown-ass man!” As the two men went at it face-to-face, Thomas’s teammates sensed that the linebacker’s fury was placing him on the verge of doing something he would later regret, so they grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him away as he continued to shout and point a finger at his head coach.
Though Saban didn’t much like this treatment, his players didn’t take it too seriously. Thomas was an intense player, and his run-ins with his coaches were just seen as part of his mien, and they seemed to fire him up and make him a better player. When Traylor and others started to call Saban “Nick” just to get his goat, their teammates saw it for what it was. “That’s just what millionaire assholes do,” says Crowder.
Excerpted with permission from Saban: The Making of a Coach by Monte Burke, published by Simon & Schuster.