For a second, I was positive he could read my thoughts. My world went silent and moved in slow motion. My life flashed before my eyes with the image of a gravestone that read, “Here lays Victoria Sheehan, last living student-journalist who looked Nick Saban in the eyes.”
It was the last practice before the Crimson Tide left for the 2009 SEC Championship and Nick Saban had just caught me accidentally recording Alabama’s defensive plays.
Leading up to that fate-filled moment, I thought I was simply getting the edge on my media competition when I innocently asked myself, “Where’s coach?”
I scanned the University of Alabama practice fields through my camera’s viewfinder, sweeping back and forth, looking for Saban’s iconic straw hat. I walked a few feet, scoured the pods of football players for him, and walked a few feet more.
Soon, my search prevailed. I zoomed the camera in. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘this is great video!’ Not only had I found Saban, but like I was on safari and had just found the elusive animal, the entire first string Alabama defense was there in all its college football glory. They were on a side-field, semi-shielded from the main area where the offensive lineman were doing the same boring drill over and over again. I had my fair share of that video, but here on this side-field the defense was running actual plays! Delighted, I walked closer. In my head it was a true, “you go girl” moment.
Now perhaps it’s important to note that cameramen have a notorious ability to think they are invisible when shooting video. Everything you perceive with your eyes is what the camera takes in and your job becomes not to simply “see” things but for you to direct the camera to “capture” things. The camera becomes a buffer between you and real life. It is in itself quite an out of body experience and just like the Bama players I was watching- I too was in the zone.
Too bad it was the danger zone.
My attention through the camera turned back to Saban, where to my surprise, he was staring right at me. Staring straight to my soul through the lens of that camera. Like a deer caught in the headlights of an on-coming semi, I was stunned and rendered immobile at the impending doom my instincts told me was no doubt headed straight for me.
“Am I dead?” I asked myself.
I couldn’t look away. Instead of being killed instantly, I was painfully kept alive long enough to hear Nick Saban himself yell, “I SAID TURN THAT F****** CAMERA OFF!”
He must have shouted it several times but this was the first time I actually comprehended him.
The entire practice halted (on both side and main fields) and players stood with their hands on their hips gawking at me.
“Is this girl deaf?” I think I heard one of them say.
In the video you see the camera jump as I slammed back into reality, scrambling to turn the camera off as fast as possible.
“Come on, you’re not supposed to be over here,” Sports Information Director Jeff Purinton said as he pulled me away.
“Sorry! This one slipped through!” He yelled over to coach like I was the stray cow that managed to find the hole in the fence away from the rest of the herd.
“I-I-I I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said meekly, my mind still trying to process what had in fact just happened.
The media’s three minutes of access to practice was over and all of the journalists, reporters, and photographers waited at the gate, looking in my direction with grins. I was sure the thought running through their head was, “she’ll never work in this town again.”
Three years later, I learned they were thinking exactly the opposite.
“I actually think I remember that,” said Michael Casagrande, a reporter for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Casagrande should know. He was there that day and he has a reputation himself in front of the intimidating Nick Saban. In fact, some of his work can be found in viral YouTube.com videos like, “Saban Blows Up Over Sacks (post-game UNT)” and several others.
When you watch the video the question seems innocent enough. Casagrande asks, “Coach could you see any frustration with the defensive line since they weren’t able to get to the quarterback with all the dump-off’s and screens? Do they want to get those sacks?”
Casagrande doesn’t finish before Saban starts shaking his head, drumming his index and middle finger on top of the podium.
“You can always tell by his body language that he’s gearing up,” Casagrande said. “then you just sit there and take it.”
What follows is a two minute lesson in what constitutes “affecting a quarterback” and how “we shouldn’t equate how much we affect the quarterback relative to how many sacks we got.”
It ends with Saban saying, “We won a lot of games last year and y’all didn’t think we got enough sacks.” He picks up his water bottle. “Twelve actually.”
And with that, he leaves. No more questions and the room full of reporters are left to stew on his scolding.
That interview (that has just less than 70,000 YouTube views by the way) is relatively tame compared to other encounters. When you watch the videos you don’t know whether to chuckle or feel pity for these poor schmucks who seem to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. And as I had come to learn, usually, it’s a mixture of both.
Unfortunately Marc Torrence also knows this well.
Also a journalism student at the University of Alabama, Marc started out his reporting career infamously when he was swept up in a one-two punch of questions that created headlines in 2011.
“It was really a perfect storm,” Torrence says when he rekindles the memory.
Previously mentioned reporter, Michael Casagrande, had just finished asking about Mark Ingram’s Heisman Trophy and the publicity it created, and as then AL.com reporter Izzy Gould remarked, “it all went downhill from there.”
“I don’t really understand the question,” Saban begins.
“Mark’s Heisman run, how much positive energy and uh… outside…” Casagrande stumbles to rephrase.
“You know I don’t think anybody was thinking about it, I don’t think anybody cares about it, I don’t think Trent cares about it. I think if you were to ask our players- and I don’t think about it either, it’s about what do we have to do to help the team be successful, what do I need to do? What can I do? I mean our thoughts are completely different than your thoughts. Completely,” Saban answered. “right now, I mean we’re thinking about what we need to do right now, we’re not even concerned about that stuff.”
“You could see Saban getting angry, and you can see him kind of thinking about it,” said Torrence, who had the misfortune of asking the press conference’s next question.
“It was like Mike teed me up,” he said. “He set me up and I knocked it out.”
Torrence then asks, “Coach, if the SEC decides to add a 14th team from out west, like Missouri, there’s been talk that the league could lose the annual Tennessee/Alabama rivalry. Could you just talk about what that would mean to you and your program?”
At this point Saban is literally biting his lip and looking down at the podium.
“Well I don’t really know much about all that stuff but what ever the league decides to do I’m very “hopeful” (uses air quotes) that all the “traditions” (air quotes again) and rivalries, and I’ve said this before, are something that we can sort of hold dear and make sure that those are things that are important to fans, they’re important to programs on both sides and I think games that players look forward to. And I would certainly not be in favor of anything that didn’t allow us to continue to have those kind of rivalry games in the future.”
More than a year and half removed from that press conference, Torrence admits Saban gave the politically correct answer first, “then there’s a moment when the switch flips and he started yelling.”
Saban drums both sides of the podium with his index and middle fingers, slightly bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. Even I can tell- it’s coming.
“You know, you all create so many problems, I mean I hate to start on this but whether the guys are going out for the draft, they shouldn’t even be thinking about that right now, whether we’re worried about the Heisman Trophy now we’re worried about playing Missouri rather than Tennessee sometime down the road-” he stops here for a breath of air, ” I couldn’t give a s*** about all that! Excuse my French. I mean come on! Let’s talk about the game.”
He looks right at Torrence and asks, “What year are we talking about when we’re not going to play Tennessee?”
Torrence is silent, but Saban continues, “2025? I’m just hoping I can still go to the lake then,” he says with his hands in the air. “That I can still walk around and go on a pontoon boat ride!”
That was the first-ever question Marc Torrence asked Coach Nick Saban.
“I didn’t ask him a question for the rest of the year,” Torrence said.
Sometimes it seems, we journalists were put on this earth to be an obstacle in Nick Saban’s way. But what fans might not realize, is that after each explosion of anger, each notorious ‘Sabanism’, coach looks down at his podium, looks back up and proceeds to give some of the best material a journalist could ask for. But he also gets something in return.
“Everything he says to the media, it is calculated,” said Torrence. “Sometimes what he says in the media room is to fire up his team.”
Casagrande knows this too. He says if you look closely, Saban doesn’t always look right at reporters- he looks at the cameras.
“It’s to send a message to the team, through us.”
When media starts looking too far ahead in a season, Saban reminds, “We haven’t proven anything yet” and that a national championship doesn’t matter if you can’t win your first game of the season.
And when the media unknowingly gets too greedy with access to his team one week before a conference championship, Saban reminds us to turn the f****** camera off.
Snippets like, “You got a good question now I hope?” or back in 2008 when Saban said after the game against Clemson, “when you ask me those type of questions it really pisses me off,” or my personal favorite, “I never heard of anyone getting hurt by a rain drop,” (also courtesy of Marc Torrence), it all helps to create the Saban experience, and for as long as Nick Saban is football coach, there will be great moments that result from this love-hate relationship with the media.
“He’s a complex person,” said Casagrande, who covered him for more than three years. “Not easily explained. He’s not everything he’s portrayed as. Certainly there are moments where his reputation shines through, and they’re played more than the moments that aren’t.”
Some moments involving a coaching legend like Nick Saban and a journalist, thousands of people will see, comment on and ridicule, but some moments, only a handful will get to see.
Two weeks after Saban yelled at me, I walked back into the Naylor Stone press room at the university for the first time. When I spotted Sports Information Director Jeff Purinton my face went red as the memory of the scolding rushed back to me.
He grinned in my direction and said,”Yeah Nick and I had a laugh about it afterward. Your face was priceless.”
The University of Alabama’s slogan for football is, “At some places they play football, at Alabama- we live it.”
I had come to learn that as a sports journalism student at Alabama, ‘living’ and learning to cover college football comes with a very specific rite of passage. Torrence says after his countless run in’s with coach Saban professional journalists would reassure him, ‘now you’ve earned your badge of honor’.
Perhaps my 5-foot-nothing stature let me slip nimbly through the restraints of the University of Alabama’s PR team that day back in 2009, but however I did it, I reached ‘the other side’ and from it, I was yelled at by Coach Nick Saban himself.
It took five years off my life, but gave me a story to tell my grandkids and a slight air of respect from journalists who didn’t know my name, but recognized me as the girl who ‘wandered too far’.
And as Casagrande said to ease my wounded pride, “You haven’t covered Alabama football if you haven’t gotten yelled at by Nick Saban.”