A Day in the Life of Nick Saban’s Statue

By Adam Kramer

Photography by Wes Frazer

November 11, 2016

The man dressed in crimson stops to consider his options. He has agreed to take a photo of perfect strangers posed in front of The Statue, which is nothing out of the ordinary here in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The problem is that he’s carrying a can of Coors Light in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and he shows no signs of wanting to put either down.

After a moment of indecision, the man sticks his cigarette back in his mouth. It dangles from his bottom lip—bobbing up and down as he positions himself in front of his new friends. His left hand stays fully canned.

Holding the iPhone, the man centers his subjects and the nine-foot-tall Nick Saban behind them. He doesn’t rush this part. Proper care is taken before his index finger captures the moment.

After the shot is taken and the perfect strangers thank him, he takes one last look at Saban and a long drag on his cigarette before blending in with the madness behind him.

✦ ✦ ✦ 

It is 7:15 a.m. on October 22, seven hours before the actual Nick Saban will lead Alabama into Bryant-Denny Stadium, a few hundred feet from where his statue rests, for its game against Texas A&M.

Four young A&M fans run pass patterns in front of the statue, doing their best to stay warm on a chilly Alabama morning.

ESPN’s College GameDay, having set up shop not far from Saban’s permanent bronze home, is starting to attract a crowd before the show goes on air.

Over the next 12 hours, many domestic beers will be consumed—some directly under Saban’s outstretched, glowing arms.

Stories of generational fandom will flow freely. Men, women and children will make it a point to see the statue in person—many for the first time. The assembly line rarely stops moving.

None of it will make much sense for those who don’t speak this language. The arrangement itself—a statue of a man still crafting his legacy—will be lost on some.

It is unorthodox. Excessive. Obsessive. Extreme. But not to the people here.

They don’t ask that you understand.

✦ ✦ ✦ 

No one is more appreciative of the warming sun than Nick Ebel, an Alabama student who has not put on a shirt in more than 12 hours.

Late Friday night, shortly before bed, a large white “A” was painted on Ebel’s chest. He then carefully slept through the evening on his back. Rolling over would have been catastrophic.

With the temperature steadily rising Saturday morning and the paint across his chest starting to crack, his cameo in front of Saban’s statue is brief. He is a sight to be seen, and then he is gone, quickly replaced by others.

The statue is rarely alone, and those in its presence don’t recognize it as an object. Instead of saying “it,” they say “Coach” and “Nick.”

Some are young. Some are old. Some have four legs and tails. Some wear houndstooth pants and matching fedoras. Some wear jerseys. Some are dressed, purposely or not, a lot like Saban.

Some wear sundresses. Some wear Trump signs around their necks, held up by string. Some carry coolers. Many drink beer. Some wave unlit victory cigars, saving them for later.

They have come to see Alabama beat Texas A&M and to pay their respects to a statue that has stood for more than five years.

Since its unveiling in April 2011—an occasion that required 24-hour security prior to the reveal and emergency contingency plans in case a rogue spray painter defaced the statue—this has become one of Tuscaloosa’s most frequented landmarks.

Saban shares these grounds with other Alabama football coaching greats. To his left, about 50 feet away, Gene Stallings stands proudly in a suit, his eyes fixed in his singular intimidating glare.

To his left, Bear Bryant sports a vest and his trademark fedora. While none of the three statues is as visited as Saban’s on this day, Bryant’s is a worthy runner-up. The Saban vs. Bryant debates about who’s the better coach take place at the base of Saban’s statue throughout the afternoon.

Frank Thomas, wearing a letterman jacket, and a proper and formal-looking Wallace Wade complete this row of fame.

The national championship seasons are all commemorated on low concrete walls positioned a few feet behind the bronzed coaches. The years 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015 are etched in dark black writing behind Saban. There is open space to add more.

The Saban statue stands nine feet tall and weighs roughly 800 pounds—“heroic size,” according to Cory Beltz, who oversaw the project for MTM Recognition. 

Unlike the others, Saban’s is dressed down to the era. He wears khakis, a Nike Alabama polo with a giant “A” on the left side and gym shoes.

Some initial design concepts had Saban in the straw hat he wears at practice. Ultimately, he was left hatless and with a perfect hair day.

His belt is hooked on the third loop. His watch on his left wrist reads 6:30, for reasons unknown.

Saban leans forward slightly, with his hands mid-clap. It’s a gesture he frequently strikes, typically after his defense forces a punt. His mouth is slightly open, as though he’s cheering on his players. His eyes gaze directly forward as if he’s planning his next move.

It was the pose former Alabama student Jeremy Davis settled on when he was tasked with designing the statue. Saban had some influence in this process. Terry Saban, his wife, played a significant role as well.

And here it stands in all of its glory, five years later, drenched in sunlight. The bronze changes colors throughout the day depending on the height of the sun. By 11 a.m., it’s gleaming like gold.

A young boy and his father sit down on the concrete that surrounds the statue to rest their weary legs after a long morning. Even these resting places rarely open up, as people squeeze in for photos and kick back to take a drink with Nick.

With College GameDay wrapping up its live show, the boy places his sign on the ground.

“Since I was born,” it reads, “Alabama has 79 wins, and…I’m only 6. Roll Tide!”

✦ ✦ ✦ 

At least a dozen men and women decide to place a hand on Saban’s bronze buttocks throughout the day. Some accidently touch it while taking photos. Others give it a friendly pat for encouragement. A select few hold on to it as if they’re never letting go.

There is no barrier standing between the people and the statue. There are no warning signs. People interact with it any way they please, and some push this freedom further than others.

The statue’s grimy, slippery surface prevents most from getting too intimate. It is slathered in what appears to be cooking spray.

MTM Recognition, the company that oversaw the tributes to Saban and the other all-time Alabama football coaching greats, recommends that its clients apply PAM to their statues’ outer layers. Not only will it provide an extra bit of glisten, but it also makes them far more difficult to climb and far easier to clean in the instance that spray paint is applied.

Alabama takes this one step further. It gives Saban and the other statues a more substantial makeover once or twice a year. Prior to the biggest home game of the year to date, men with blow torches spent the afternoon heating Saban’s entire body. Once each section was hot enough, they applied wax to the outer surface to protect it and give it the appropriate shine.

While attacks of spray paint are not common, Saban’s statue is not immune to props. Tennessee fans placed an orange Vols flag in Saban’s hands earlier in the season. LSU fans draped a purple cape around his bronze shoulders not long after the statue was introduced.

Prior to Alabama’s College Football Playoff semifinal matchup against Ohio State at the end of the 2014 season, Buckeyes fans wrapped an “Urban Meyer Knows” T-shirt around Saban’s hands.

Today, however, with a crowd expanding as the 2:30 p.m. CT kickoff against Texas A&M draws near, the statue is clear of all objects. The only props are the ones held by fans in photos—flags and pennants and cans and commemorative cups acquired at Gallettes, a Tuscaloosa destination bar, which sits a few hundred yards away.

And there are many. So many that an attempt to count the number of pictures taken proves futile shortly before lunch.

The grass that used to grow around the statue clearly stood no chance. No surface could survive this kind of activity. Those who take photos stand on the lifeless lawn.

Many choose to place their items—beers, bags, hats and jackets—at the circular base of the statue, which serves as a makeshift bar top much of the time.

And then there are the poses. For some, it’s merely a matter of smiling and capturing the moment. Others enter with more elaborate plans and styles.

Throughout the day, a catalog of staging took shape.

The Price Is Right Saban Showcase: It’s one thing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with arguably the greatest college football coach to ever live; it’s another to present this head coach the same way game show models proudly introduce a riding lawnmower, a trip to Greece or a Mini Cooper. Simple but straightforward.

The Christmas Card: The intentions are pure, and this often involves the most coordination. Dad and Mom will gather the family ’round and demand a synchronized smile for Grandma. Newborns will be celebrated like Simba in The Lion King. Each shot is unique, but all will end up on someone’s fridge or mantel.

Monkey BarsDisclaimer: Not recommended. It has been determined that the Saban statue can support at least two dangling children posing for their mildly concerned parents. It can also hold an adult who feels the need to hang from a bronze statue’s fingertips for reasons unclear.

The Mirror Image: Yes, a great deal of time and care are dedicated to mimicking Saban’s exact body positioning. The execution varies—some successfully recreate his stance, focusing on proper knee bend and head placement. Others look more like action figures nearing the end of their toy lives and laugh the whole thing off.

The Dog Cameo: It’s not a common occurrence, although dogs are welcome at the Saban statue. Typically these dogs are hand-held. One woman held one under each arm. Sometimes these dogs are wearing Alabama collars or T-shirts. The owners seem thrilled about this. The dogs, not so much.

Behind Enemy Lines: The statue is not just for Alabama fans. Texas A&M fans who made the trip appeared every so often with Saban. The attributes for such shots are similar: awkward smiles, rigid body placement, nervous glances to make sure not too many people are watching and rushed sprints off stage.

✦ ✦ ✦ 

Minutes before kickoff, two Alabama fans take a knee at the statue’s base. They use a key to poke small holes in cans of Coors Light. They make quick work of the liquid inside.

The man who empties his can first leaps upward. It’s as if he has been brought to life. He bumps his closed fist against Saban’s right hand as his friend finishes up. The two then sprint inside the stadium.

By 2:45 p.m., 15 minutes after the game begins, the crowd in front of the Saban statue has dissolved and moved to the stadium. Saban’s legs are now completely in shade as the sun begins its slow, gradual descent.

From out here, a flurry of mighty roars signals a long Alabama drive. Depending on the pitch and length of each cheer, one can script out the game without seeing a single down.

At the same time, another football game has broken out in the open area that once housed the GameDay crowd. Eight children varying in age and size tackle one another for hours. The largest of the boys regularly carries two or three children into the end zone, which is an imaginary line that is disputed often. The roars don’t seem to impact them at all.  

Occasionally, a stray visitor stops to take a photo of the statue. Even then, with the biggest home game of Alabama’s unfolding in real time, Statue Saban has company.

At 5:15 p.m., the final fragments of College GameDay are wheeled out of sight and into a large white truck. Just over six hours after the show concluded its broadcast, it’s as though it was never there.

The sun dips behind Bryant-Denny Stadium just as the building unleashes the loudest rumble of the day. Defensive end Jonathan Allen, 294 spectacular pounds of Saban handiwork, glides into the end zone from 30 yards out after picking up a fumble.  

Alabama extends its lead to 12 points with 21 seconds remaining in the third quarter. This is more than enough for some fans to start heading for the exits, sensing that a victory is assured. The stadium drains, slowly at first, and the crowd outside reassembles.

The three lights positioned under the head coach have been turned on, highlighting Saban’s hands and face. While his body is barely visible from a distance, it’s the most powerful he has appeared all day.

“Thank you, Nick!” a faceless man yells from a sea of crimson as he walks by. “Attaboy, Nick!” another man yells.

Many take pictures, now with their flashes on. Some have come to drink whatever beer remains. The crowd grows larger than it has all day.

Alabama scores once more as darkness takes over. The touchdown ignites one final eruption and an even larger exodus of fans. They pour out into the opening and flock to the Saban statue. A half-circle at least three rows deep encases the area.

People hug and embrace one another. They make plans for the long night ahead. “Roll Tide!” becomes its own language, describing everything anyone needs to know that night in just two words.

A man in a crimson shirt, the day’s uniform for those who bothered to wear shirts at all, cracks the outer wall of humanity. He says nothing as he moves swiftly toward the statue. His hand makes a mighty thud against the bronze as he hits Saban’s thigh.

He does not wait around to gauge the reaction despite leaving something behind. Within seconds, he blends into the night.

The lights shining upward highlight a circular red sticker that has suddenly appeared. Four words in white letters are illuminated in the spotlight.

“Go to Hell, Auburn.”

Adam Kramer is the national lead college football writer and CFB video analyst at Bleacher Report. He cohosts B/R College Football Kickoff on Sirius XM 83 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. eastern every Saturday. Follow him on Twitter: @Kegsneggs

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