July 24, 2008
By Scott Latta, UA Media Relationsf
HOOVER, Ala. -- At 7:40 a.m., with the July sun just burning off the central Alabama haze outside, the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover is buzzing. Slowly assembling inside is a contingent of 30 or so football fans positioning themselves for a glimpse, an autograph, a handshake from the coach himself. Collectively, there is one thing on their minds.
Nick Saban is coming.
One of those waiting inside is William Bedwell of Anniston. Donning an Alabama shirt and hat and a veteran of the SEC Media Days, Bedwell has made as many trips to Hoover as LSU's Les Miles and Florida's Urban Meyer. By this year, his fourth, he knows the amount of sacrifice it takes to meet one of the SEC's top personalities -- in hopes of meeting Alabama head coach Nick Saban, this year Bedwell got up near dawn and made the 70-mile trip. By 7:30, he was ready and waiting.
At 7:57, Saban arrives and is ushered to a bank of elevators on the left side of the hotel lobby. Before he can get there, however, he is spotted by the crowd and pressed for autographs. Despite his early obligations, Saban obliges and signs for a group of fans, including William Bedwell, before heading to the third floor.
The football he has just signed for Bedwell is now one of more than 200 pieces of signed memorabilia the Anniston man has in his house. But Bedwell doesn't sell the pieces or give them away; excitedly he holds up the football, signed by the Alabama coach in gray marker.
"You don't get rid of that," he says.
8:02 a.m. - Just after 8:00, Alabama senior captains Antoine Caldwell and Rashad Johnson arrive at the Wynfrey. In addition to each coach's media obligations throughout the day, each school's two player representatives will face members of the print, television, radio and Internet media as well. The crowd of fans in the lobby has now increased to almost 60 and is comprised of supporters from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Ole Miss - the four schools making appearances in this morning's session.
8:25 a.m. - After spending more than 20 minutes signing footballs and doing brief radio interviews for the SEC, Saban has now returned to the Wynfrey lobby, which now has more than 100 people gathered. He is quickly ushered to "Radio Row" - a gauntlet of live radio broadcasts that stretches down each side of the long Wynfrey corridor. Along the path are dozens of radio booths conducting live remotes from the event and hoping to catch a quick interview of the personalities that walk by. At each end, security officers keep the crowds out by checking each media member's credentials.
Saban's first stop is WJOX 100.5 in Birmingham, then WNSP 105.5. He spends about five minutes with each station, fielding the first of hundreds of questions he will be offered throughout the day. After two more interviews, he stops at 1080 AM in Orlando.
8:45 a.m. - On the second floor, Saban is due in the Internet/radio room for a press-conference-style battery of questions about the 2008 Alabama squad. As he's being pulled out of Radio Row, however, he stops. WHBQ in Memphis has grabbed his attention, and Saban pauses for an impromptu live question-and-answer session before heading upstairs. Other radio stations that did not get a chance to speak with him are assured that he will be back before noon.
Back in the lobby, a crowd of more than 100 people has gathered by the escalators. As Saban emerges from the corridor, he is greeted by a cacophony of flash bulbs and cell phones, as eager fans push their way toward the coach for a glimpse and an autograph.
Upstairs, Saban spends 10 minutes fielding questions from Internet and radio reporters regarding Alabama's roster, the Tide's opening game with Clemson and the return of Bobby Petrino to the SEC. Now in his second year at Alabama, Saban is asked to give the new Arkansas coach advice on how to handle the circus surrounding SEC Media Days -- this year, 853 media credentials were pre-registered, and one SEC official estimated that as many as 125 were registered on-site, for a total of almost 1,000 media members the coaches must face.
8:56 a.m. - After wrapping up his brief session with the Internet and radio reporters, Saban heads across the hall for the first of three TV interview sessions with networks from around the Southeast. After facing a room of 60 to 70 writers, he is now placed in front of a session of 20 to 30 cameras.
9:05 a.m. - Right on schedule, Saban exits the interview room and heads next door for another session in front of network television cameras. Here he fields many of the exact same questions he is faced with numerous times throughout the day.
Despite its reputation as being a whirlwind of activity, for coaches SEC Media Days is more of a cyclone that picks up and spins each one in a number of directions before placing him back in the exact same spot. For football fans, the exercise acts as satiation for their hunger for the season -- for coaches, it is mostly a chance to answer the same questions five or six times.
Inside the interview room, Saban is asked how he thinks his return to LSU, a previous coaching stop, will be received by the Tiger fans. "I don't know," he says. "We had a staff meeting to plan the trip and discuss who would be riding in each bus and all the assistant coaches said, `We're not going to be on the same bus as you.'"
9:30 a.m. - After wrapping up his second and third interview stops for the TV networks, Saban heads into a one-on-one interview with RAYCOM Sports. Outside, Rashad Johnson has headed into a room for a one-on-one interview with XM Radio.
9:36 a.m. - Despite the immense amount of activity and high number of media members buzzing around, SEC coaches are not the only ones in high demand for sound bites. While waiting on his next interview, Johnson is grabbed in the hallway for an impromptu question-and-answer session with a radio reporter. Scattered around the second floor lobby are a handful of athletes and reporters doing the same thing.
Johnson's teammate, Antoine Caldwell, is facing the Internet and radio reporters next door.
9:40 a.m. - After finishing with RAYCOM, Saban heads to the adjacent room for an interview with SEC-TV. Much of the content that is used during game broadcasts and studio shows throughout the football season is captured now, when media members have a chance to sit down with coaches and players.
9:53 a.m. - Saban now heads inside the print/Internet media room, a large ballroom with dozens of long tables stretching in rows across the floor. Inside are well over 100 members of the print media, and for 40 minutes Saban stands at the podium and fields their questions.
Around the room, cameras and keyboards click nonstop for the 40-minute session. Here, Saban is faced with more in-depth questions about team personnel and positions for the upcoming season.
10:36 a.m. - After wrapping up the print session, Saban heads out a side door of the ballroom and back to the TV row for three more television interviews. First, he stops for a session with CSS SportsNite before heading next door for another 10-minute session with CBS College Sports and then ESPN.
In the hallway between interviews, Saban pauses and shakes hands with Georgia head coach Mark Richt, who is on his way to meet with the CSS crew. For a few minutes, the two men talk casually.
11:20 a.m. - After talking with ESPN and XM radio, Saban is ready to head back down the escalator for a return to Radio Row. To go back downstairs, he will take the main escalator in the hotel lobby.
As he descends back to the first floor, gradually a crowd of around 150 people begins to get a view of him on the escalator. Spontaneous shouts of "Roll Tide" are echoed across the lobby, and fans clamor for an autograph. More flashbulbs and cell phones are raised above the crowd. Despite his radio obligations, Saban stops at the base of the escalator and signs before heading off for more interviews.
While on Radio Row, the random shouts of "Roll Tide" can still be heard from the hotel lobby.
11:42 a.m. - Saban is well into a number of radio interviews, some of which will be recorded for later playback. Having made their way to Radio Row, Mark Richt and Rashad Johnson are also ushered from booth to booth for on-air spots. Milling around the area are also Alabama Director of Athletics Mal Moore, former Crimson Tide offensive lineman Roger Schultz and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive.
12:23 p.m. - Having finished his radio interviews, Saban turns back to the lobby to finish signing autographs and make his way out to his car. Along the path he pauses for every fan, signing a number of footballs, hats and helmets, as well as a couple shirts, one painting and one diploma.
Outside, as he walks the 10 feet from the lobby to his waiting car, Saban is stopped one final time. A grandmother makes her way out of the hotel and grabs his attention. The coach turns and smiles.
"Coach Saban," she says, "my granddaughter would like to give you something."
At his feet, 7-year-old Nicole Pittman of Birmingham hands him a jar. Inside is a collection of pickles grown in her grandfather's garden. Saban smiles, signs an autograph, and takes a picture with the girl.
Back inside, the girl and her grandmother are all smiles about the encounter.
"He was so nice," the grandmother says. "And I hope he enjoys the pickles. Everybody raves about them."
Nick Saban, after five hours, has left the building.