KNOXVILLE — Nick Saban is personable. He’s funny. He likes playing golf, and he loves spending time every summer with friends and family on Georgia’s Lake Burton.
Yes, Nick Saban. That Nick Saban.
“He’s got a great personality. He does,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said of Alabama’s coach. “He’s got a great personality. He’s got a great sense of humor. He just doesn’t do that with everybody.”
Dooley spent seven seasons with Saban — five at LSU and two with the Miami Dolphins. They’ re drastically different people with drastically different personalities, at least to the general public, but Dooley and Saban clearly have professional and personal respect for each other.
It just so happens that the friends now coach opposing sides of one of college football’s all-time classic rivalries, and Tennessee hosts Alabama this Saturday night.
“Will it be odd a little bit before the game? Probably,” Dooley said. “But once the game starts, you’ re so locked into the game and managing the game that you don’t really think about that.”
Saturday will be a new experience for Dooley, but not for Saban, who has faced former bosses such as New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and former pupils including Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.
“You have personal relationships with people, and you have professional relationships with them,” Saban said. “You have to compete against them, but that doesn’t mean you have to dislike them, or you can’t appreciate and respect all they’ve done for the years they worked with you, and the relationships you have with them and their family and everybody else. That’s never been an issue with me. It doesn’t seem to be much of an issue with the people that we have relationships with on their side of it, either.
“I do talk to Derek on occasion, and I think he’s doing a fantastic job up there.”
Dooley is one of many former Saban assistants to land a BCS-level head coaching position, but he will be the first to face Saban in that role. Others, such as Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Mike Haywood of Miami (Ohio), haven’t had the opportunity.
Muschamp and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart are continually rumored as SEC head-coaching candidates — Muschamp also interviewed for the UT position last winter — and other Saban assistants seem destined to follow a similarly fast path.
Few have spent as much time with Saban as Dooley, though. And Saban couldn’t have seemed more pleased with those seven seasons.
“He’s a very bright guy and a student of the game, on all parts of the game,” Saban said. “He wasn’t one of those guys who just thought he was a one-position coach on offense or a one-position coach on defense. He looked at the big picture all the time. He’s got a great family heritage relative to football, so he kind of grew up with it. He understands the big picture of issues and problems you have to deal with in a program. I think he’s a really good recruiter.
“I think he’s got all the right stuff to be a very successful college coach.”
But that success doesn’t typically come soon.
Saban went 6-5-1 his first season at Michigan State, 8-4 his first season at LSU and 7-6 his first season with Alabama. Dooley is 2-4 midway through his first season at UT.
“I don’t know many specifics about his circumstance there,” Saban said. “But in my experiences, that first year is very, very difficult in terms of your staff, everybody getting on board, getting the players to buy in. It looks like from the way they play that they’ve really done that. I don’t think you can just look, especially in first years, at record and results.
“But is the foundation being built for what you need to do in the future so that you have a chance to be successful and you can build on what you have? It seems to me like that’s happening there, based on just watching how they play, the discipline they play with, that type of thing.”
Dooley said there’s a simple reason Saban doesn’t know the specifics of his rebuilding process in Knoxville.
“I talked to him quite a bit my first year as a head coach [at Louisiana Tech],” Dooley said. “But you get settled in and you talk a little bit less about ‘Give me some advice’ and more just ‘How are you doing?’
“We don’t talk a lot in football season. We’ ve talked a couple of times since [this] season started. I see him a lot at the lake when we’ re on vacation. We play a little golf.”
Several reporters laughed as Dooley described that casual side of Saban.
“What?” Dooley asked.
“Is he a straight-faced man to your jokes?” one reporter promptly asked in return.
Dooley then spoke again about Saban’s “great personality.”
“That’s tough to fathom,” the reporter replied.
Dooley insisted that Saban simply doesn’t show that side to everyone.
The reporter then asked Dooley why Saban hides “that great personality” and only shows “that tough exterior” to the masses.
“I don’t know,” Dooley replied. “I think everybody’s a little different, personality-wise, but I’ ve always been at ease at him and I think he’s been at ease with me — even in my first year of coaching.
“A lot of it is, you know, the other guy.”