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‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, And Mrs. Saban Was Really Mad At Ole Saint Nick

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(Reprinted in part from the Dec. 24, 2003, Baton Rouge Advocate)

It was the eve of Christmas Eve in 2003 at LSU.

LSU coach Nick Saban was preparing for his first national championship game on Jan. 4 and the Tigers’ first since 1958 in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans against Oklahoma.

There are enough Christmas cards around the door to his office that one might think he’s St. Nick. But these are from coaches like Mike Shula at Alabama and from players and coaches around the NFL like the Green Bay Packers and San Diego Chargers.

There are two little kids and a puppy dressed in purple and gold on the cover of another card. But Saban doesn’t know them. They’re asking for tickets.

One of the football secretaries suddenly bursts into Saban’s secretary’s office. She’s had it. She can’t find a box for a gift.

Another secretary receives a food basket for Saban, but the “giver” is wondering where the autographed football he’s supposed to get in return is.

The last practice before Christmas ends and a few players and coaches filter in.

Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is looking for a babysitter for little Jackson so he and his wife Carol can go to the staff Christmas party for a little while.

Punter Donnie Jones has a football autographed by teammates ready to be wrapped after he gets one more signature. “Hey, bring this in to coach Saban,” Jones says, giving the ball to an intern. “Ask him to autograph it.”

Saban is looking for Jimbo Fisher, his offensive coordinator, and giving other staff members instructions.

The players, coaches and staff are trying to get home or to the mall. Saban, though, still has a lot to do. A reporter’s waiting in his secretary’s office. A TV reporter is waiting upstairs. He hasn’t done a lot of Christmas shopping.

While Saban is being interviewed in his office, a secretary enters to answer his cellular phone. Another secretary enters a few minutes later to get his car keys so she can load some gifts.

So, this is Christmas.

For those who work around the holidays, as football coaches do, Christmas is just another deadline. Saban is as used to deadline pressure this time of year as St. Nicholas himself.

Christmas Eve when he was a kid back home in Monongah, West Virginia, meant he and his sister Dene went to his grandparents on his mother Mary Saban’s side. Grandpa Conway, a former coal miner, had a rule as strict as any of Saban’s for his football team.

“He would not let you open one present until midnight,” Saban said. “It was like sacrilegious to even think about opening one up before midnight. It was hard to stay up late. And there were tons of other kids and cousins there, too. We’d be playing and playing and waiting until 12 o’clock.”

Saban loved his family’s Christmas traditions.

“We’d go to Grandma Saban’s and have homemade chicken noodle soup with these real big noodles,” he said. “My grandmother used to lay them out on the table and cut the noodles up.”

On Christmas 1953, when Saban was 2, a neighbor dressed up as Santa Claus and visited, but little Nicky was not impressed.

“He was scared to death,” his mother Mary Saban remembers. “He hopped up in my lap and wanted no part of it.”

That, however, was not Saban’s worst Christmas Eve. That came later after he married the former Terry Constable of nearby Fairmont, West Virginia, on Dec. 18, 1971. They just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where Saban has been the coach since 2007 and has won six national championships.

Saban, 70, will get a chance for a seventh national title at Alabama and eighth overall if the No. 1 Tide (12-1) beats No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0) in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Dec. 31 at the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas. The winner plays the winner of the other New Year’s Eve semifinal between No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Georgia on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis for the national title.

At Christmas 1984, though, Saban was just 33 and still looking for his first head coaching job. He had just finished his second season as the defensive coordinator at Michigan State under George Perles with a 10-6 loss to Army in the Cherry Bowl in Pontiac, Michigan, for a 6-6 finish. That was the Spartans’ first non-losing season since 1978, but they needed offense.

Saban was recruiting one of the best wide receivers in the nation at the time – Andre Rison of Northwestern High in Flint, Michigan. So was Michigan, Wisconsin and a host of other schools.

But Saban was enjoying a break from that with his wife Terry as they were celebrating Christmas Eve night like they always did – with Terry’s side of the family in Fairmont, West Virginia. They would spend Christmas Day with Saban’s mother and sister Dianna in the Fairmont area.

Then the phone rang. It was Saban’s childhood friend, Joe Manchin III, who was a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates at the time who would go on to be Secretary of State and Governor of the state and is a U.S. Senator now.

“Nick, you’re not going to believe this,” Manchin said. “That wide receiver you’re recruiting, Andre Rison – his grandmother is from Fairmont. His grandmother is Miss Alberta.”

Alberta Brown had been driving a garbage truck in Saban’s neighborhood in Monongah ever since he could remember.

“I knew Alberta Brown since I was a kid,” Saban said. “I just didn’t know she was Andre’s grandma.”

Saban notices the reporter looks surprised.

“You never heard of a woman driving a garbage truck? Well, you must have never been to West Virginia,” Saban says laughing.

“So, anyway, Joe calls to tell me that Alberta Brown wants to talk to you because she doesn’t want him to go to Wisconsin and wants him to go play at Michigan State with you,” Saban said. “Everybody knows everybody where I grew up. It’s not like there’s a lot of strangers running around.”

But it’s getting close to 6 p.m. and everybody is at Saban’s in-laws. He tells his wife and her mother, Linda Constable, that he has to go visit this recruit’s grandmother.

“What? You’re crazy,” Mrs. Saban says.

“But I’ll be back in time to celebrate Christmas Eve,” he tells them.

Miss Alberta is very upset about her grandson, and this was not a quick visit. She had a little drink, so Saban – ever the recruiter – tried to have one, too, even though he doesn’t drink.

“I was trying, man,” Saban said. “I go see Alberta Brown at six o’clock. And at 2 o’clock in the morning, I’m still sitting in the garage with Alberta Brown, and she’s telling me she doesn’t want Andre going to Wisconsin.”

Saban finally got back to his mother-in-law’s, but by now he might as well have been “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas Eve.”

“Terry’s mom almost killed me,” Saban said. “Because I wasn’t there for anything. I missed the whole family get-together because I was at Andre Rison’s grandmother’s house.”

It worked, though. Andre Rison signed with Michigan State in February of 1985 and helped lead the Spartans to the 1987 Big Ten title and 20-17 Rose Bowl victory over USC in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1988. He also played basketball and ran track. A first round draft choice in 1989 by the Indianapolis Colts, Rison went on to become a five-time Pro Bowler and was a Super Bowl XXXI champion with Green Bay in the 1996-97 season. He has been inducted into the Michigan State athletic Hall of Fame.

“I almost got divorced, but we signed him,” Saban said laughing. “We got Andre Rison! We signed him!”

Andre Rison at Michigan State

And Saban’s career would soon take off. He left Michigan State to coach the secondary with the Houston Oilers in 1988-89 before landing his first head coaching job at Toledo in 1990. He returned to the NFL and was the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick from 1991-94 before becoming Michigan State’s head coach from 1995-99, LSU from 2000-04, the Miami Dolphins in 2005 and ’06 and finally to Alabama in 2007.

“It’s hard when you move around to different parts of the country, but we’ll have our traditional Christmas at home,” he said at the time.

After a Christmas Eve in 2003 in which he let his two kids, Nicholas and Kristen, open their presents well before midnight, he won that first national championship at LSU on Jan. 4, 2004, 21-14 over Oklahoma.

As he prepared for another possible national title this week, Saban took timeout Monday at the end of a press conference to even wish reporters a Merry Christmas, as he does every year.

“I don’t think I’m going to get another opportunity to wish everybody a happy holiday,” he said. “This is a great time of year to enjoy family and have gratitude for all the blessings that we have, even though when you’re a coach, you don’t get to enjoy it a whole lot unti you get right to it.”

Thank goodness for the new early signing date as of 2017, though, as Saban inked 24 recruits on Dec. 15. He plans on staying in Christmas Eve night.

“We have a couple days off, but I just want everybody that supports the program, all the people out there, friends and family that we’re thinking about you over the holidays and wish you a blessed holiday season,” he said. “Thank you.”

And thank you, Andre Rison.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau has been on the LSU beat since 1998 with multiple outlets in Louisiana, prior to that he had covered both Auburn and Alabama. He won first place for his game feature on LSU's upset at Florida last season from the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He was also named Beat Writer of Year, by Louisiana Sports Writers Association in July; placed in three Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) categories – Beat Writer, Explanatory, Game Coverage – last spring. Guilbeau was also the FWAA first-place winner for columns in 2017 and was also the top overall winner in 2016 FWAA placing first for his game story, second in columns, and receiving honorable mention for features.

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