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'A remarkable man': Nick Saban's success on field benefits city, region of Tuscaloosa

The success of Nick Saban on the collegiate football field is unquestioned, but a winning team has benefited an entire region in ways unexpected.

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He'll never stay.

He’s a nomad, the critics said.

Five years, tops.

But here, in what is now his 15th season at the helm of the University of Alabama’s football program, head coach Nick Saban has proven those detractors wrong as his efforts lifted not only a football program, but an entire city.

1-3-2007 -- Tuscaloosa, Ala -- Nick Saban arrives at the football building on the University of Alabama campus on Wednesday evening after accepting the position as football coach. (Tuscaloosa News / Robert Sutton)
1-3-2007 -- Tuscaloosa, Ala -- Nick Saban arrives at the football building on the University of Alabama campus on Wednesday evening after accepting the position as football coach. (Tuscaloosa News / Robert Sutton) Robert Sutton, The Tuscaloosa News

While Saban's teams have amassed six more national titles and seven more conference championships for the Crimson Tide’s trophy case, along with notching 10-wins-a-season for the past 13 straight years, Tuscaloosa’s population has risen by more than 10,000 people and the overall county’s by more than 40,000.

Median home prices have climbed from $149,000 in 2008 – the year following Saban’s first full season at the Capstone – to more than $241,000 as of July’s data from the Alabama Center for Real Estate.

And at the University of Alabama itself, student enrollment climbed from 25,580 in 2007, the year he was announced as the Crimson Tide’s new head football coach, to more than 38,500 in 10 years.

So while there were pundits aplenty who condemned Saban’s initial $32 million, eight-year contract, it now may prove difficult to find someone who still remains critical of those who chose to make him the highest-paid coach in collegiate football.

“Coach Saban is perhaps, if not the best single investment the university has made, he is one of the best,” said Robert E. Witt, professor and president emeritus at the University of Alabama. “It’s not just that coach Saban has been successful, it’s the way he’s been successful. He has never once brought this university’s integrity or honor or values in to question.

“He has won with class and with the highest possible standards on the field and off the field.”

The right kind of attention

Witt would understand such things.

He not only was UA’s president when Saban was hired, one of his first courses of duty when he assumed the university’s top job in 2003 was to fire the recently-hired head football coach, Mike Price.

After guiding the football team through spring practice and the annual A-Day game, Price’s actions during a golf outing in Pensacola, Florida, came under scrutiny. An investigation was led by Witt into reports that Price was found drinking in a strip bar for much of an evening. The next morning, an unidentified women charged more than $1,000 to Price’s hotel room before leaving the premises.

Andi Gillen, director of the Rise Center, presents one of her incoming preschool students, Royal Williams, to Coach Nick Saban during the annual Nick's Kids Foundation luncheon in Bryant-Denny Stadium Thursday August 1, 2019. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]
Andi Gillen, director of the Rise Center, presents one of her incoming preschool students, Royal Williams, to Coach Nick Saban during the annual Nick's Kids Foundation luncheon in Bryant-Denny Stadium Thursday August 1, 2019. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.] Gary Cosby Jr., Tuscaloosa News

That year, The Tuscaloosa News reported the probe into Price’s behavior had expanded to include possible incidents in Tuscaloosa, including occasions on which Price may have purchased alcoholic beverages for UA students.

By May 3, 2003, before even coaching a game that counted, Price was terminated by the board of trustees at the recommendation of Witt.

“His mistake has severely hurt our university,” Witt said at the time, “and will continue to hurt our university for years to come.”

Fast forward to January 2007, as the late Mal Moore, then the University of Alabama’s director of athletics, was attempting to lure Saban out of his NFL contract with the Miami Dolphins, Witt was prepared to mend the damage wrought by Price’s decisions.

When chosen by the board to be UA’s president, Witt said he was charged with boosting student enrollment, particularly from areas outside of the state of Alabama.

The Nick's Kids Foundation honored Tuscaloosa area teachers during the annual Nick's Kids luncheon at Tuscaloosa River Market Friday Dec. 13, 2019. Nick and Terry Saban, along with the Nick's Kids Foundation, donated $1.25 million to the City of Tuscaloosa to transform the former Tuscaloosa News building into the Saban Center. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]
The Nick's Kids Foundation honored Tuscaloosa area teachers during the annual Nick's Kids luncheon at Tuscaloosa River Market Friday Dec. 13, 2019. Nick and Terry Saban, along with the Nick's Kids Foundation, donated $1.25 million to the City of Tuscaloosa to transform the former Tuscaloosa News building into the Saban Center. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.] Gary Cosby Jr., Tuscaloosa News

“The trustees wanted the University of Alabama to become a truly national university,” Witt said.

At the time, about 75% of UA’s approximately 19,000 undergraduates were Alabama natives.

By 2011, Witt’s last full year as president before becoming the UA system chancellor in 2012, out-of-state students and international students composed 51% of the freshman class for the first time in the university’s history.

And now, according to the latest statistics from UA, 60.3% of the 38,103 undergraduate, professional and graduate students enrolled at UA in the fall semester of 2019, came either from areas outside Alabama or the United States itself.

“We were blessed," Witt said, "and those goals were achieved.”

And they were achieved, in large part, thanks to the football coach who took a job on the promises of unequivocal support of the athletics director and the president while being given the resources to be successful.

“We recruited a football coach who had the potential of making the Alabama football program a national – not just presence, but force – for an extended period of time,” Witt said. “Coach Saban helped bring visibility to the university that supported our very aggressive recruiting and growth efforts.

“And that kind of visibility put our university on the national stage several weekends a year.”

'Sabanomics'

After a disappointing 2007, during which a team of players mostly recruited by someone other than Saban went 7-6, no Saban-led team has won fewer than 10 games and just one – in 2010 – lost three.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said he’s lost count of how many times a business or industry being recruited to the city, or even calls to independent ratings agencies charged with grading the city’s financial health, begin with a line or question about the dominance of the Alabama football team or Saban himself.

“It’s put Tuscaloosa on a national stage," Maddox said, "so when you talk about a city of 100,000 and people know where you are – that’s pretty remarkable in a county our size.

“Some people say we’re more than just a football city, but I embrace being a football city. It’s almost a universal language that opens doors for us to do business as the city of Tuscaloosa.”

Internally, the city staff calls it “Sabanomics,” Maddox said, and he explained it as the transformation of the gameday experience from a few Saturdays a year to four-day celebrations during which visitors and football fans alike can more than double the city's population from Thursday night to Sunday morning.

And that, according to UA research, has translated into millions for local merchants, business owners and restauranteurs.

Based on the latest available data from the University of Alabama’s Center for Business & Economic Research, each home game for the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa means an estimated $26.2 million economic impact on the state and $19.5 million to the local economy.

“That includes sales tax and everything,” said Ahmad Ijaz, the center’s executive director, “and it has steadily improved.

“Every year is better than the year before.”

Though this data was collected through the 2018-19 season, meaning the diminished crowds for the 2020 season that was hampered by the global coronavirus pandemic will likely be less, it’s a significant increase over the 2004-2005 season, which saw an average economic impact of about $12.7 million per game to Tuscaloosa, or the $14.5 million local economic impact from the seven home games in 2008.

And while Ijaz believes this total would likely increase if lodging tax was included – determining the football-exclusive visitors in local hotels proves difficult, he said – he maintains that a direct line could be drawn between the success of Saban and the Crimson Tide to the economic benefits of the region.

Robert E. Witt, professor and president emeritus at the University of Alabama
Coach Saban is perhaps, if not the best single investment the university has made, he is one of the best.

“I think the coach has a lot to do with it,” Ijaz said. “The more games we win, it draws in more spectators and draws in more people. A winning football coach definitely has a significant positive economic impact.

“Even if we don’t see it in the one weekend, it draws in students from other states and people wanting to go to college here.”

Beyond the field

Jim Page, the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, has a saying he likes to invoke when talking about Tuscaloosa’s success.

“A rising tide,” he has said on more than one occasion, “lifts all boats.”

And whether it’s another trophy in the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility or another Habitat for Humanity house funded by the Nick’s Kids Foundation, Page is a firm believer that the tide raised by Saban has lifted all of Tuscaloosa.

University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban offers a shirt to Kent State player Terry Jacques, fourth from left, at a Habitat for Humanity house in the Holt community of Tuscaloosa, Ala. Friday, July 22, 2011. Kent State players, Alabama players and Alabama and Auburn students volunteered to rebuild a home that was devastated by the April 27th tornado.  [Staff file photo]
University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban offers a shirt to Kent State player Terry Jacques, fourth from left, at a Habitat for Humanity house in the Holt community of Tuscaloosa, Ala. Friday, July 22, 2011. Kent State players, Alabama players and Alabama and Auburn students volunteered to rebuild a home that was devastated by the April 27th tornado. [Staff file photo] Dusty Compton, Tuscaloosa News

“It’s virtually impossible to quantify the full impact coach Nick Saban has had on the greater Tuscaloosa area and this state since his arrival in 2007,” Page said. “The incredible success he’s had on the field has helped elevate the global brand of the University of Alabama, which has, in turn, led to hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development for this region in terms of new housing and hotel developments, additional retail and dining establishments, and explosive gains in tourism-related spending throughout the year, especially during home game weekends.

“The positive international exposure coach Saban consistently brings to this community and state is simply invaluable.”

Beyond the private investment – for instance, investments of more than $125 million in at least 600 new downtown hotel rooms have been announced or constructed since 2015 – the coach and his wife, Terry, have focused on improving the community, too.

Following the devastating tornado of April 27, 2011, the Sabans’ charity arm, the Nick’s Kids Foundation, has funded the construction of 18 Habitat for Humanity homes in Tuscaloosa, one for each of the football team’s recognized national championships.

The foundation has contributed funds to playgrounds along the Tuscaloosa Riverwalk as well as “Mason’s Place,” the playground for children of all abilities, that opened earlier this year in Sokol Park.

The foundation and the Sabans also have contributed $1.25 million to the “Saban Center,” the state-of-the-art interactive facility that will offer science, technology, engineering and math programs, theater and outdoor recreation in the 100,000-plus-square-foot facility that currently houses The Tuscaloosa News.

“The philanthropic generosity of coach Saban and Ms. Terry is second to none and serves as a model for all of us,” Page said. “As I have said on many occasions with complete confidence, the university’s successful recruitment of coach Nick Saban to Tuscaloosa is one of the most significant economic development victories in the history of the state of Alabama.”

It’s also fostered a belief in Tuscaloosa that, with the right approach, anything is possible.

At least, this is the opinion of David Pass, who, among many other things, serves as chair of the Tuscaloosa National Airport Committee and member of the city’s Airport Advisory Committee.

He pointed directly to the approach to improvement taken by Saban and his wife as reason for making such a hard push to re-recruit a national air carrier to Tuscaloosa, something this city hasn’t had since the 1990s.

The City of Tuscaloosa renamed 28th Avenue as Nick's Kids Avenue Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. Terry and Nick Saban enjoy the moment after they have unveiled the street sign. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]
The City of Tuscaloosa renamed 28th Avenue as Nick's Kids Avenue Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. Terry and Nick Saban enjoy the moment after they have unveiled the street sign. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.] Gary Cosby Jr., Tuscaloosa News

“We have a lot for which to thank the Sabans – both Nick and Ms. Terry – from the great successes of our football team, both on and off the field, and all they do in the community,” Pass said. “But if I had to pinpoint one thing that they have done, it is bringing a winning mindset to our community and creating high expectations for ourselves and our future.

“Large initiatives that would have been thought inconceivable for Tuscaloosa in the past – whether it’s restoring air service, recruiting the next Mercedes or one of the many exciting projects being currently developed – are now viewed as not only possible, but a disciplined process is being put in place to see that they are achieved. That mindset and the optimism that comes from the Sabans' example is palpable.”

And this is all possible because the University of Alabama needed a football coach.

But what it got was a model for success on the gridiron and beyond.

“He makes me proud,” said Witt, who retired from college administration in 2016 and returned to the classroom. “He wins, but he wins in the right way. Having a coach whose values, as well as whose success, shines a spotlight on the university is, I believe, of great value.

“When you accept an administrative leadership position at the University of Alabama, it’s an honor and a responsibility. And if you accept the honor, you better be willing to live up to the responsibility. Coach Saban has done so admirably. He’s a remarkable man.”

Reach Jason Morton at jason.morton@tuscaloosanews.com.

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