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Paint It Crimson: Nick Saban Speaks on His 50-Year Love Affair With the Rolling Stones

On the eve of what could be the band’s final tour, we talk to Alabama’s hardboiled football coach about why he’s such a fan of Mick, Keef, Charlie, and Ronnie

Alabama football coach Nick Saban holding a microphone and wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After every road game that his team wins, Nick Saban listens to his favorite Rolling Stones song. The Alabama football coach doesn’t know how or why the tradition started, but during each post-victory drive home from the airport, he and his wife, Terry, turn up “Gimme Shelter.” Mick Jagger once likened it to the apocalypse. It still amazes and confounds Saban.

“I try to wonder, ‘Exactly what are we trying to say here?’” Saban said from Tuscaloosa. He’s not exactly sure what the track is about, even if it does capture the feeling of what it’s like to play Alabama. “I mean, I love the song,” he added. “But you know, if you’re digging for purpose, I can’t really give it.”

When we spoke, the owner of six national championship rings breathed none of the fire that typically sweeps the Crimson Tide sideline on fall Saturdays. The first practice of the season was still a ways off. Saban sounded … relaxed.

For years in interviews, the coach has mentioned his love of the Rolling Stones. Warren St. John’s 2013 GQ profile, headlined “Sympathy for the Devil,” features a scene in which Saban champions Jagger’s singing voice to the author. With the band kicking off the No Filter tour in Chicago on June 21, I thought it’d be a good time to ask Saban to expound on his fandom.

Like most boomer dads, Saban marvels at the fact that the septuagenarian Stones—Jagger (75), Keith Richards (75), Charlie Watts (78), and Ronnie Wood (72)—can still shred. The last time he saw them live was in 2015 at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. “The first thing is ‘Start Me Up,’” he said. “When you hear that beat, it really is something.” Back then, Saban reminded me, Jagger was 71. “The energy, the enthusiasm, the dancing, all the stuff that goes with what he does, it’s just unbelievable,” the coach said. “But he’s always kind of been that way.”

The 67-year-old Saban and Jagger seem to be kindred spirits. In April, two days after the coach had a hip replaced, Alabama football posted a photo of him working in his office. In May, a month after the lead singer had a heart valve replaced, he posted a video of himself practicing his signature dance moves.

Alabama native Chuck Leavell sees plenty of similarities between the two single-mindedly obsessive frontmen. The musician, who was 9 years old when his family moved to Tuscaloosa in 1962, has made a career of playing keys alongside some of the world’s biggest rock acts. The die-hard Alabama fan has spent time with, among others, the Allman Brothers, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and for the past four decades, the Stones. “Look what it takes to accumulate a body of work like that,” said Leavell, the band’s unofficial musical director. “I mean, here we are in London, we’re rehearsing like eight hours a day.”

More than anything else about the Rolling Stones, it’s this resoluteness that Saban appears to admire. After all, he presides over America’s most dominant college football program. He views everything through that lens. Still, occasionally coachspeak can reveal some truth about how the coach dispensing it sees the world—and himself. Take, for example, the way Saban talks about the greatness of the Stones:

“It’s no different than a player who has passion for what he does and perseverance to sort of overcome and change with the times. They have an exceptional ability to deal with success and maintain a high standard of how they do things, even when they’ve been successful for a long time. Which is a little unusual. But it is what it is.”

Like many children of the ’60s, Saban was turned on to rock ’n’ roll by the British Invasion. While growing up in a coal-mining town in West Virginia, he got hooked on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. “It really happened way back then,” he said.

Well before Saban arrived, the Rolling Stones made their own historic pilgrimage to Alabama. Seeking to further embrace (and capitalize on) the sound pioneered by black musicians, English groups of the time became interested in the region. “British artists seemed to be fascinated with the South,” said Leavell, whose own high school band the Misfitz covered Stones songs. “I think because of the heritage of the blues, and soul, and R&B.”

On December 2, 1969, three days after the Crimson Tide’s infamous fake punt–capped blowout Iron Bowl loss to archrival Auburn and four days prior to the tragedy at Altamont, the Stones descended upon Sheffield, Alabama. There, at the iconic Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, they recorded “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” and a cover of “You Gotta Move.” (Saban hasn’t yet made the 123-mile trek north from Tuscaloosa to visit the studio, but he said that he learned about the session through watching the 2012 HBO documentary Crossfire Hurricane.) Versions of all three songs ended up on Sticky Fingers.

When that album was released in 1971, Saban was attending Kent State. The year prior, he was on campus when National Guardsmen shot and killed four students. In 2016, he said that the massacre was “one of the most traumatic experiences, I think, that I’d ever had to deal with.”

Saban remembers seeing the Rolling Stones live for the first time in 1972. The show was at the now-demolished Akron Rubber Bowl. Then a defensive back for the Golden Flashes, he recalls working “security” that night to avoid paying for a ticket. “It was an easy way to get into a concert and stand around and do nothing and make 50 bucks,” said Saban, who saw the band again in 1975 at Cleveland Stadium.

As his coaching career progressed, Saban’s love of classic rock never waned. During our chat, he ticked off Elvis Presley, Motown artists, the Beatles, the Stones, and Al Green as music that he still listens to regularly. “Our generation was really blessed to have so many opportunities to enjoy great music,” he said. “My son is 32, and he actually plays guitar. And it’s amazing that the music from our day, which includes the Rolling Stones, is some of his favorite stuff to play.”

When he became defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns in 1991, Saban and head coach Bill Belichick bonded over music. “He kind of likes all that stuff,” Saban said. “I don’t think many people know that. We’re in the same boat.” Together they went to see the Eagles, Joe Walsh solo, Ringo Starr, and Phil Collins.

Every so often, Belichick would invite his friend Jon Bon Jovi to Browns practice. He was even allowed to lightly participate. “If he ran out for a pass,” Saban said, “I had to make sure my guys didn’t hit him too hard.”

In late 2017, a few weeks before Saban led the Crimson Tide to the fifth national championship since Alabama hired him in 2007, Townsquare Media announced the debut of a new Tuscaloosa classic rock radio station. Naturally, it was called Nick 97.5. In the logo, one of Saban’s Panama hats dots the “i.”

“The station is named as a tribute to Alabama head football coach Nick Saban,” Townsquare market president and chief revenue officer David R. DuBose said in a statement. “We like to believe that this station plays music that he would have picked out and listens to on a daily basis.”

Saban said that his current playlist—“on whatever it is that’s in your car now”—is 120-songs long. There’s plenty of Stones in there. “When I’m driving down the road and something good happens [or] something bad happens,” he added, “they’re being listened to.” (At practice he said that things are a little bit different: “I don’t pick the music for the players.”)

Leavell has never met Saban, but he’s heard stories about the coach’s appreciation of the Stones. Several years ago, the keyboardist was honored during a halftime ceremony at Bryant-Denny Stadium. “They kindly acknowledged the hometown boy that plays with the Rolling Stones was at the game,” he said. “Got to walk out on the field and wave to people and act like I was somebody.”

That somebody has been a Rolling Stones fan for more than 50 years. He first saw the band play live, on a bill with the Beach Boys and the Righteous Brothers, in 1965 at Legion Field in Birmingham. By the 1989 Steel Wheels tour, when the Stones stopped in Alabama for the first time since 1972, Leavell was part of the act. The night of the concert, he hired a car service to drive his mother and her friend from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. The day after the show, Leavell brought trays of food from Dreamland and Archibald’s back to where the band was staying. “I called up everybody,” he recalled, “and said, ‘Come on down to the bar. We’ve got a barbecue taste-off going on here.’”

The Stones haven’t played live in Alabama since 1994, but Leavell will always be a Crimson Tide diehard. As a touring musician, it used to be difficult for him to follow the team. Now it’s a breeze. “Thank God for technology, with streaming,” he said. “Even if it’s just going online and getting news about the scores and whatnot. You bet I keep up with it.”

Although Saban’s mind rarely deviates from football, he still tries to keep up with the Rolling Stones. When I sent his spokesperson Josh Maxson an email on a whim, he responded far more enthusiastically than I expected. Yes, he told me, Coach was interested in discussing the Stones. “Really all he wanted to know is when the tour was,” Maxson said, “because he wants to go.”

But when we talked, the man who in 2016 was so focused on the season that he had to be reminded that a presidential election was happening couldn’t commit to attending a Stones show this summer. “I looked at the schedule and I don’t know if there’s any time I can,” Saban said. “New Orleans would probably be the closest. I was hoping they’d be in Atlanta again. But I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to make it or not. I’d love to—but I don’t know if I will.”

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