How Nick Saban and Tuscaloosa drew closer after Alabama’s 2011 tornado

BY THE SUN, at 6:57 a.m. to be exact, Ellen Potts’ phone rang on the 12th. January 2021. The director of Habitat for Humanity’s branch in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, looks at the bulletin board and sees a familiar name: Terry Saban.

So Potts was quickly surprised to hear about Alabama football coach Nick Saban’s wife. Hours earlier, the Crimson Tide defeated Ohio State to win the school’s 18th national championship. The team bus didn’t leave Hard Rock Stadium in South Florida until after midnight, meaning Terry got little to no sleep.

ARE YOU READY?! Terry Saban’s message reads as follows. I can’t wait to plan house 18… will it be a house built with love?

Pots laughed. It was the enthusiasm she had been waiting for.

Ten years ago this month, on the 27th. In April 2011, Tuscaloosa was hit by the largest tornado in the state’s history. Mayor Walt Maddox summed up the situation in stark statistics: 12.5% of the city destroyed, 53 residents killed and 1,200 injured in just seven minutes. According to Maddox, it was as if the hand of God had struck Tuscaloosa and made it unrecognizable.

The disaster affected Saban deeply and those close to the legendary coach believe it has forced him to rethink his impact on people and the community.

It was shocking to see so many people who had lost everything – they had lost their homes, they had lost everything, Nick Saban recalled in a recent phone interview with ESPN.

For three decades, he and his wife guided nomads and began settling, building homes with Habitat and becoming the face of recovery. Their original goal was to fund the construction of 13 houses – one for each national championship the school had won up to that point – but for the last 10 years Alabama has consistently won, so they keep building.

It was expected that Saban would win and that there would be an offer that he and his family would have to accept. But something in 2011 changed the dynamic, said Maddox, who became mayor in 2005 and still holds that post. You could feel it. You could have seen it. We are all forged in this tragedy.

Gradually, Barrett Jones, then a striker, began to see a different side of his coach, one that was more understanding and compassionate.

Not that he wasn’t already tense, of course he was, Jones said. But it confirmed the importance of his position and role, not only on the football team, but also in the community.

It changed his perspective forever.

The largest tornado in Alabama history struck on the 27th. In April 2011, Tuscaloosa was hit, destroying entire neighborhoods and wiping out 12.5% of the city. Fifty-three Tuscaloosa residents were killed and 1,200 were injured. The damage extended beyond the city limits. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

AFTER TORNADO, assistant athletic directors Jeff Purinton and Thad Turnipseed Saban’s eerily quiet office and sensed the coach’s concern.

The power went out and Saban’s cell phone didn’t work. He wanted to help. But there was no plan, Turnipseed later recalled. It was driving him crazy.

They went to the Ferguson Student Center to ask for help, but found more than 100 people who seemed lost. There was a leadership vacuum. Saban felt a familiar tug. People need leadership, he said ten years later.

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Saban sat down on the couch and started talking. When something bad happens, he told the crowd that this is an opportunity for all of us to get involved, help and do what we can.

He demanded: Be ready when called.

Purinton remembers Saban speaking as if to say: We’re gonna get through this, and I’m with you.

Years later, when he thinks about it, Turnip gets goosebumps. He just calls it speech.

Saban resisted the NFL’s call and instead chose to hand out bottles of water to first responders and visit a victims’ shelter.

When he met his team that day, he told his players to forget about football. Instead, he said, people should think about what they can do to help.

The players volunteered between practice and classes. Jones, an offensive lineman, went around town with a chainsaw to help clear debris; left tackle Preston Dial loaded 18-wheel trucks with supplies; and linebacker Courtney Upshaw collected about $20,000 to help.

Saban said he didn’t need to use the forward next season before the game because his team never forgot him.

Finally, one of them, the leggy Carson Tinker, suffered a tragic loss.

Tinker was holding his girlfriend, Ashley Harrison, when it happened. He was thrown 50 yards and woke up in the hospital with a concussion and injuries to his wrist and ankle. Then he heard that Harrison didn’t make it.

Saban described his wife, Terri, as the driving force behind the family’s philanthropic efforts. Amelia B. Barton/University of Alabama

Before SABAN knew it, his wife was on the phone.

Immediately after the tornado, Saban ordered meals for the shelters, bought gift cards for the families, and took a group of children to the sporting goods store to buy much-needed clothing and supplies. And those are just the things that happened behind the scenes. Every time the Sabans have appeared in public, they have covered up the damage to Alabama.

Donations to the Saban Foundation, Nick’s Kids. Turnepsid, the head of the organization, said some of the individual contributions were astronomical by their standards – over six figures.

The foundation was not set up for such a large project as tornado recovery, but the Sabans went for it.

It was personal. His son Nicholas lived a block from the path of the tornado. He was lucky, all his doors and windows were blown out and the roof was almost ripped off, but he is unharmed. Her daughter Kristen stopped by the Hobby Lobby art store on her way home so she could craft while the storm passed. By the time Terry heard Kristen pull into the driveway a few minutes later, Hobby Lobby was gone.

A few days later, Terry started a conversation with Habitat for Humanity about building homes for less fortunate families.

Rather than spend precious resources on equipment, she turned to Mike Thompson, general manager of 29 Caterpillar franchises in Alabama: I need bulldozers.

When Nick Saban visited one of the first buildings, he was surprised by what he saw.

She has players on a fucking bulldozer, he recalled.

Saban laughed and admitted that Terry was the driving force behind the family’s philanthropic efforts. This phrase is often repeated by those who have worked with a couple who will be married for 50 years next December.

She’s going to a fucking juvenile prison, and the next thing I know, we’re building a school there, Saban said. She goes to the next board meeting and the next thing I know we are contributing to the Children’s Learning Centre.

He added: I’m a financial planner. I need to find an antidote.

Bob Johnson, who took over the local Habitat office after the tornado and was Potts’ pastor, remembers going to the Sabans’ home to work out the details of the partnership. It had been about a month since the storm, and the Alabama graduate didn’t know what to expect from the intimidating coach and his wife. Saban was reserved, leaning back and scrolling through some questions and comments. But Terry was a force of nature, Johnson said.

The original plan was to build five or six houses. Then someone came up with the idea of building 13.

The project was ambitious – Saban wanted to build two homes in time for the season opener, which was just three months away – but Johnson didn’t dare say no.

You see, Coach Saban wants to do it and Terry will do it, Johnson said.

Habitat’s first home was found the day before a home game against Kent State in August. While the other Habitat houses were being completed, a party was being held on one of the streets where several houses had been built, and Johnson was approached by a volunteer from another state.

Well, the volunteer asked, what are you going to do if 13 people show up?

Johnson knew Saban long enough to have an answer.

Won 14, he replied.

With the football team continuing to win, Terry told ESPN that we can certainly build on that.

In 2019, Nick Saban entered the field at No. 17, where his wife once again fielded a 30-player lineup.

That put Tua [Tagovailoa] in the woods, Saban said of his star quarterback at the time. I said: Give him a job where he can assert himself.

Saban continues to work with Habitat for Humanity. Although 13 homes were originally planned, the football team continues to win titles. Now they’re planning house number 18. Amelia Barton/University of Alabama.

JEN’S NIGHT. 9, 2012, Saban a smile as he celebrated another title – his first since the destruction of Tuscaloosa.

He just got screwed, but it had nothing to do with the Gatorade bath he took two years earlier in California after his first national championship at Alabama. Then, at the icy transition, he shuddered, already thinking of what was to come.

This time he brushed his hair back and heaved a sigh of relief. In the post-game interview, he talked about the people of Tuscaloosa who had endured so much after the tornado and said he hoped winning the championship would bring them joy.

We continue to work to move forward and try to help people rebuild their lives in our community, he said in an on-site interview with ESPN.

The last eight months have been eventful. Purinton remembers the team meetings after the storm and how Saban reminded the players of the support they received daily from the fans. Saban told them that this was their chance to give something back.

Throughout the season, we felt like we were playing for something bigger, Jones said. It was an incredibly unifying moment.

Jones felt a change in himself, his teammates and their head coach.

When something like that happens, he said, it can really remind you of the things that are important, and the relationships that are important, and the things that will last a long time outside of football.

The Matrix saw less and less of the ruthless coach who had fought so hard to break the fans’ sense of entitlement. Saban has become more intimate and connected to the community. He was a more gentle man, according to Turnipseed.

After nearly a year of speculation about Saban’s departure, it seemed for the first time that he was no longer looking forward to it.

Turnipseed said there is no doubt that the tornado caused Saban to change his perspective.

Maddox saw Saban come off the pedestal of head football coach and begin to interact with the community. He called it incredible that Saban distributed basic necessities and spoke to the families in a personal way.

The result, Maddox says, is an unbreakable bond.

The Saban family is rebuilding after the 2011 tornado in Tuscaloosa. Seeing so many people who have lost everything – they’ve lost their home, they’ve lost everything, Nick Saban said. It was shocking. Amelia B. Barton/University of Alabama

After EVERY construction project, Terry Saban brings the coaches’ wives together to put the finishing touches on the landscape. Last part: the welcome wreath at the front door.

What better way to remember the tragedy of 2011 than to help families find safe homes? Mr Terry said.

Not that she needs help remembering that day.

The 27th. April, Terry said, will always be remembered in our family.

Last month, a few weeks before the 10th birthday. Birthday – the state was on edge again when the National Weather Service issued a severe weather warning. The long-track tornado eventually touched down south of Tuscaloosa and traveled more than 100 miles across the state, destroying an area on the outskirts of Birmingham and killing five people near the town of Ohatchee.

An hour earlier, Saban was sitting in his office watching the weather when a reporter called. He said if his time here has taught him anything, it’s on days like this to pay attention and watch out for mermaids.

I may have done it before the 27th. April didn’t have enough respect for them, he said. But I respect them now when the siren sounds, that’s for sure.

Saban grew up in West Virginia and spent most of his coaching career up north. He’s seen his share of severe snowstorms, but he’s never experienced anything like the 2011 tornado, he says.

He said it made me feel much more compassionate. You realize that there are many things you can do to make a positive impact on others and improve their lives.

And we’ve probably moved on more than we used to, in retrospect.

Ten years later, Saban says he doesn’t hear much about the houses they built or the gift certificates that were handed out.

The comment he got the most was: They were there.

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