When speculation began late last season that Saban, then coaching the Miami Dolphins, would become the head coach at Alabama, he said he had no interest. He didn't stop there. Saban lectured the media members on their responsibility to honor his commitment to his team.
"I don't know how else I can say it," Saban said. "I've said it three different occasions. I'm not going to be the Alabama coach."
When he left the Dolphins three days after their last game to be the Alabama coach, those words came back to haunt him (They still are playing on your local YouTube). Saban learned that the media likes to give lectures more than it does receive them. The writers and talk-show hosts who gave him the benefit of the doubt painted Saban as the poster child for public figures who say one thing and do another. The others just called him a liar.
"Some high-visibility media people have been vicious," said Doug Walker, Alabama's associate athletics director for media relations, "unlike anything I've ever seen."
The episode seemed of a piece with the image of Saban as boss, the guy with the reputation for chaining assistant coaches and secretaries to their respective desks, the coach with the Yosemite Sam temper that can go from zero to in-your-face in 2.3 seconds.
And it didn't matter whose face. People who worked for him at LSU -- where Saban coached the Tigers for five seasons, winning the 2003 national championship in the fourth -- still relish the tale of the tongue-lashing Saban was overheard giving behind closed doors. Someone waiting outside couldn't help but feel sorry for the player receiving it, no matter what his transgression.
A few minutes later, the door opened, and out came LSU athletic director Skip Bertman -- Saban's boss.
"The word 'demanding' is not strong enough," said Philadelphia Eagles defensive line coach Pete Jenkins, who worked for Saban for two seasons at LSU. "He demands a great deal, and he gives a great deal. I never outworked the guy, I'll tell you that. He is very demanding and he is impatient. He wants things done yesterday. He's a volatile guy.
"I really like the guy," Jenkins said. "I admire the guy. I like him and respect him as a coach. I was uncomfortable around him. I really was."
Jenkins retired after the Tigers won the 2001 SEC Championship.
"I was 60 years old," said Jenkins, who came out of retirement in January 2006. "I told him, 'You're killing me. I don't want to do it no more. I got no life.' I'm in the fourth quarter of my life, and I didn't need to wake up dead one day."
The portrait of a dictatorial winning coach is, like so much of journalism, two-dimensional. In a world where news cycles grow shorter by the minute, too often two-dimensional is all you get. Public figures may be two-dimensional but people -- real people -- are not. There is more to Saban. He just doesn't like to show it to the public.
Over the course of an hour-long interview in his office that included lunch on Wednesday, Saban talked about his coaching philosophy and, with some reticence, about himself. Saban would rather watch his secondary blow a coverage than reveal himself.
"I'm really kind of a shy kid that grew up in a rural area that was not very worldly when I went to college," Saban said.
He spoke softly, sometimes hunched over in his chair, sometimes with his arms folded tightly across his chest and his sockless loafer tap-tap-tapping the rug.
The criticism over his handling of the job change left a bruise.
"I do care what people think about me," Saban said. "I never intentionally meant to disrespect anybody. I didn't handle it the way I should. I take responsibility for it. I'm responsible for how it got butchered publicly."
"We thought there would be some balance in people understanding that we probably made a mistake when we left college [football]," said Terry Saban, Nick's wife. " Sometimes, that's not clear until you lose it. You don't realize what you had until you lose it. Do I continue a path that's possibly destructive? Or do I do something in our eyes that's brave and I leave to fix it and suffer the consequences of a lot of negativism?
"I was probably overwhelmed by how negative it was," Terry said.
All that happened, Saban said, is that "I changed my mind." And he didn't do that without a lot of agonizing. He awoke in the middle of the night, seized by the fear that the move would ruin his daughter Kristen's life, and told Terry that he couldn't leave the Dolphins.
"Kristen was a sophomore cheerleader," Saban said. "That stuff weighs on me. I can't do that [move]. Kristen is a cheerleader at St. Thomas. She won't be able to be a cheerleader.
"Terry says, 'In 10 days or two weeks, Kristen will be fine. She'll adjust. You need to decide on what you want to do. What about next year? She'll be a senior. What do you do next year?'"
Since their arrival in Alabama, the Sabans have become benefactors to charities that help children around the state. That is something that could go a long way toward repairing an image. Saban forbid Walker from putting out a press release to say that the Nick's Kids Fund Golf Tournament, which Nick and Terry Saban hosted last spring, raised $130,000.
"I don't make it public because I don't want people to think that," Saban said. "That's not the motivation. We did it at Miami. We did it at LSU. We did it at Michigan State [where he was head coach during 1995-99] when I wasn't getting hammered all over the place."
The Saban you know has a national championship ring. At $4 million per year for the next eight years, he earns the biggest salary in college football. He has a wife who has been his life partner for 35 years. That's professional, financial and personal success.
The Saban you don't know may have a Manhattan income, but his tastes remain rooted in his native West Virginia. Given his druthers, Saban would be watching practice video, a cup of coffee on the table and Red Man Golden tucked in his cheek. Toss a package of Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies (the original size, not the big ones) next to the coffee and you may not hear from Saban for hours.
The Saban you don't know will end practice, as he did one day last spring, by telling the Crimson Tide players, "Make something positive happen in somebody's life."
This team, hungry for success, quickly bought into Saban. Of course, the alternative is not pretty. Senior defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry felt pretty good about a stop he made in practice one day. That is, for the time it took Saban to climb all over him.
Gilberry learned by wasting a step that he turned a one-yard loss into a three-yard gain. He also learned to listen to the message, not the manner in which Saban delivered it.
"Let me try to be as blunt and common as possible," said Gilberry, who will graduate in December after 3½ years with a degree in communications. "Coach Saban's delivery, you can compare it to a missile, coming at you at 800 knots. Is that clear enough for you? There's no ducking. I can assure you. If you were in a hole, you'd still feel it. The best thing to do is stand there with your arms open and take it head on. There's no running from it."
That's exactly the response that Saban wants. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, he wants his players focused on the moment, not on the emotions surrounding it.
That's how he expects his staff to respond, too. In the interview, the only time the timbre of his voice changed, and the speed of his speech increased, is when he addressed his reputation as the boss from hell.
"The way I would say it is that people who want to achieve and aspire to be very good in their profession don't mind the way we do things," Saban said. " It's not normal to want to be as good as you can be. It's normal to be average.
" It's the same way with coaches and people who work. They understand that we're going to work hard. We're going to demand that they get done right. We're not going to accept when they don't get done right.
"When you're in a position of leadership, you will ask somebody in the organization, to do something that they would probably choose not to do, and sometimes you have to demand that they do it. That's a part of making decisions."
On the practice field in the early days of spring practice, the Saban you don't know decided he had had enough of his players wearing their pants too far below their waist.
"I wore my pants like that to practice one day," Saban said. "'How do you think this looks? Does this look good? Is this how it should be?' They're saying, 'Coach, we don't really want to look at your ass.' I said, 'You think I want to look at yours? That's what you look like.'"
"Guys were looking sloppy out there, dragging around," center Antoine Caldwell said, "and guys were just acting unprofessional, period. It kind of came together and he just exploded on us and straightened us out. That was the first reality check."
But Saban softened the explosion with a line that probably has occurred to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of his verbal shrapnel.
"He pulled his pants down," Caldwell said, "and said, 'This is how some of you guys look. You're showing your ass. And I'm going to be the only a--hole showing around here.'"
The Saban you don't know has a sense of humor. As tempting as it is to say that many a truth is spoken in jest, or that Saban showed more of himself than anyone would care to see, those aren't the lessons here. Public figures may be two-dimensional. People are not. Coaches -- even Saban -- are people, too.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos credits: AP Photo/Michelle Williams, David Drapkin/Getty Images, Brian Bahr/Getty Images, AP Photo/David Quinn, Marvin Gentry-US PRESSWIRE, AP Photo/Rob Carr, Jamie Howell-US PRESSWIRE