Terry Saban thought she had her husband all settled in last Tuesday, less than 24 hours after his hip replacement surgery. She thought she had enough time to run a few errands while he dozed in his recliner all hooked up to his ice machine.
She admits now that she thought wrong.
Miss Terry, as Alabama’s five-time national championship coach Nick Saban fondly refers to his wife of more than 40 years, returned home only to find, to her horror, her husband standing in the driveway.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked.
Saban shrugged and deadpanned, “You left me all alone, and there’s nothing to do.”
“You’re not supposed to do anything,” Terry shot back. “Get back in your chair!”
Welcome to the world of Nick Saban the patient, where getting the legendarily hard-charging coach to sit back and relax may just be the toughest job in sports.
The 67-year-old Saban doesn’t do well with idle time. In fact, in his world, there’s no such thing. Saban had his surgery last Monday at 4 p.m. — after sneaking in 18 holes of golf that morning — and by the next day was ready to get back to the office.
— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) April 24, 2019
“I get home at 8:30 in the morning (Tuesday), and by 3 o’clock in the afternoon, man, I was climbing the walls,” Saban told ESPN last Thursday. “I had film to watch, next year’s opponents and recruits. Miss Terry was there, and she was being a good nurse. That’s for sure. But I just can’t sit around.”
Or, as he later told Terry that Tuesday afternoon, “I can sit around with ice on my hip meeting with coaches as easily as I can sitting here and watching The Weather Channel all day.”
Terry finally relented and called Saban’s longtime administrative assistant, Linda Leoni, and said, “He’s all yours.”
Sure enough, by 7:15 Wednesday morning, Saban was back in the office, initially on a walker and then a cane. Within days, he’d ditch both.
Forget a kicker lining up a 40-yard game-tying field goal or Tua Tagovailoa facing a blitz-happy defense on third-and-long. It’s hard to imagine anyone under more pressure than Alabama’s head orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Lyle Cain.
You don’t want to be the guy who messes up Nick Saban’s surgery.
Cain is accustomed to performing high-profile procedures. After 19 years of working with the athletic department, he’s even something of a minor celebrity now. Recently a couple in their 70s went as far as to ask for his autograph on two Andrews Sports Medicine hats to give to their daughters as presents.
“I told them, ‘You don’t want me to sign this, you want the players,'” he said. “They were adamant.”
And he understands what it’s like to care so much about the Crimson Tide. A native of Birmingham, he grew up a diehard Bama fan and would have walked on the team as a linebacker under coach Ray Perkins had he not gone out to practice and seen future legends Derrick Thomas and Cornelius Bennett staring back at him.
“I was seeing a patient in the office … and right as he was walking out of the room, he said, ‘Doc, you know there are a lot of eyes on you today.'” Dr. Lyle Cain, Nick Saban’s surgeon
But nothing compares to the attention of the past week. When it was announced that Cain would be part of the team operating on Saban, his phone started blowing up with messages from friends and family and past patients. Then there were the notifications on social media from strangers asking detailed questions about the time and details of the surgery.
“The day of surgery, Monday, I was seeing a patient in the office and we were talking about his shoulder and went through the whole process,” Cain said. “And right as he was walking out of the room, he said, ‘Doc, you know there are a lot of eyes on you today.’ I said, ‘I realize that.'”
Thanks to advancements in technology, Cain, hip specialist Dr. Benton Emblom and the rest of the team at Andrews Sports Medicine had help. Instead of a traditional hip replacement, Saban had what Cain referred to as “robotic assisted right hip replacement surgery.”
Think of the most advanced game of “Operation” ever. A CAT scan was done to get a model of Saban’s anatomy (fun fact: his left leg is 3 millimeters shorter than his right), and then markers were put on his right hip and right knee, which acted as GPS systems to guide the surgery. If the screen was green, they knew they were in the right spot. If it went red, they were alerted to stop.
“It’s like a computer game,” Cain said.
And Saban isn’t the only one obsessed with watching game tape. Cain found film of Saban running out of the tunnel before an Alabama game last year where he was subtly compensating for his hip pain.
After the procedure, Saban quizzed Cain about what they did and how to move forward.
“He wanted to know the details after the surgery of what he should and shouldn’t do, and he’s going to do it to the T and he’s going to do it aggressively,” Cain said. “He’s probably one of those guys who will be in the top 1 percent of rehabbing because of his personality.”
The timing for Saban’s surgery couldn’t have been any better. Head coaches aren’t allowed to go out on the road recruiting in May, which means he’s camped out in the office watching film and talking to recruits.
As a result, head athletic trainer Jeff Allen and his staff have essentially constructed a makeshift training room in Saban’s office and the adjoining film room complete with a treatment table, therapeutic laser machine, zero-gravity recovery chair, stationary bike, game-ready machine and cold-compression machine that Allen said Saban wears most of the day and even sleeps in at night.
“We’re trying to keep his leg elevated to control the swelling and decrease the pain,” Allen said. “Dr. Cain told him to go slow early so he could go fast later, and Coach Saban doesn’t ever want to go slow. But he knows if he goes slow now that he will have a better outcome.”
Former Alabama star receiver Julio Jones was on campus doing some of his own rehab and made sure to check in on his former coach, specifically to remind Saban that he needed to trust “The Process.”
“Julio was giving coach a hard time and telling him, ‘That’s not the way you do it,’ and coaching him the way coach Saban used to coach him on the field,” Allen said.
“I’m calling him Dr. Julio Jones now,” Saban joked.
In addition to Jones, Saban has heard from countless coaches, former players and friends. Former Miami coach Mark Richt reached out because he went through his own hip surgery in 2013.
“It’s amazing how many people have had something like this, and their advice and support is appreciated,” Saban said. “The first time you do something, you never know what it’s going to be like.”
While the heartfelt support has poured in, Saban has also received some good-natured payback.
During his time as head coach at LSU, Saban loved to call Marcus Spears, then a star defensive lineman for the Tigers and now an ESPN analyst, “soft as a baby’s ass” and that “they didn’t make ’em like they used to.”
As soon as Spears heard about Saban’s impending surgery, it was on.
“I’m not even out of the press conference, and my phone is blowing up,” Saban said. “It’s Marcus Spears telling me that I’m as soft as a baby’s ass and that they didn’t make ’em like they used to.”
But the man who once used a chainsaw to clear his driveway to get to work the day after a hurricane hit when he was head coach of the Miami Dolphins isn’t slowing down now.
“I threw away the walker after one day. … I’m rolling now,” Saban said.