Nick Saban can be combative or boring with the media, but when Charles Barkley is the one asking questions, even Saban can’t help but feel disarmed.
AL.com got Saban to sit down with Barkley in a clip released on Monday. They talked about the usual: vacation plans, golf and Saban admitting to a lack of grilling ability.
But Barkley gave Saban a chance to talk about his player discipline policy, and that’s where this gets serious.
"As a black man, I really respect when you give other black men an opportunity after they’ve screwed up," Barkley said. "Because I always tell people, ‘Everybody is an idiot when they’re 18. Young kids are going to make mistakes.’ But as a black man, I just want to say thank you for giving these young black guys an opportunity.
"I know you have taken some heat, and I thought it was unfair, because we don’t need to just throw kids away when they do something stupid," Barkley added.
Saban compared his policy to life as a parent.
"When it comes to football players, we’re trying to change their behavior. As people, we’re trying to change their behavior and make them better. I think everyone can understand if they ever have children of their own, that your children sometimes disappoint you. They do things that you wish that they didn’t do, that embarrass you, but we don’t throw them out of the house. We try to come up with ways that we can change their behavior.
"So that’s where I always focus on the guy. Where a lot of people see discipline as punishment, and they want punitive action, kick the guy off the team, how does that change his behavior? Or suspend him for a bunch of games. Well, he did something in March and now we’re going to suspend him for games in September? I mean, where, there are a lot of things you can do in between to help a guy understand or change his behavior. And I’ve had a lot more success with helping guys than I have by doing that than I have just by being punitive.
"Right now, what people in the media think is ‘Oh, you just don’t want to suspend him because he’s a good player. Well, that’s not true. I do that with every player on our team. And sometimes when guys do things and it happens over and over and over, then maybe you have to take playing away from them. And that’s something that’s meaningful to them and that’s the only thing that will change their behavior. But I don’t think that’s always the first step. Most of our players respond very well to it and appreciate it."
Saban didn’t specifically mention the steps he takes to change the young men on his team without being punitive.
This comes after the coach got into it with Paul Finebaum at SEC media days when the commentator asked him about Cam Robinson, who wasn’t prosecuted after Louisiana police arrested and booked him on drugs and weapons charges in May.
D.J. Pettway was dismissed from the team in 2013 after he was arrested and charged with second-degree robbery before Saban allowed him to return following a season in junior college.
Jonathan Taylor is an example of an Alabama player who Saban did dismiss, as the Tide picked him up after he was dismissed by Georgia following an arrest for aggravated assault. But Alabama cut him after an arrest on domestic violence and criminal mischief charges last spring. Prosecutors later dropped the domestic violence charge.
Later in the interview, Saban revealed that he plays pickup basketball at least three days a week from signing day until spring practice. It seems like he has fun, but it’s unclear if the rest of his staff is allowed to do the same.
"I’m the commissioner of the league now," he said. "At my age, I get to pick my team and I get to pick the guy on the other team who guards me."
Saban has the point guard position on lock, and he didn’t give it up when Avery Johnson, who played in the NBA for 10 years, joined their group when he became Alabama’s basketball coach.
"I play the point," Saban said. "When Avery came here, I know he played 13 years of point guard, but when he came in I said, ‘Look, if you want to play noontime basketball with us, you’re going to have to move over off the ball, because I’m the point guard.’"