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Three Handley grads spent time in legendary coach’s Alabama program
One of the inherent elements of college football is the debates that that sport tends to ignite.
Who should be in the playoff? Who should win the Heisman? Who had the best team of all time?
Drop one of those questions into a room full of college football fans and you can ignite an agrument that lasts for hours.
However, with last week’s retirement of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, there is now at least one question that will almost always produce the same answer.
Who is the greatest college football coach of all time?
“I don’t think anybody can present to me an argument that says he’s not the best to ever do it in college football,” said former Alabama recruiting specialist Wes Slay. “I don’t know if I would even want to listen to that argument. It’s unbelievable what he’s done.”
Slay was one of a handful of Randolph County natives who spent time working under, or being coached by, Nick Saban. He worked in the recruiting department from 2011-2014 and had a hand in bringing in the country’s number one recruiting class each year that he was there.
“I don’t know how many times I drove Derrick Henry back and forth from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, just him and me in the car or with his high school coach sometimes,” Slay recalled.
Slay graduated from Handley High School in 2008 and has been a professional scout for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans for the past 10 years, and it doesn’t require any arm twisting for Slay to give credit for his success to his time under Saban.
“I could not be where I am right now if it wasn’t for being there for three years, no question about it,” Slay said.
Slay was a low level employee in the recruiting department during his time at Alabama, so his direct interaction with Saban was, in his words, “Almost zero.”
The same could be said for another Handley grad who followed in Slay’s footsteps in the recruiting department after Slay left.
Connor Boyd is a 2013 Handley alum who joined Saban’s staff in 2015, also as a recruiting specialist. He too knew his position did not necessarily warrant a ton of face time with the boss.
“Honestly the first time I met him, I tried to just get out of the way,” Boyd said with a chuckle.
Boyd, who is currently a defensive analyst with the University of Oregon coaching staff under head coach Dan Lanning, did not cross paths with Slay in Tuscaloosa. But their descriptions of the environment in the building are eerily similar.
“It’s not pressure, but you can feel when you’re working the attention to detail from top to bottom,” Boyd said. “It’s a trickle-down affect. The boss that you’re working for is directly under coach Saban. You feel that affect of, ‘I’ve got to do a good job. I’ve got to be detailed in my work,’ because everything that gets done is going to go to coach Saban, so you’ve got to have that in your mind while you’re working.”
Slay had a similar experience.
“Discipline and understanding that there is a standard and an expectation in terms of your work, and how you carry that,” Slay said. “In that building, it was demanding. Don’t get it twisted. It was very, very demanding every time you stepped in there, and if you messed something up it wasn’t going to be, ‘Hey pal, go get ‘em next time.’ No, you were going to hear about it. So there was a direct standard.”
Probably the most famous Randolph County native with a connection to Saban is 2012 Handley grad Bradley Bozeman, who spent five seasons as an offensive lineman in the program before going on to a successful NFL career of his own. He just completed his sixth season in the league and his second as the starting center for the Carolina Panthers.
On Bozeman’s final play as a member of the Tide he snapped the ball on the famous 2nd-and-26 play in the national championship game against Georgia in January of 2018 that sent Alabama to the title. During the on-field celebration after that game he proposed to his wife Nikki.
Bozeman was once the target of one Saban’s famous expletive-filled sideline temper tantrums. In the Tide’s playoff semifinal game against Washington in the 2016 Peach Bowl, Alabama drew a delay of game penalty in the third quarter, and Bozeman shouldered the blame after he did not snap the ball on time. Saban unleashed his fury in Bozeman’s direction. Alabama went on to win the game, and Bozeman handled the negative attention like a pro.
“I got the wrong play,” Bozeman was quoted as saying after the game. “The quarterback was on one play. I was on another play. It didn’t really work out like we wanted it to.”
When asked his reaction to the outburst, Bozeman gave an answer that accurately reflected the mentality of his coach.
“Just that we needed to fix it and move on to the next play,” Bozeman said.
Saban’s retirement was always something that was seen as a “someday” event. So when it actually happened both Slay and Boyd used the word “shocked” to describe their reaction to the news.
“It was one of those things where you come to the realization that you won’t see coach Saban walking the sideline at Alabama any more. You think about all the years and everything he’s built at Bama, the dominant defenses, the Heisman winners on offense, and you start thinking about the coaching tree that he’s developed,” Boyd said. “It had to happen some day. I think it took the college football world by storm because it was all of a sudden.”
The calls and text messages came pouring into Slay’s phone once the news broke.
“My phone started going bananas, people thinking I knew something that they didn’t know. I knew nothing. I learned about it like everyone else. I was completely shocked,” he said.
While neither of them had much personal interaction with greatest coach of all time, both said they will always carry the lasting impression that he had on them.
“It was unbelievable. I was blessed,” Boyd said. “I was there for three years and we won two national championships. That just doesn’t happen. It was truly a blessing just to be there.”
“He might recognize my face if I saw him. Maybe he would,” Slay said. “But the impact he had on me personally and my ability to get where I’ve gotten in the last 10 years in the NFL, it’s all because of that program and what he did for that program.”