Tales from college football coaches' live radio shows

Courtey Kent Gidley/University of Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban hears over the loudspeakers that his show is back from commercial break and going on without him, but he doesn't stop. Alabama's head football coach keeps working the room inside Baumhower's Victory Grill, shaking hands and posing for pictures. A mountain of a man dressed in a spandex-and-sequined, Crimson Tide-themed luchador outfit eyes him from afar.

Saban's wife, Terry, is seated at a table nearby, holding court, too. Earlier in the evening, a fan approached her with a gift: a onesie for her grandchild due in March.

They're all here for Saban's weekly radio show, which is also livestreamed on Facebook. Local media tune in, covering it as if it's a press briefing.

But to get a true feel for the show, you have to visit in person. You have to see the crowds build hours before it begins. You have to see the fans decked out in houndstooth and how their eyes go wide when Saban enters through a side door. It's as if they've just seen the president or the pope, host Eli Gold said.

"For a lot of people, meeting Nick Saban is the same thing," he said. "Getting a picture, getting an autograph, getting a handshake, it's truly an encounter they will remember forever.

"He hugs the babies. He kisses the old ladies. The whole bit."

Every once in a while he'll get fired up, of course. Last year, Saban shocked everyone when he answered a fan's question about how to handle the pregame coin flip by saying, "I hope we elect to kick ass."

There's none of that kind of drama during a recent show, but since Saban will be out of town the following Thursday, the whole restaurant sings "Happy Birthday" a little early. Two gray-haired ladies present him a card and a homemade cake. In the bottom left corner, written in icing, are the words "NO RAT POISON" along with a depiction of a beady-eyed rodent.

An only-in-college-football weirdness is part of the fabric of these shows, as seen when Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher signed an insulin pump during a commercial break a few weeks ago. But there's also an only-in-college-football passion that continues to resonate in a digital era when fans can take to Twitter and message boards to vent their frustrations. Decades after his death, Bear Bryant's grave is still covered with Coca-Cola bottles and Golden Flake potato chips, the sponsors of his weekly TV show. And today, it's a chance for Alabama fans to get a window into their otherwise private current coach. Surrounded by supporters, he'll let his guard down and talk about his family and his past, sharing stories of working at his father's service station and growing up in rural West Virginia.

In a perfectly Pullman, perfectly Mike Leach twist, Washington State's show is held at Zeppos, which is part bowling alley, part bar, part arcade and part casino. There are seven segments in each show and only one of them is devoted to talking about football.

"Everyone loves asking Mike about dating advice and marriage advice," host Matt Chazanow said. "They want to know about how to go on a blind date. 'I want to propose to my girlfriend, and how should I do it? What's your thought on a rose versus a candlelit dinner?'"

LSU's show is one big party at TJ Rib's with Ed Orgeron at the center. If you want to know when the former interim coach began to win over the fan base, look no further than his first appearance when he spoke to a caller in Cajun French. Later, he'd tell listeners about his gumbo recipe and how he can eat it "cold, hot or indifferent."

After LSU beat Alabama, "John B from Amite" called in to say how proud he was of Orgeron. It was Gov. John Bel Edwards.

It was a stark contrast from a week earlier when a fan known locally as "Evil Twin" made his usual appearance and promptly led the show off the rails. Host Chris Blair doesn't know which twin brother is which -- the doctor or the lawyer -- only that the pair is always together. One brother will sit around quietly, not making a scene, while Evil Twin grabs the microphone and begins what can only be described as a spirited, smack-talking soliloquy.

"You can smell the fear in the college football universe about what LSU has become and what it will be," Evil Twin solemnly told Orgeron. "It's like the fear of a Vanderbilt kicker trying to kick the winning field goal; we all know that will end tragically. It's like A&M fans who fear the fact that they're paying $7 million for a coach and all they're going to get is a trip to Shreveport. It's even like Nicky Poo Saban; he's got fear, too. He fears a driving rainstorm and he just had his hair colored.

"Coach, thanks to you, the Boogey Man looks under his bed for Ed Orgeron."

Michael Tomkiewicz is sipping Guinness at Island Wing Co. with his law partner in the fall of 2017. Like everyone else here, just seven miles from Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium, he's disappointed by what his beloved football program has become: 4-6, a laughingstock nationally, with no hope in sight.

To make matters worse, it seems their coach, Jimbo Fisher, has one foot out the door for Texas A&M. They've gone through this twice before when it seemed as if he'd leave for LSU, and everyone has grown tired of the act.

Sensing the end is near, Tomkiewicz and his partner have a thought: This is probably going to be Jimbo's last call-in show. Why don't we go over there?

"He owed us some explanation," Tomkiewicz says. "It felt like he was going to slip out of town."

But as they settled in at the Four Points Sheraton to watch the show, no one was addressing the elephant in the room. At one point, a fan asked Fisher about the NCAA's new regulation on pant length and, "What are we going to do with the old uniforms?"

So Tomkiewicz's law partner tells him he should jump in. "Why not?" Tomkiewicz says. "They're not asking the right questions."

He lies to the screener, saying he'll ask something about bowl eligibility.

Coming back from the break, the screener asks again, "Are you sure you're going to ask that?" and Tomkiewicz says, "Yeah, of course."

On air, he's introduced as "Mike from Tallahassee" and begins by telling Fisher how excited he was when he was hired as offensive coordinator, and how excited he was again when he was named head coach.

Then the mood shifts.

"I remember watching a lot of your press conferences where you would talk about how we need to be committed to the program and keep cheering for the team and we need to be talking about that and the loyalty to the program," he says as the screener inches closer and closer. "So I'm wondering, where's the loyalty to the program, Jimbo?"

The crowd is stunned as the screener yanks the microphone away. Fisher doesn't answer, forcing an empty smile before looking down at his note cards. The host throws it quickly to the next caller: "Jimmy is in West Palm Beach. Go ahead, Jimmy."

Tomkiewicz is forcefully led out of the room, shoved in the back twice. He thinks he might have screwed up, maybe even risked losing clients before his partner finds him outside. "Dude, that was awesome," his partner tells him before they return to Islands Wing Co. where they're greeted with applause and free drinks.

Tomkiewicz laughs as he reads the comments on the FSU website Warchant later. It's mostly positive, but one guy threatens to report him to the bar, which is unsettling. The athletic department eventually puts out a statement, calling it an "unfortunate incident" they plan to review.

Two days later, they release another statement, this time announcing that Fisher has indeed left for Texas A&M.

Tomkiewicz's business actually gained clients in the aftermath. "We got a KFC in the Panhandle," he says. "It was great."

A few years have passed and he says the only shame is that FSU no longer lets fans ask direct questions during the show. A lot of schools have ended the tradition entirely.

Having that forum to address coaches directly was invaluable, Tomkiewicz says. It's not always pretty, but where else can fans get answers from their coach?

"I remember the night we stopped taking phone calls," says Toby Rowland, who hosts Oklahoma's coaches show.

It was 2012 and the Sooners were coming off a 24-19 loss at home to Kansas State the previous Saturday. Rowland and then-coach Bob Stoops were set up for the show in a cramped side room at Red Lobster.

"And the next Tuesday night during the coaches show we had a gentleman who called in and said, 'I just want to let you know I brought my church group down from Tulsa to the game on Saturday,'" Rowland says. "And Bob said, 'Oh, that's great. Fantastic. Thanks for coming.' Then he said, 'I just have one question and I'll take it off the air: I was wanting to know why we showed up and your football team didn't?' And then he hung up.

"I don't remember what Bob said, but it was pretty fiery. But that was the last night we ever took live phone calls."

Lincoln Riley doesn't run the risk of getting called out on his own show now. Not that anyone would considering questioning his sterling 32-5 record since taking over for Stoops in 2017, but still he plays it safe.

The Red Lobster location is no more, either. Rowland said the Oklahoma brass looked at what Saban did with his show at Alabama a few years back and decided they could make an event out of it by choosing a better location too. So they found Rudy's Country Store and Bar-B-Q, which feels like a more appropriate slice of the Midwest with its shellacked wooden picnic tables covered in red-and-white tablecloths.

Instead of having a couple of dozen fans watch the show as they had before, they had a couple of hundred start to show up. At one point during Riley's first show, Rowland said the rookie head coach turned to him off mic and said, "Wow, there's a lot of people here."

Whereas Stoops would share stories of bare-knuckle boxing with his brothers in his parents' basement, Riley let fans in by talking about his West Texas roots, having grown up in the tiny town of Muleshoe. "Things that don't show up in press conferences," Rowland said.

Riley has also given fans a glimpse of how incredibly well his mind works thanks to a segment called "Butkus Brain Teasers," where former Sooners linebacker Teddy Lehman tries to stump Riley by asking him to recall exact plays with only a few details like the year, opponent and down-and-distance. Sometimes Riley will ask for which hash the ball was on to clue him in.

And these are not easy plays to remember. Once, Lehman pulled out an old Texas Tech play from when Riley was a graduate assistant on staff there more than a decade ago.

In two years of doing the segment, he has been wrong only once.

"He's got a photographic memory," Rowland said. "There's no setup there. We're not leaking him the answers. He's just a savant. It's fun to watch him mind process live there as the play is being presented to him. You can see him get up in his head and the wheels start spinning. Things like which hash the ball was on matters to him. And he can remember every detail of the play that unfolded."

Fans go nuts for the segment, and clips of it have started going viral with him being compared to Rams coach Sean McVay.

These definitely aren't the old days of coaches radio shows when former Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson introduced the art form. So much of it has evolved from the wooden figures he used to illustrate plays, while still retaining the intimacy that made them unique and able to endure the age of the internet and social media, where everything seems to be formulated for consumption in short sound bites.

The value of the shows is really two-fold, Rowland said.

"One, it is the best and maybe only opportunity for fans to interact with Coach directly," he said. "You're not just relying on the media to ask the question you hope they ask, you can actually do it. And I think there's a value to that and I think there's a thrill to that.

"Two, if done correctly, we present another side to a coach that isn't otherwise seen, and on a weekly basis -- a family side, a more human side, that isn't presented in other media settings."

And while it's not quite an even exchange, coaches share in the experience as well.

Not every question they get is designed to put them on their heels.

In 2016, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn grinned wildly from his seat as a young couple got engaged during the middle of his show.

Dalton Sconyers, an Auburn graduate, hatched the plan with his future father-in-law, enlisting the help of family friend and Tigers' play-by-play man Rod Bramblett, who died earlier this year. Sconyers and his grandfather were huge fans of Bramblett and would listen to the show a handful of times each season.

During the commercial break, Bramblett told his co-host he was "pulling a Wildcat" and going out into the crowd to field questions, putting himself right beside Sconyers, who raised his hand to be called upon.

To maintain the surprise, Sconyers asked a football question first. He was so nervous he can't remember what he asked, but he's pretty sure it focused on the offensive line, which had surrendered double-digit sacks to Clemson a week earlier.

Then Bramblett took back the mic.

"I understand you have something else, Dalton?" he asked.

"Yes, sir, I do," Sconyers said. "And this question is for Jenny Jones."

Sconyers got down on one knee and asked, "Would you marry me?"

Between the clapping, Bramblett had to confirm she'd said yes.

"That's an affirmative nod right there," shouted co-host Brad Law.

Malzahn laughed, and since he'd just planned a wedding in the spring, Bramblett asked if he had any advice for Jones' father.

"Just enjoy it," Malzahn said. "Buckle up!"

"You want to talk about the hurry-up, no-huddle," Bramblett replied. "There you go!"

Sconyers said the look on his future wife's face was priceless.

"I don't think I paid attention to the rest of the show to be honest with you," he said. "Football was not on the forefront."

That's the beauty of these shows. It rarely is.