HOOVER, Ala. — They stood five-deep in a hotel lobby Thursday, pressing against a restraining rope to try to get the attention of the $100 million coach that Texas could not pry away from Alabama.St. Nick came. St. Nick went. And a handful among the assembled throng even left with (gasp!) an autograph from Nick Saban, the coach who — in their minds — loves Alabama so much more than money that he is willing to work for a mere $6.5 million salary this season.Yes, that figure makes Saban the highest-paid coach in college football. Yes, it is part of a seven-year, $55 million deal finalized while Saban’s agent used Texas’ interest as leverage in negotiations last year.But to the wedding photographer from Down Under who held aloft a sign that read “I flew from Australia to meet Nick Saban,” the fact that Saban did not bolt in the off-season for what clearly would have been a bigger pile of cash in Austin makes the coach who has won three of college football’s past five national championships that much more lovable, loyal and indispensable in Alabama.The same sentiment was shared by the guy in the oversized hat shaped like an Alabama championship ring and another fan donning a replica Crimson Tide helmet as he waited to cheer Saban and players on the final day of SEC media days.Despite a two-game losing streak to close last season that cost the Tide another national title shot, Saban’s stock has risen with the locals in the past 48 hours. This is when reports began circulating about an excerpt from a new book that reported Texas officials were prepared to offer Saban a $100 million package with a signing bonus of $12 million to $15 million to coach the Longhorns. The book, written by Paul Finebaum of the SEC Network with Gene Wojciehowski, extols the greatness of the SEC and is called My Conference Can Beat Your Conference. The excerpt provided the most eye-popping salary numbers to date about Texas’ unsuccessful efforts, through negotiations with agent Jimmy Sexton, to woo Saban to Austin.Even Alabama players spent Thursday counting their lucky stars that their high-profile coach is not counting his cash in Texas today.“That shows how much he loves us, first of all. Because that’s a lot of money,” defensive back Landon Collins said when asked about Saban spurning Texas. Alabama receiver Christion Jones said: “Coach Saban has never been about money. He loves Alabama and he loves our team. The way that we finished last year, I don’t think any man would have run from that.”Because of their youth, we’ll grant the Alabama players a pass on realizing Saban has run to greener pastures so many times in his coaching career that he could use a tear-away business suit. Yet amid all of Thursday’s gushing about Saban’s loyalty by the Alabama faithful, the coach insisted that he never even talked to the folks at Texas.“I didn’t have any conversations with them,” Saban said. “Nobody offered me anything. So I guess if I didn’t have any conversations with them, I didn’t have very much interest.”Notice that Saban never said his agent had no discussions with Texas. This is called “plausible deniability.” And it does not ring true when there have been multiple reports of email trails and discussions proving interest in Saban from Texas boosters and regents.“Everyone in college football knows Jimmy Sexton was talking to Texas,” Finebaum said Thursday. “That isn’t breaking news.”True.It is well-documented that several influential Orangebloods wanted to money-whip Saban to Austin but lost a power play to the school president and athletic director. But the staggering amount of money mentioned in the book makes it fascinating that Saban, 62, left so much cash on the table to remain in Alabama. He reiterated Thursday that this will be his retirement job, saying he regrets not spending more of his career building a great program in one place instead of switching jobs and chasing “goals and aspirations that, eventually, you weren’t happy doing.”But Finebaum isn’t buying. He believes Saban will be tempted again by another suitor, perhaps as soon as November, and considers the Texas dalliance a closer call than Alabama fans want to acknowledge.“If Nick had shown up at a UT alumni association meeting without any interference, I think he might be the head coach today,” Finebaum said. “But fortunately, or unfortunately, for Texas, they have a president and an athletic director who had a different idea.”That leaves Alabama with its iconic coach, whom Tide supporters now view as an underpaid, philanthropic program loyalist because he turned down even bigger money to jump to Texas.“It’s really good to see someone who’s not totally driven by money,” said Antony Hands, 47, the Tide fan from Australia whose wife is an Alabama graduate. “I don’t know if I would turn down that kind of money. I think he just realizes that folks here love him and he’s creating something that’s truly amazing and inspiring.”What is Alabama getting for its $6.5 million this season? Collins said Texas is missing out on a coach who is uniquely gifted in pushing players to improve on a daily basis while being misunderstood by outsiders. What would surprise folks about Saban?“That he’s understanding. He listens to you,” Collins said. “And he’s not the [jerk] that everyone thinks he is.”But he is the highest-paid coach in college football, thanks in large part to boosters at Texas. In Alabama, they call that a bargain at any price.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch