Michael Casagrande of AL.com

What is it like to cover one of the biggest college football stories ever? At Awful Announcing, we asked AL.com’s senior sports reporter Michael Casagrande. He has covered all of Alabama’s six national championships under Nick Saban.

We spoke to Casagrande about Saban’s retirement and the challenges new Crimson Tide coach Kalen DeBoer will face from an ultra-demanding fan base.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Awful Announcing: Where were you when you found out Saban was retiring? 

Michael Casagrande: “I was at home. I had just picked up our 11-month-old daughter from daycare. She had a fever and was sitting on my lap when I got the text.

“I did the quick realization. Everything goes through your head, and I just got to work. I pulled up a Google doc and updated everything. There was a lot of communication. (My daughter) just sat there and slept for about 90 minutes until my wife got home.”

With such a huge story, how stressful was it?

“It was something we had prepared for. We knew it was a possibility so I had the main story prewritten. It was a lengthy pre-write with a bunch of Xs to be updated once the book was closed numbers-wise.

“It was stressful, but we had a plan that helped to mitigate some of that stress. It’s one of those things where you knew it could happen, but you’re never really sure. You never think he’s ever going to pull that trigger and actually retire. So it was a moment of like, ‘Wow, it’s happening.’ And now it’s time to put the plan into motion.”

How surprising was it that Saban chose now to retire?

“It was equally surprising and not surprising at the same time. You had a feeling that it was coming. But do these coaches know how to power down and just not coach? He has always talked about being part of a team his entire life. Can he separate himself from that environment?

“You’ve seen coaches from a certain generation almost being afraid to retire. (Joe) Paterno was afraid because he saw Bear Bryant die right after he retired. And then Paterno died right after he was fired. You wondered: ‘Could he take a step away from something that is just so much of who he is?'”

There were so many rumors. How difficult was it to separate fact from fiction?

“We had a discussion internally about there’s going to be a lot of nonsense out there. Be on your toes and be aware of where things are coming from and who’s saying what. I don’t think we were duped by anything. There was a lot of speculation about things, but I think it was trying to keep things with what we know. Not go overboard with with the speculation. Not feed into rumors. You didn’t want to play into any of that.”

What was the wildest rumor that turned out to be false?

“It’s tough because I don’t even want to give credence to some of them. But there were (rumors) about specific health issues that was the leading cause for why this retirement was happening. That has been shut down by everybody involved.”

Was DeBoer always the top choice?

“I don’t think DeBoer was the only person that was contacted. I don’t know if the job was offered elsewhere. (Agent) Jimmy Sexton represents quite a few names. I guess it depends on how you characterize who the number one objective is in a search. I don’t think there’s disappointment with who they got. Can you definitively say he was the only target? I’m sure there were a lot of feelers put out for certain people.”

How long will DeBoer’s honeymoon period be? 

“It’s going to be interesting because I’m not sure. 9-3 is a good season in a lot of places. Here, 10-3 (in 2010) is the worst record of any team I’ve ever covered at Alabama, and that was a year after winning their first championship under Saban. There were already rumblings of, ‘Maybe he isn’t the guy. Maybe he isn’t as good as we thought.’

“Getting a consensus on anything is going to be tough. He has a high bar. It’s going to be tough for the fan base to see how much patience they have. “

How much time have you spent with DeBoer?

“(At the press conference), there was just an introduction with him giving a speech, and then they broke off into two different rooms. There was a room with TV cameras where he answered questions. Then, there was a room with a roundtable with writers. It was less than 10 minutes that he had with us before he was whisked off to the next thing. I wasn’t happy. It’s the first coaching change in 17 years. There were 30-plus people gathered around. There were maybe six or seven, eight questions that were able to be asked.”

What was your relationship like with Saban?

“Kind of distant. I wasn’t in his inner circle. I was one of the younger guys when I got there. He trusted the seasoned veterans more. I don’t know if I’ve ever worked my way up into that group. But I like to do things my own way, and it didn’t always sit with how the program wanted things covered. So, that was fine. I didn’t necessarily need to be on a Christmas card list.”

What do you think Saban’s next move will be?

“I think you’d have to assume there was some kind of role within broadcasting. I think he’s good when he’s been on ESPN, talking about football. He loves talking football. You could put him in a room with a microphone, and he could talk football for hours.”

Did you have a memorable interaction with Saban?

“The rat poison thing from the Texas A&M game (in 2017). That was me he was snarling at. He called me ‘rat poison.’ There are people when they find out that I’m rat poison, they think that’s cool. ‘Oh, you’re the rat poison guy.’ It wasn’t like I was on camera where I was easily identifiable.”

Have people given you the nickname Rat Poison?

“Some people. Some family members. My wife’s family. They’re from Alabama. Some uncles call me Rat Poison. They’ll introduce me to their friends, ‘This is Rat Poison.’ What do I care? It was funny.”

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.