The conversation starter from last weekend wasn’t so much what No. 1-ranked Alabama did during its 51-14 trouncing of Louisville in Orlando as it was what Nick Saban did immediately after.
Interviewed by ESPN’s Maria Taylor, the Alabama coach took exception to the sideline reporter’s question about quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts.
“Well, I still like both guys,” Saban began before his voice started to rise. “I think both are good players. I think both guys can help our team, all right? So why do you continually try to get me to say something that doesn’t respect one of them? I’m not going to. So quit asking.”
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Since the late 1980s, Gabriel has been the UK sideline reporter, and if he has never experienced that type of blowup, it is his job to do that type of interview, corralling the head coach for a comment after the horn sounds.
In Gabriel’s case, it’s the halftime interview. Microphone in hand, he grabs the Kentucky head coach for a pair of questions in hopes of giving the UK faithful a better understanding of what’s taking place.
“My objective is to get him to tell me what is at the top of his head,” Gabriel said this week. “After he speaks to the assistant coaches, what is the message, what is the goal, what does he need to address first and foremost with his team.”
If there is a specific issue that surfaced in the first half, Gabriel wants a comment on that, as well. Officiating questions are limited, however. No one is trying to get the coach in trouble for something said in the heat of battle.
The coaches know this. Gabriel has dealt with seven — Jerry Claiborne, Bill Curry, Hal Mumme, Guy Morriss, Rich Brooks, Joker Phillips and Mark Stoops. When the new coach arrives, Gabriel makes it a point to introduce himself and explain his job. “I’m the guy coming at you at halftime,” he tells them.
With one exception, all have been agreeable. Brooks was very professional. Morriss was very friendly. Phillips was very accessible, even when things were not going his way. Stoops is terrific, said Gabriel, on all fronts. Curry was agreeable, but very guarded with his thoughts.
Mumme was the exception. The two got along fine off the field. The coach just didn’t like doing the halftime interview and made no secret of it, sometimes just blowing off the thing altogether.
When Morriss succeeded Mumme in 2001, the former offensive line coach took the opposite approach and wrapped his arm around Gabriel’s shoulder and walked him off the field during Morriss’s first halftime interview. From the broadcast booth, producer Mike Dodson exclaimed into Gabriel’s ear, “Can you feel the luuuvvvv?”
Another funny story revolved around a line play-by-play man Bob Kessling used on analyst and former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Dave Rowe. The two were working a particularly cold SEC Game of the Week. More comfortable in shirt sleeves, Kessling was removing his coat when he noticed Rowe bundled up in a parka. “And you call yourself a Raider?” Kessling joked.
In what was Mumme’s final game as UK coach, a 59-20 shellacking at Tennessee, Gabriel told the booth he wasn’t even going to try and get a comment from Mumme at halftime. Play-by-play man Tom Leach quickly replied, “And you call yourself a Raider?”
Asked for any other funny stories, Gabriel instead submitted a touching one. In 2008, he had recently undergone surgery to insert a pair of stents for a heart blockage. After the coin toss of a game, which Gabriel covered for radio, he noticed Rich Brooks coming out on to the field toward him.
“Are you OK?” said Brooks as he grabbed Gabriel’s arm. Gabriel replied he was fine and thanked the coach for his concern. Brooks leaned in closer. “Are you OK?” he asked again as the sideline reporter assured him he was.
“That was kind of moving,” Gabriel said, “I always appreciated that.”