Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: ‘Playing for Nick Saban was like playing for your dad’

The surprising news that hit the sports world Wednesday afternoon that Alabama coach Nick Saban was turning in his whistle sent shock waves across college football.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, former Dr. Phillips standout and current Alabama director of player development, said he wasn’t necessarily surprised. He knows the man as well as anyone. He was recruited by Saban, played for Saban and worked for Saban this past season.

He was in the meeting Wednesday when Saban informed the team.

“The guys were quiet,” Clinton-Dix said. “I think they were all just taking it in, kind of shocked that he was actually going to retire. The team is really big on brotherhood and I think they actually came together even closer, more knit-tight, believing in whoever Mr. Greg Burns, our AD, brings in.

“We’re going to fall in behind him 100%.”

Clinton-Dix was happy for his mentor.

“Once he told us he was retiring, I took it as a celebration,” said the former Alabama All-American safety, winner of two national championship rings and an NFL Pro Bowl selection as a member of the Green Bay Packers in 2016. “It’s a time to celebrate Coach Saban’s history and the things he has done for young men. He’s helped change families’ lives.

“Him being 72 years old, now he actually gets the chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor and watch the ducks [poop] in the yard.”

Clinton-Dix heaps credits Saban for molding him into the man he is today.

“Nick Saban helped me change my family’s history, helped me start my legacy as a youngster leaving Orlando, Florida, and coming to play for him,” Clinton-Dix said. “Just having him in my life was a big impact and it’s why I chose to come work for him after I left the NFL. That was very important to me, too.”

Saban’s players revered their mentor and they always wanted to make him happy with their performances each Saturday.

“Playing for Coach Saban is like playing for your dad. It’s like making your dad happy on a Saturday, like playing baseball as a 7- or 8-year-old kid,” Clinton-Dix said. “Having that male figure who treats his players like his own kids is really what it was all about.

“Just leaving home from Orlando and coming to play for Nick Saban and having that father figure away from home … he not only challenged me to be a better player, but a better young man. I think those two things were very import for him to instill in his players.”

Saban won seven national championships as a head coach, six at Alabama and one at LSU. Clinton-Dix was a part of two of those championship seasons, the back-to-back titles in 2011-12. It was nice to win titles, Clinton-Dix said, but Saban’s focus was always moving forward and on to the next challenge.

Pictures: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix Through the Years

“He always had the 24-hour rule. We got to enjoy it for 24 hours and then we were on to the next year,” Clinton-Dix said. “He was never satisfied. He always wanted to know what was next and he always wanted to focus on the next opportunity.

“Coach is so driven on winning these national championships and helping young men grow and impact their lives. But, I don’t really think national championships were the most important thing to him. I think the big thing for him was helping young men develop and grow as individuals.”

And Saban made sure his players were focused on the task at hand. Just days after winning national titles, he stunned his players with the reality of being an Alabama football player.

“We’d have a few days off maybe,” Clinton-Dix said, “but that Monday or Tuesday meeting that we had he said, ‘This is a new team. This team hasn’t done [expletive].’ Those were his exact words.

“And we’re like, ‘Man, coach, we just won the national championship like three days ago.’ His mentality is just different.”

Saban’s recruitment of Clinton-Dix and his Dr. Phillips teammate Dee Hart took the safety back to an October day in 2010. During their official visit to Tuscaloosa, Saban treated the two best friends to a Sunday afternoon of four-wheeling on his sprawling Alabama property. Clinton-Dix, who was already committed to Alabama at the time, said they had a blast with the coach that day. Hart eventually committed to Alabama.

“As a kid I always wanted to ride on a four-wheeler and I never got that. I remember one time my mom told me to go outside on Christmas Day and I walked outside and there was a lawn mower. She told me to get out there and make my own money,” Clinton-Dix laughed. “So just being able to go out there and spend time on Coach Saban’s lake and riding around his acreage of land was a dream come true.

“I felt like I was a kid in a ballpark, just enjoying my life at 16 or 17 years old. I was looking at his big house and thinking, ‘Wow I could have this one day if I just buy in and trust this process,’ and that’s what I did. It was awesome. First and foremost he wanted us to be careful. He didn’t want to injure his future NFL stars or national championship stars.”

Clinton-Dix wouldn’t venture a guess as to who the new coach might be, but he’s comfortable that the right decision will be made and still plans to retain his current position with the program.

“I don’t think anybody will be able to match what Coach Saban did as an individual,” he said, “but I know Mr. Burns will do the best job to find the right person for the opportunity.”

Chris Hays covers high school and college football and college football recruiting. You can find him on X @OC_ChrisHays and on Instagram @OS_ChrisHays. He can be reached vis email at