As thunderstorms rolled into the Tuscaloosa area one August afternoon in 2007 with Nick Saban just a few days into his first preseason practice as Alabama’s coach, Jeff Allen alerted his boss that the team needed to move to the indoor facility.
Allen had only been on the job as Alabama’s head athletic trainer for a little more than two months and didn’t fully grasp at the time the totality of his job, or more specifically, his jobs.
Within minutes of the team moving indoors, the skies cleared, the sun emerged, and Allen looked at the radar to see that there were only a few showers to the east.
“Coach, it looks great now. We don’t have a lightning warning anymore. Let’s go back out,” Allen told Saban.
So the team moved back outside onto the practice field, with Saban and Allen walking out together, when a lightning bolt came crashing down right over top of Coleman Coliseum, the Alabama basketball arena located a few hundred yards from the practice field.
Saban looked (actually screamed) at Allen: “I sure as hell hope you’re a better trainer than you are a weatherman.”
It was a dubious beginning to an enduring relationship that remains at the core of a college football dynasty that has a chance to further cement its place among the most renowned dynasties in any sport Monday night when Alabama faces Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
Allen, 50, has been there every step of the way for the Crimson Tide’s six national championships under Saban and has been a little bit of everything during his time in Tuscaloosa, including hanging onto his job as the Crimson Tide’s de facto weatherman.
“Jeff is the secret recipe of how everything works here,” Alabama junior nose guard DJ Dale said.
Indeed, he’s been an award-winning trainer, accomplished enough that Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a former Tide star who battled through his share of injuries in college, calls Allen “pretty much a legend at Alabama.”
He’s been a surrogate father to the players, a sounding board for the coaches, a trusted confidante to Saban.
He’s been a fixer of problems, and not just medical ones, and a steady voice of reason, even when the pressure of playing and coaching at Alabama escalates to unreasonable proportions.
He’s also been, as Saban so appreciatively says, “invaluable.”
“And he’s been that way for a long, long time,” Saban told ESPN. “You’re talking about a guy that’s as solid as it gets when it comes to the kind of person he is, the kind of professionalism he has, his work ethic, attention to detail, everything. All those things are top shelf with Jeff.
“We’ve been through a lot together, and he’s always been right there, one of those guys you can count on no matter what’s going on around you, good or bad.”
Jokingly, Saban has referred to Allen as the “last man standing.” That’s because Allen is the last football staff member remaining that Saban hired in 2007.
“That ought to tell you something right there about what Jeff has meant to the program,” said former Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, who led the Tide to an SEC championship in 2014. “Coach Saban’s résumé speaks for itself, and so does Jeff’s.”
Maryland coach Mike Locksley, a member of Alabama’s coaching staff from 2016-18, still has Allen on speed dial for any organizational problems that might crop up in his training room or just about anything else that touches his program.
“If Nick Saban is the soul of Alabama football, then Jeff Allen is the glue that keeps it together,” Locksley said.
Nobody within the Alabama football program knows Saban better or is more trusted by Saban than Allen, who carries with him a priceless wealth of memories from their time together. Allen also carries with him a keen understanding of everything it’s taken to make Alabama the envy of the college football world.
From the minute Saban offered him the job, Allen knew every single detail mattered. That phone call came on a Friday in late May, and Allen readily accepted. He asked Saban if it would be OK to get to campus that next Tuesday to give him time to wrap up everything at UCF, where Allen worked before Alabama.
There was a brief pause on the phone, and Saban said, “No, I need you here tomorrow. We have kiddie camp starting.”
Off Allen went, and he’s been by Saban’s side ever since.
“I remember thinking during that camp with all those kids, ‘If he’s coaching these kids like this with this much passion and this much energy, what’s it going to be like when the players get here?'” Allen recalled.
He would soon find out, and now 15 years later, nothing has changed, except that Saban has gotten better, more efficient, and certainly more adaptive, according to Allen. There’s a resoluteness about Saban, no matter how many coordinators he loses or how much of his staff turns over, that is unwavering. Allen has had a front-row seat for it all.
“People always ask me: ‘What is it about coach that has led to all his success?'” Allen said. “It’s almost like they want you to say one thing. It’s not one thing. It’s a thousand little things. He’s in tune with the little things, not just the big things, and that’s imbedded in our entire program.”
Nobody in college football over the last decade and a half has won as big as Alabama, but for Allen, it goes much deeper than simply watching Saban coach football.
“I’ve watched him be a husband, watched him be a father and watched him be a friend to people, to me included,” Allen said. “Those are the moments I will take with me.”
None of those moments resonate more with Allen than the emotional team meeting held the day after the devastating EF-4 tornado destroyed parts of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham in the early evening of April 27, 2011, resulting in 53 deaths.
With the power off in the football complex, Saban stood in the dark and addressed the players.
“There was some natural lighting because of the windows, but that was it,” Allen said. “Coach said, ‘Look, everybody go home and be with your families. We’ll tell you when to come back.'”
His voice trailing off a bit, Allen continued, “But what I remember like it was yesterday is coach telling the players, ‘When we come back, we’ve got a responsibility to this town and to this state to be something positive,’ and that gives me chills thinking about it.”
Some of Allen’s fondest memories revolve around riding back to the airport with Saban after away games to meet the rest of the team for the return flight home. Saban has to hang around a little longer to tape his coaches show, and it’s usually just Saban and Allen along with an Alabama state trooper and sometimes sports information director Josh Maxson in the car.
A year ago in Miami, right after Alabama crushed Ohio State 52-24 to complete an unbeaten season and win its sixth national title amid the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ride back to the airport was unusually quiet.
But all of a sudden, Saban looks over at Allen with a huge smile and exclaims, “We just won the national championship!”
“Yes sir, we did,” Allen shot back.
Allen remembers the utter shock on “all of our faces, even coach’s” after the kick-six loss to Auburn in 2013.
“And I remember the shock in a much different way after the second-and-26 play to beat Georgia for the 2017 national title,” said Allen, who’s usually one of the first people to see Saban at the football complex every morning and the last person to see him before he leaves the stadium for home games.
Allen knows a different side of Saban that the future Hall of Famer doesn’t show to just anybody, a tender side and a witty side.
“It might be his daughter Kristen FaceTiming with him like they did last week after the semifinal game last week against Cincinnati or us just laughing about some of the moments in the game,” Allen said. “And, yes, he does laugh.”
After Saban’s first trip back to LSU in 2008 as head coach, he was being whisked away from Tiger Stadium after a 27-21 victory in overtime against his old team.
“People know who’s in there when you’re pulling out in a black SUV and you’ve got a police escort in front of you,” Allen said. “They were banging, beating on the car and yelling and screaming. He just kinda looked at me and goes, ‘I don’t think they like me very much anymore.'”
After defeats — and Saban and Allen have experienced only 18 together in the last 14 seasons following that first 7-6 season in 2007 — Allen is continually amazed at how his boss so methodically processes things.
Following the 44-16 blowout loss to Clemson in the national championship game in Santa Clara, California to cap the 2018 season, Saban was especially reflective on the ride back to the airport.
“He just sat there and took all the blame and said, ‘It’s my fault. I didn’t do this or didn’t do that, didn’t do a good job of preparing the team,'” Allen recounted, “and that was far from the truth. But that’s him.”
Allen’s rapport with the players mirrors his relationship with Saban. It’s a lifelong affair and not just confined to the training room.
“He makes it family,” said Dale, who credits Allen for keeping him invested after surgeries on each of his patellar tendons. “In the summer, we’ll be at his house having Bible study, playing basketball and swimming. That’s rare, especially since he’s not one of the coaches. Really, he’s more than a coach, because he has the kind of connection with the players that every program needs, but not every program has.”
Veteran defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has served two different stints with Allen at Alabama and was one of the assistants that talked with Allen, at Saban’s behest, prior to Allen getting the job in 2007. Steele, who’s coached at four different SEC schools, said Allen is as savvy at picking up on all the “potholes in the program” as any member of a football staff he’s ever been around.
“He keeps everybody from running in them,” Steele said.
During any offseason, it’s not uncommon to see a who’s who list of former Alabama players now playing in the NFL — Julio Jones, Jonathan Allen, Mark Ingram or Landon Dickerson — back on campus to rehabilitate injuries, consult with Allen or just simply to reconnect with a guy who’s been as successful at earning the players’ trust as he has Saban’s trust.
“Our guys playing in the NFL come back to get his advice on any number of things,” Saban said. “Jeff is such a good person, a good human being, and you can trust him in every way to do the right things for every part of the organization. Sometimes that’s hard to find.”
Just about every player who’s come and gone from Alabama has a favorite story about Allen’s commitment.
In 2012, All-America offensive lineman Barrett Jones tore ligaments in his left foot (a Lisfranc injury) in the SEC championship game. Allen flew with Jones to Nike headquarters in Eugene, Oregon, just before Christmas to have a specially fitted shoe made for Jones to lessen the pressure on his foot. Allen also had an anti-gravity treadmill flown out to the BCS national championship site in Miami so Jones could rehabilitate his foot right up until the game.
“That’s just the kind of guy Jeff is,” Jones said. “He has the players’ best interests at heart and not just the program’s best interests. He wasn’t afraid to stand up to coach Saban when he thought a player couldn’t go, but he wasn’t afraid to push a player to get ready to play when he felt like he was healthy enough to play.”
Former quarterback Greg McElroy, now an analyst at ESPN, remains indebted to Allen for getting him healthy enough to play in the BCS national championship to cap the 2009 season — Saban’s first national title at Alabama — after McElroy broke two ribs a month earlier in the SEC championship game.
The initial X-ray didn’t show any significant damage to McElroy’s ribs, but the pain persisted for more than a week after the game. He knew something was wrong. Allen set up an additional MRI, which showed the two cracks and inflammation between the ribs.
“It wasn’t good, didn’t look good, but I just remember him saying, ‘You’re not going to miss this game. We’re going to do everything we can to get you out there,'” McElroy said. “When you’re facing the possibility of not being able to play in the biggest game of your career, you don’t know how soothing that is to hear those words from your trainer.”
Allen found a bone stimulator for McElroy to wear to accelerate his recovery and promised the Tide quarterback that he would stay up with him every night until midnight if that’s what it took to get him back on the field in Pasadena.
“Anything to get me feeling better,” McElroy said. “There was no way I was going to miss that game. My mom didn’t even know I had cracked ribs. She would have freaked out if she had known the extent of the injury, but Jeff was there to get me through it.”
Corey Miller played eight seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings and remains “blown away” by the thoroughness, compassion and fatherly approach by Allen and his entire staff. Miller’s son, Christian, played at Alabama and missed most of the 2017 national championship season after tearing his biceps muscle, but he was able to get back for the national title game against Georgia and had a sack against the Dawgs.
Miller was hurt again toward the end of the 2018 season when he injured his hamstring. He worked feverishly under Allen’s guidance to get back for the national championship game against Clemson, but he was unable to play.
“They just weren’t going to put him out there at 70%, and Nick falls in line with whatever Jeff says,” Miller said. “As a father and someone who played in the NFL, I’ve always respected the way they went about that decision. They needed Christian (who was a fourth-round pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2019) and his pass-rushing ability in that game, but they weren’t going to jeopardize his future.”
Dickerson, a rookie offensive guard with the Philadelphia Eagles, tore his ACL in the SEC championship game a year ago and was unable to play in the playoff. It was then that Dickerson saw the side of Allen that has endeared him to all of the players and coaches who’ve come through the program.
“There’s been a lot of turnover at Alabama, but Jeff Allen has been the constant, for the players and coach Saban,” said Dickerson, who was taken in the second round of the NFL draft. “There’s probably a misconception at Alabama that once a player gets hurt that they just bring up the next five-star guy who’s ready to take his place, and you’re forgotten about. That’s not true.
“When I got hurt, it didn’t change at all how Jeff or anybody treated me.”
Like anyone who’s ever worked for Saban, Allen has experienced his share of “ass-chewings,” although Allen jokes that he learned a long time ago to listen to what Saban was saying and not necessarily how he was saying it.
“If it happens, it’s usually Jeff’s fault,” McElroy said laughing. “But he just lets it roll off him and knows coach loves him and knows the players love him. Somebody has to be the lightning rod, and Jeff just happens to be so grounded to the floor that he can deal with anything.”
And as cutting edge as Saban is in trying to find any kind of an advantage, so is Allen, who was named collegiate athletic trainer of the year in 2018 and 2019 by two different organizations.
All those portable injury tents you see now on the sidelines for NFL and college games were Allen’s brainchild. He formed a company (Kinematic Sports) along with then-Alabama engineering students Jared Cassity and Patrick Powell to develop tents that would provide immediate medical assistance and privacy instead of taking the player back to the locker room. That way, a player has a chance to get back into the game quicker if he’s not seriously injured.
Allen is quick to credit his entire training staff. In fact, Ginger Gilmore-Childress and Jeremy Gsell were already a part of Alabama’s athletics training staff when Saban got there.
“We’ve had guys who come back from injuries and done so quickly, but that’s not Jeff Allen,” Allen said. “That is just our whole program and the mindset of these kids more than it is me.”
Ironically enough, Allen first felt his calling to be an athletic trainer while attending the Johnny Majors football camp in 1988. He tore his ACL on the turf at Neyland Stadium, home to Tennessee and one of Alabama’s longest standing rivals.
“That’s where it started for me. I knew what I wanted to do,” said Allen, who grew up an SEC football fan in Marietta, Georgia and attended Georgia games with his grandfather and Tennessee games with his father.
His only tie to Saban was former Alabama assistant coach Lance Thompson, who’s now the inside linebackers coach at Florida Atlantic. Allen and Thompson were working together at UCF when Saban hired Thompson on his first staff. Saban was also looking for a trainer, and Thompson had just the guy.
“Jeff is the Nick Saban of football trainers,” Thompson said. “He’s the best in the business at what he does and has a greater impact probably than any trainer in the country in terms of the team’s success.”
Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain, who was the offensive coordinator for Alabama’s 2009 and 2011 national championship teams, said he’s been around few staff members, period, who could capture the pulse of a locker room the way Allen can.
“That’s because the kids trust him so much,” McElwain said. “He can gauge the mood of that locker room, before practice and before games, and provides some really valuable insight to coach Saban.”
And while Saban’s on-field staff at Alabama has been a breeding ground for assistants taking off for head coaching opportunities (Kirby Smart, Steve Sarkisian, Lane Kiffin, Mel Tucker, McElwain and Locksley, to name a few), Allen has stayed put.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had other opportunities. NFL clubs have pursued him more than once, and he thought long and hard about an offer he had in 2018. He doesn’t want to specify the team, but admits that it was “close.”
Ultimately, much like Saban when Texas made a hard run at him following the 2012 season, Allen decided that Alabama was home to him, wife Mary Allen and their daughter, Makennah, who will graduate from Alabama in May. She’s a Crimsonette, a twirler in the band.
“This is where we want to be, and when you’re around people like coach Saban who make you better, why would you ever want to leave that?” Allen said.
Saban, the one with the statue, said there’s no replacing a guy like Allen, who’s around the players more than Saban or anybody else.
“That’s a great place to get a feel for where everybody is, where their focus is and anything else that might be going on,” Saban said. “I trust Jeff with that as much as I do anything because I know if he comes to me with something that we need to get on it right away.”
Allen, because of his relationship, probably gets as many questions as anybody about how much longer the 70-year-old Saban is going to coach. Allen doesn’t have a crystal ball, but he’s been around Saban long enough to know that his boss truly finds meaning in what he does, and just as importantly, enjoys having an impact on people.
“It’s a calling. It’s not work for him,” Allen said. “One of our players from the 2011 team came back a few weeks ago, a guy that struggled and had problem after problem when he played but stuck with it. He just kept talking about how much coach helped him. I made him go see coach, and it was obvious how much it meant to him hearing that.
“People misread him and think it’s only about winning. It’s deeper than that for him.”
Either way, Allen’s greatest task — at least in the eyes of the Alabama fans — might be doing his part to keep Saban coaching into the foreseeable future. They get each other, understand each other and are fiercely motivated in their own way to keep the Alabama football machine rolling along.
“I feel indebted to him and want to help him in any way that I can to continue to coach and help him finish the way he wants to finish, and I hope that’s a long time coming,” Allen said.
If that’s the case, Allen might just get his own statue one day.