HOOVER Ala. — Tua Tagovailoa needs a girlfriend, but not for the reasons you might think. He needs a girlfriend as a measure to sneak junk food into his home and past his demanding father who, this summer, not only led his two sons through daylong training but forced upon them a restrictive diet. The diet is so strict that Galu Tagovailoa does not allow Tua and younger brother Taulia to drive during these summer workout periods, confiscating their keys as a way to prevent late-night commutes to the local fast food chain. “You need a girlfriend,” Tua says, “to make her go get stuff and bring it back.”
The result of his father-led summer camp sat before reporters Wednesday during Day 3 of the four-day SEC media days in this Birmingham suburb: a trim, healthy Tua in his light blue suit, yellow tie and checkered shirt. He’s at 215 pounds, having dropped the weight he gained over the spring while hobbled by an assortment of injuries that included two bum ankles and a tight hamstring. He hasn’t felt this healthy, he says, since arriving at Alabama two years ago. He’s actually three pounds under the goal weight prescribed by coaches. He’s adjusted his strength program to better avoid the injury bug, too, and he now wears an Apple watch with the sole purpose of counting his steps (his record thus far is 28,000). This is all an effort to care for his body, a hard lesson he learned last season, when injuries and weight issues mounted, partly contributing to Alabama’s late-season slide.
Wait, what late-season slide? Alabama won five of its final six games by outscoring those opponents 222–144. Coach Nick Saban and his players contend it wasn’t good enough. After the 29–0 win over LSU on Nov. 3, the Tide struggled, Saban says, mostly because of distractions from coaching staff members who were heading out the door after the season. “Whether people were talking about personal outcomes or team outcomes, I think we had a lot of distractions toward the end of the year,” he told reporters in the main room of media days before detailing things later with Paul Finebaum.
“We had a lot of guys who wanted to be head coaches at different places,” Saban told Finebaum. “It takes a special person to stay focused on what they have to do now when they have a job somewhere else that’s awaiting them and they have a responsibility on staffs.” Within days of the championship game loss to Clemson, four staff members left: quarterbacks coach Dan Enos went to be the offensive coordinator at Miami, receivers coach Josh Gattis went to Michigan as offensive coordinator, offensive line coach Brent Key joined Georgia Tech in the same role and Mike Locksley became Maryland’s head coach in a decision announced before the playoff began.
Tagovailoa looks at the 44–16 drubbing from the Tigers in the title bout as the manifestation of the late-season skid. “It ended up getting us,” he said. The Tide failed in preparation for that championship game, they say, and he forced too many plays, an area of emphasis for the 2019 Heisman Trophy frontrunner—and for his coach, too. “They led to some disasters,” Saban said of those sometimes wild, scrambling plays that Tagovailoa orchestrates. More than anything, this feels like a redemption year for Saban’s quarterback. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, and his team finished second on the field. He’s looking at the 28-point defeat through optimistic goggles. After all, he said, what do you really learn from winning? As a whole, players felt “invincible,” he said, during the Tide’s dominant first nine games. “When you lose, you start appreciating things."
On Tuesday, if he already didn’t know, he learned of his celebrity status at the league’s kickoff event just 54 miles from Tuscaloosa. He entered the Hyatt Regency lobby to roars from the more than 100 autograph-seeking Alabama fans gathered in the lobby, one of whom yelled toward the quarterback, “You’ve got my vote for president!”
He’s got a legion of fans, and they are always attentive to any Tua news. After it was announced earlier this summer that Tagovailoa would miss the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana because of a hamstring injury, the group expressed their concern for their quarterback’s health on social media. He used reporters on Wednesday to send a thank-you message to fans for caring and reassured everyone he’s completely healthy and in good shape, too. He points to the summer camp with his father as a reason. Galu Tagovailoa, the strict father who famously said he reared Tua with “the bible and a belt,” puts his boys through a hellish training program that rivals just about any other. There is morning weight lifting, afternoon sprints and evening throws. And there is no junk food, nor is their driving. “We can’t get no car,” Tua said. “No snacks. And the kitchen is right where they sleep.” Next summer, maybe, he’ll get that girlfriend.