TUSCALOOSA, AL | August 10, 2023 – Nick Saban leaned forward slightly in the chair in his office to see the photo on the iPhone. Soon, he was grinning.
The smile wasn’t quite as big as the one in the photo, but he had a noticeable grin nonetheless. Saban couldn’t help it, thinking about the moment Jim Wilson III once lifted him in the air.
Right before the photo was taken, Wilson had received his 2020 national championship ring from Saban. As a long-time UA System Board of Trustees member, Wilson went to the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility along with the other trustees to receive their rings and pose for photos with Saban.
Wilson had been planning for that day for a while. The moment he saw center Landon Dickerson lift Saban on the field after the national championship win over Ohio State in January, Wilson turned to his brother, Will Wilson. “I’m going to do that when I get my ring,” Wilson said.
And he did. Fast-forward to June, and Wilson wrapped his arms clear around Saban, lifting him completely off the ground.
“Anytime anybody picks you up with a hug, it’s a little surprising,” Saban said, chuckling. “It was a lot of self-gratification for me too.”
Most people wouldn’t have the guts to lift the seven-time national-championship winning coach, but Wilson wasn’t most people. He wasn’t a random trustee, either; He was a regular in the football building and at practice. He was a vital builder of the Alabama football dynasty. He was Saban’s friend.
It’s why Saban was among many in the athletics department, the university system and the state who were saddened when Wilson died this past March at 59 soon after contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare incurable brain disorder. He had been a trustee for 20 years.
“You don’t often have the opportunity to have relationships with those kinds of people,” Saban said. “It would be a very small number of people I can say that I would put in that category that had that kind of impact on me, and Jim was one of those people.”
Wilson’s love of Alabama football reached unparalleled heights (literally)
The banner couldn’t be missed. Wilson intended it that way.
“GO BAMA BEAT THE HOGS,” it read, being pulled via plane over an Arkansas golf club outside Little Rock. The Crimson Tide and Razorbacks were playing that weekend.
“That’s Jim,” said Ellis Ponder, Alabama football’s COO. “Here you are at this very proper, exclusive place, and I’m scared to swing too hard and my shirt come untucked on the side. Jim was like, ‘I’m going to rent this plane and have it fly around this exclusive place with all kinds of Arkansas fans.’”
Wilson only intended for it to fly around once or twice, but the plane stayed for about 30 minutes. By the time Wilson returned to the clubhouse at the end of the day, all of his belongings had been put in a box. “They were just being funny with him too,” Will Wilson said. “All in good jest.”
But Wilson’s Alabama athletics fandom was no joke.
First and foremost, he loved his family: His wife, Susie; his two daughters, his grandchildren and many others. He also was passionate about the UAB health system as chair of its board over multiple stints; He was proud of what had been accomplished at UAH, too. Those close to him stress how much he enjoyed supporting those institutions and watching them grow, but few things matched his passion for Alabama football, UA athletics and the University of Alabama.
That’s where he graduated with a degree in business administration, but his fandom goes back much farther than that. His dad brought him and his brother to games “since they were little bitty boys,” Will Wilson said.
The fandom only grew when they sat in the end zone at the 1979 Sugar Bowl and watched Barry Krauss halt Penn State with a goal-line stand on fourth-and-inches in the fourth quarter with the Nittany Lions trailing by a touchdown. Alabama went on to win the national championship.
Wilson watched many iconic plays and national championship wins since, often wearing Crimson shoes while doing so. That’s one of the things Ron Gray first noticed when he met Wilson in 2008 at the Iron Bowl. Gray, a trustee since 2009, was invited to a box to meet some folks. At one point, Wilson walked in, sporting his Crimson Louis Vuitton sneakers.
“It was like this larger-than-life personality walked into the room,” Gray said.
Neither Nick Saban nor former President Donald Trump intimidated him
Ponder was in South Carolina’s visiting locker room before Alabama’s 2019 game against the Gamecocks when he got the call from Wilson.
Come open the door, Wilson said. He wanted to see Saban and wish him well.
Mind you, Saban was changing out of his suit and into his game attire. He wasn’t exactly sitting around and waiting for people to come say hi. Wilson didn’t care, though. Once the door was opened, Wilson strolled into the locker room, straight to Saban’s locker space. He gave Saban a “good luck.” Saban replied by saying he appreciated Wilson.
“You would never know what he was going to do, say, whatever,” Ponder said. “You had to be ready for any and everything with him. But he loved Nick Saban.”
Wilson certainly wasn’t intimidated by him. Visitors to Saban’s office frequently are, which is no surprise considering Saban’s success and celebrity. As for the select few people who haven’t been intimidated by Saban on the planet …
“Jim Wilson is first, second and tied for fifth,” Ponder said. “It was refreshing to see somebody kind of jab coach and say whatever and be funny and tell a joke.”
Many in the building naturally try to be buttoned-up and put-together around Saban, wanting only to show their best. Speak only when spoken to is often the approach.
Not Wilson. He could talk to just about anybody, including the president of the United States.
When former President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump attended the Alabama vs. LSU game in 2019 at Bryant-Denny Stadium, they sat in the Wilsons’ skybox. Will Wilson said their dad instilled in them the honor the office holds, no matter how much you agree with or like the individual. “We’d do it again if it happened again,” Will Wilson said. “We look at the office as, whoever is sitting in the office is still the president of the United States.” So for about 3 1/2 hours, the Wilsons entertained the Trumps while watching the game.
“Jim was comfortable whether he was sitting with the president of the United States or out on the farm hunting,” said Greg Byrne, Alabama athletics director. “He was comfortable and people were comfortable with him in all environments.”
Once, that meant playing in a golf foursome with Saban and Joe Namath. Other times, that meant bringing a variety of prominent guests to his farm outside Montgomery for quail hunting trips.
Byrne was one of those guests. So too were former UA athletics directors Bill Battle and Mal Moore. Chancellor Finis St. John took part in those quail hunting trips with Moore as well. Wilson always started the hunt blowing his bugle.
“Every coach he ever met loved him,” St. John said. “I know the people in the athletic department loved him. Mal Moore loved him. The trustees all loved Jim. He was just a light that lit up the room whenever he was there. He was funny, and he was fun. But he worked hard.”
All that made him a perfect trustee to help build Saban’s Alabama football dynasty.
Fingerprints all over projects
Wilson called Ponder no fewer than six or seven times a day. Seriously. The conversations didn’t last long, though.
“Forty-five seconds was like, ‘man you’re long-winded today,’” Ponder said. “He would just be calling, ‘Coach good? Coach need anything?’”
Wilson’s support went far past surface level, though. A successful businessman from Montgomery, Wilson was a significant donor, too. Joining the board in 2003, he also used his expertise in real estate to support Moore’s vision — For Alabama athletics to be great moving forward, it needed great facilities.
“We didn’t have top facilities then,” St. John said. “Bryant-Denny Stadium was a nice stadium, but it was outdated. Coleman Coliseum was a nice arena but it was outdated. A lot of the other facilities were nonexistent.”
Moore needed others to buy into his vision. Wilson was one of three Saban listed as instrumental in supporting Moore, along with Paul Bryant Jr. and Angus Cooper II, both trustees at the time. Saban pointed out the trio’s success in business and logical approaches as key elements.
“Those three guys, if they don’t support Mal, we can’t build the facilities,” Saban said. “We can’t make the changes. We can’t have the academic program that we need. We can’t hire the kind of coaches that we need. Their commitment to the standard of excellence that we all wanted to achieve directly contributed to the success.”
Wilson had the ability to provide insights few could during the facilities arms race in college sports. He was chairman and CEO of Jim Wilson & Associates, a real estate firm responsible for developing the Riverchase Galleria in Hoover, EastChase in Montgomery and more. Because of his work, Wilson understood construction costs, layouts of buildings, ingress and egress of a building and how to pay it back.
Simply put: He knew how to build big stuff.
“He often gave great leadership and insight into facilities development because of his own personal experience,” Byrne said. “Really, any project that’s taking place here, his fingerprints were all over.”
Over the years, Alabama has made upgrades to Bryant-Denny Stadium, Coleman Coliseum, the Mal Moore Athletic Complex and more. Overall, Wilson oversaw the construction of dozens of buildings across campuses. He was chair of the physical properties committee for the board, arguably the most important committee, from October 2014 through September 2020.
He also served on the athletics committee for much of his tenure, and he was the chair until he died. The athletics committee served primarily in a communication capacity to have open dialogue with presidents and athletic departments.
“He was one I knew I could always count on to give great insight and council and be able to know what he was saying was coming with all good intentions for what was best for the University of Alabama,” Byrne said. “He was not only a trustee, but he was a friend.”
Saying goodbye to a good friend
In late February/early March, Wilson didn’t have much time left in his life and was going quickly. Saban and Byrne wanted to say goodbye to him.
They hopped on a plane and flew to Montgomery, traveling to Wilson’s home to spend about an hour with him and his family. That’s when Saban shared with Will Wilson that his brother had given Saban a gift every year for his birthday, usually a new sportscoat. The visit also gave Byrne and Saban a chance to tell Wilson they loved him and cared about him.
“He was a good friend and had done a tremendous amount of stuff for me,” Saban said. “I wanted to let him know that, that he was a good friend.”
This article was written by Nick Kelly for tuscaloosanews.com. To view the original article, please visit: