The Top of His Game

Fairhope native Ellis Ponder is Alabama Football’s chief operating officer, and Nick Saban’s right-hand man.

Ellis Ponder and Nick Saban walk out of the tunnel in Bryant Denney Stadium

Ponder and Saban lead the team out of the tunnel at the 2021 game against Mercer. // Photos courtesy University of Alabama Athletics

Ellis Ponder never put on a football helmet or ran onto the field as a player when he was a student at Fairhope High. His mother, perhaps fearing injury, forbade it. It was just as well, though, because he says he never had a desire to play the game. Instead, Ponder worked as a student football manager for the Pirates. 

Now, at age 35, it’s ironic that football is Ponder’s whole world. He is the right-hand man to one of the college game’s greatest coaches, the University of Alabama’s Nick Saban, and serves as the Crimson Tide’s associate athletics director for football and football’s chief operating officer. His job is immense. The list of his responsibilities is long — and changes at times almost daily. 

Mobile Bay caught up with Ponder as he dives headfirst into his ninth season with the Alabama football program.

If not football, what were you into growing up? 

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I played baseball when I was young and played golf at Fairhope High School. I wasn’t in many clubs, didn’t have many honors. (He laughs.) I wasn’t that smart, and I can’t remember that far back. 

What brought you to the University of Alabama?

I received a First-Generation scholarship from Coca-Cola. In 2006, Coca-Cola North America gave UA $1,000,000 to fund 12 scholarships for first-generation college students. Coke is still giving this money to UA to fund first-generation college scholarships. It’s a pretty cool concept. At the time, Gary Fayard was the CFO of Coca-Cola North America. He grew up in Atmore, and graduated from UA. Gary was a first-generation college student too, so this was kind of his baby. He and I still email every now and then.

Were you always a UA fan?

Can I admit not really? I never even went to an Alabama or Auburn game growing up. I have never played a down of football. I don’t know anything about the actual Xs and Os. But somehow, I became the football manager for my high school team, and before graduation, the coaches at Fairhope helped get me connected. Mark Lasseter was the head coach at the time. I had an amazing guidance counselor, Sharon Etheridge, who was going to do anything possible to get me connected with the right people. Another coach on the Fairhope staff, Brian Williamson, brought me up to Tuscaloosa for a visit, and we met with Tank Conerly who was the head football equipment manager at the time. 

Bob Baumhower, who I am very close with, was extremely helpful as well. Bob supported everything relative to Fairhope HS athletics when I was at Fairhope, so Bob also got me connected. Bob was obviously a pretty good advocate for me. (Note: Baumhower is a former UA football player who went on to start for nine seasons for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins).

Was your first practice a “pinch me” moment?

Yep…it was hot as hell (August 2006) and I was nervous as hell… but it was great. My freshman season was Coach Mike Shula’s last year. Each student equipment manager is assigned to a coach/position, and I was assigned to the offensive line coach. Coach Nick Saban obviously came in 2007. The offensive line coach under Coach Saban was Joe Pendry. Coach Pendry and I were and still are super close. I talk to him almost every day. So, I was a student equipment manager for the 2006-2010 seasons.

Friends probably thought it was a job where you just hung out on the sidelines, but it’s a major undertaking. What were some of your duties?

Yeah, for sure a lot more than just showing up on gamedays. It was year-round, 6 or 7 days a week depending on what time of year… I’m talking about as a student. In college, my friends just thought I worked for the team September – December, but it was year-round. Fourth-quarter program, spring practice, coaching clinics, summer camps, summer workouts and practices, fall camp, the season, bowl time, Nike orders coming in! A lot of packing and unpacking relative to the unreal amount of equipment we take to Bryant-Denny Stadium for home games and on the road to away games. Everything from daily laundry to shining helmets and shoes, to issuing equipment to players, staff, etc. It’s bottom of the totem pole work, for sure. 

You must have enjoyed it. You did it all through college.

All 4 years of undergraduate and the year of graduate school, so 5 years. I have for sure become addicted to the work and grind, the routine, the stress, the pressure and the high expectations over the years. 

Above Ponder and UA Head Coach Nick Saban are prepared for the 2021 game against Vanderbilt. Right Ponder greets Joe Namath, NFL MVP, Super Bowl winner, and former UA quarterback, at the 2021 game against Arkansas in Bryant–Denny Stadium.

Given the demands of the job, how did you manage to graduate with honors?

(laughing) I’m not very smart, but I was willing to do anything to find a way. I was willing to work way harder than the next guy, willing to sacrifice way more than the next guy. With the number of lazy and incompetent people in the world, it’s not that hard to outwork people and get where you want to be. 

If you have common sense, a sense of urgency, situational awareness, you can anticipate, you’re loyal and you don’t have an ego … which allows you to kiss the right ass … you can get just about anywhere. Don’t be too good to do anything. I still pick up trash and will absolutely lose my mind if I see someone walk by trash on the ground or floor and not pick it up. I hate people who think they are too good or above doing certain task. 

You did an internship with the Dallas Cowboys. What was that experience like?

Greg McElroy (former UA and NFL quarterback) and I are the same age, were freshmen together, and became close buddies. At the time, his dad was a Senior Vice President for the Cowboys, so that is obviously how I got that gig. I basically shadowed Greg Sr. all summer. As I said, I have never played a down of football, so I knew I didn’t want to be — couldn’t be — a coach. But I always knew I wanted to be in sports. I wanted to be part of a team. I loved the competitive nature, the expectations, the stress and the pressure of it all. 

After college you joined the Bruno Event team, helping run events like the Indy Grand Prix. How did that come about?

I loved my time at Bruno. I met Ronnie Bruno here on the UA campus. It was Thursday night before we played Penn State at Penn State. A group called the Board of Visitors was having their annual meeting, and I was asked to speak to the group. The concept was for a kid who got an opportunity (Coca-Cola First-Generation Scholarship) to get up in front of all these successful people who are giving to UA in one form or another and to tell them my story. Tell them about all these great things I was able to be involved in as a student manager. How the opportunity to go to college meant so much to me. I wanted to show my little sister (8 years younger) that this college thing was doable. If she saw me do it, she could do it. [My sister] ended up coming to and graduating from Alabama as well. And I wanted to make my mom and grandmother proud. And how none of that would have ever been possible without the Coca-Cola First-Generation Scholarship

Nonetheless, I sat at Mr. Bruno’s table that night. After I spoke, he insisted on me coming to visit with him in Birmingham. I did, and he hired me. I learned a tremendous amount from Mr. Bruno and Gene Hallman (Bruno Event Team’s CEO) while I was with Bruno. I still talk to them both. They both were at my wedding this past March. I am forever indebted to Ronnie Bruno. 

Tell us about your current role.

I am the associate athletics director for football and the football chief operating officer. I’m starting my 9th season with the 2023 season, working on everything from the budget to the buses. I never know what any given day might bring. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t coach or evaluate talent, but I am heavily involved in just about everything else relative to the football program. I also have a lot of interaction with the players.

What is the most challenging part of the job?

Trying to keep Nick Saban happy. It is a daily challenge, but I love it. I just have to make sure I am detailed enough to make everything operate smoothly. 

And then the fact that very few people truly understand what all goes into this. This is truly something you must have lived or experienced to fully understand and appreciate, but there is a tremendous sacrifice relative to time. We work seven days a week. We work seven days a week for 44 out of the 52 weeks in a year. 

At certain times of the year, all you want is a day off. And when I get one day off, I end up right back here in my office. It’s like “Shawshank Redemption.” The most comfortable place in the world for me is my office. 

Back to your wedding — how did you manage to fit that in this past year?

There’s not much slow time to choose from, so we had to squeeze in the wedding over spring break. We got married on a Saturday and I had a staff meeting the afternoon of Sunday. So, no honeymoon. Still haven’t been on one and not sure when we will be able to go. 

You are a right-hand man to one of the greatest, most successful and respected football coaches of all time. What is it that helps the two of you work so well together?

It has taken years to get to this point. Coach and I have a great relationship. I am obviously forever indebted to him for taking a chance on me. I am extremely loyal to Coach Saban. It makes me sick when I screw something up. There is nothing I want to do more than to do a great job for him and the team. Compared to when I first started, I can anticipate what he is going to want, when he is going to want it and how he is going to want it … but I still screw this up from time to time. I don’t have the vocabulary to accurately describe this job. It’s for sure one of those jobs that you must experience to truly understand. 

What are some of the things you’ve learned from Nick Saban?

I don’t even know how to answer this… So much. Having the correct mindset for whatever situation you are in. How not to get complacent. Mental toughness. Self-discipline.

It’s like, here is something I know I am supposed to do, but I really don’t want to do it. Can you make yourself do it? On the other hand, here is something I know I’m not supposed to do, but I want to do it. Can you keep yourself from it? This is self-discipline. We make these choices hundreds of times per day, and if you can make these decisions correctly, it will always keep you on the path to accomplishing the goals that you have, no matter how little or big that goal is.

And as cliché and corny as it sounds, I truly learn something new from him almost every day. 

Ellis Ponder on the sidelines at an Alabama football game

When you look back at this time in your life, what will stand out? 

Hands down, all the relationships I have made — with players that I am still close with, all the coaches that have come and gone, donors, people that have come in to speak to the team. I am still super close with a lot of these people. Obviously winning would stand out. 

How many big wins have you been a part of since you’ve been at UA?

During my time as both a student and on staff, we’ve won four National Championships and six SEC championships.

Is there a favorite?

I don’t know. We all love to win but it is crazy how I remember more about the ones we lost than the ones we won. 

The COVID pandemic had to have forced you to overcome all sorts of hurdles. What was that like?

It was unreal. Unreal. And trying to get the players to adhere to all the protocols was unreal. Travel, planes, hotels, buses, team meeting rooms, how we ate our meals, locker rooms, testing. It was absolutely brutal, but rewarding when we went undefeated and won it all. 

You’ve been wise in crafting your steps to where you are now. What are your career goals? Do you aspire to one day become an athletics director somewhere?

I don’t know, and it seems like the more I try and figure it out, the less I know. I don’t think anyone really knows where college athletics is headed, so that will determine a lot. There are a lot of things I would be interested in. Golf was my first love. Something with the PGA Tour would for sure interest me. What I do know is that as long as Nick Saban will have me here, I’ll be here. 

It would be extremely hard for me to have a job that isn’t competitive, stressful or pressure-packed. It would be hard for me not to be part of a team. I don’t think I could have a 9 – 5 job. 

I get to the office at 6:15 a.m. I shower here in the morning, eat all my meals here in the dining hall, shower here again, and go home to go to bed. Come back and do it all over again. 

At the end of the day, you have to care, it has to mean something to you and this place and these people mean a lot to me.

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