ATLANTA — Let’s be real here: The greatest coach in college football history is surely some guy whose name none of us know. He toiled with scant resources. He won something about which only next of kin and a few other dedicated stragglers cared. Actually, maybe he didn’t win anything at all. Maybe he went winles, but his players improved cohesively from absolute scratch.
The top coach in college football history, however, is Nick Saban from Monongah, W. Va., and from Michigan State, LSU and especially Alabama. In the argument against Saban for this distinction, we had Saban, speaking Tuesday morning in downtown Atlanta after a rowdy night at the football theater, and shortly after saying: “Isn’t there ‘Sleepless in Seattle?’ Isn’t that it? This is kind of ‘Sleepless in Atlanta.’ ”
Clearly, the man’s secrets include a vagueness about the overused title of “Sleepless in Seattle.”
In the argument against Saban, Saban himself extolled all his Alabamian players and collaborators through the years and said this: “This is not something that is just about me, and I think Coach [Bear] Bryant is probably the best coach of all time because of the longevity of his tenure as a coach and the way he changed.
“I mean, he won championships running the wishbone. He won them with Joe Namath dropping back throwing when people never, ever did it. I just think that, for his time, he impacted the game and had more success than anybody ever could.”
As of early Tuesday morning and Alabama’s kaleidoscopic 26-23 overtime win over Georgia, Saban and Bryant have six titles each, Saban’s ranging from 2003 to 2017 with two programs (LSU, Alabama), Bryant’s ranging from 1961 to 1979 with one (Alabama). Bryant’s span lasted longer (so far), but Saban’s teams have had to win more games to access summits. Recruiting in Bryant’s days was contentious to the point of vile, while recruiting in Saban’s days is contentious to the point of vile, so that’s a push. So in the counterargument for Saban against Saban’s argument, here’s this:
Saban has won a title (2009 season) in which his 14-0 team had only one palpitation game (against Tennessee) and wound up ransacking a Florida mini-dynasty into a sustained submission. In that season’s national title game, Alabama threw 12 passes, completing six for 91 yards. He won two other titles (2011, 2012 seasons) with teams that lost along the way but dominated their title game opponents, LSU and Notre Dame.
Then he won a title (2015 season) with a team that spent the title game passing for 335 yards and rushing for 138, because necessity asked for that.
To use Saban’s words against him, and in favor of the case for him: “The way he changed.”
In the argument of Bryant vs. Saban, the very kind of useless discussion that helps people get through life, big bouquets should go flying Saban’s way for these last two title-game victories, in January 2016 in greater Phoenix and January 2018 in downtown Atlanta. (As a backdrop, Tuscaloosan football intellectuals, that group almost unrivaled, often gauge Saban’s runner-up team of the 2016 season, unbeaten all the way until the final second against Clemson, as superior to those champions of 2015 and 2017. Only through the brilliance of one of the best college football players ever, Deshaun Watson, did that 2016 team succumb.)
While nobody should feel sorry for the person who got to coach the talent on Alabama’s 2015 and 2017 teams, they did need Saban to get out his wrench and fix things in the most urgent pinches.
What a crackerjack wrench it turns out to be, loosing upon the history of the game a spiffy onside kick and a gutty quarterback switch.
With 10:34 left against Clemson in greater Phoenix, and with Watson having driven Saban to hurl his earphones to the synthetic turf during the third quarter, Alabama had tied the game at 24, and Saban wished to spend further minutes recusing himself from witnessing Watson’s dizzying talents. Adam Griffith plucked the masterful onside kick, and within two plays, Jake Coker’s 51-yard touchdown pass to O.J. Howard had pushed Alabama ahead.
“Getting that onside kick, I think, did change the momentum of the game,” Saban said after the 45-40 victory.
“It was a huge play,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said.
At halftime Monday in downtown Atlanta, with that fresh beast Georgia bullying Alabama by 13-0 on the synthetic turf, Saban went from a quarterback who stood 26-2, with a humongous 30-yard touchdown run late in the previous national title game, to a freshman who just reached campus right about the time Jalen Hurts made that run. Tua Tagovailoa had completed 35 of 53 passes to that point all season mostly in the residual portions of routs: 8 for 10 against Vanderbilt, 9 for 12 against Tennessee, 7 for 11 against Mercer.
Yet by the time his sublime left arm began throwing Monday, the tenor of the occasion changed. By the end, he had become a freshman star with a half to last forever, with five scoring possessions, a sixth possession that ended in a missed 36-yard field goal so ghastly that buzzards seemed to circle it, and a 41-yard, game-winning touchdown pass about which people could — and should — write poems.
What percentage of coaches would make that change at that impossible moment?
One in Foxborough, Mass., comes to mind.
Many others don’t.
“This happened once before at LSU,” Saban said Tuesday, reaching back to Dec. 29, 2000. “Josh Booty was our quarterback. We got behind Georgia Tech like 14-0 or something [14-3, to be precise], here in Atlanta playing in the Peach Bowl. I just went in at halftime and said, ‘Rohan Davey, you need to go play, because we need a spark on offense and we need something to change.’ We ended up winning the game, 28-14.
“Sometimes, just a little change of style, a little spark, sort of ignites everyone, and I think that happened in the game last night. Tua gets a lot of credit for that, but I think his teammates’ response to him was equally important.”
Even the defense seemed reborn, and by the end, Alabama had an experience Alabama seldom gets: winning all the way from the dim side of doubt. Because of the joy that can stem only from hardship, running back Damien Harris ran through the hallways hollering to anyone who would listen, “All of y’all, I love you! I love you!” The locker room featured the kind occasional chanting that can come only from escaping.
For his most recent two title wins, Saban had gone under the hood and forged something daring to redirect the game’s course. He has heaped those two nights upon all his others and his other four titles. It has elevated him through the last rungs toward becoming the top coach in the century-and-one-half of the game, even if some dude we never heard of may have showed even more skill.