IN MY OPINION

Greg Cote: Don’t like Alabama’s Nick Saban, but you must respect him

 
WEB VOTE Who is the greatest college football coach today?

gcote@MiamiHerald.com

This was the truest — and most prescient — of all the myriad slogans on T-shirts being peddled at Monday night’s BCS National Championship here. Hint: The shirts were crimson, the unmistakable blood-red of Alabama football.

I’d Rather Be Good Than Lucky, they read.

Oh my but their team was all of that, the Crimson Tide were. They were good, very good, so good that Notre Dame was left needing every bit of that fabled luck o’ the Irish and more, but it was nowhere to be seen or conjured.

This was men against leprechauns.

Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14.

Both teams were known for rugged, excellent defense. One showed why.

The story wasn’t the Fighting Irish falling short in trying to mint the school’s first national title since ever-distant 1988, no matter what they think in South Bend.

The story was Bama continuing its recent dominance and fashioning a modern-day dynasty — with a second consecutive national title and a third in four years.

“I get chills thinking about it,” said winning quarterback AJ McCarron.

The Tide. Rising, rising, rising …

Here, in particular, the story was the sight few South Floridians wished to see, and that was a smiling coach Nick Saban — about as euphoric as he gets — swept off in a sea of players, triumphant, the emperor of the kingdom, Tuscaloosa.

If Saban got chills thinking about it, he wasn’t letting on.

“We have a 24-hour rule on celebrations,” said the taciturn coach.

The celebration

In the closing seconds Saban had been drenched with a Gatorade ice bath that soaked the back of his shirt. Red, of course. His team was lavished with sonic idolatry by celebrating Tide fans while Irish backers sulked from the place, perhaps damning the abject failure of all of those four-leaf clovers, not to mention that offense that Saban’s defense so thoroughly controlled.

Later Saban would gently lift the crystal-football trophy above his head like Mustafa lifting his progeny in The Lion King.

As midnight neared the stadium PA system blasted Sweet Home Alabama.

It had been a sweet night, Alabama.

The crowd of 80,120 set a Dolphins Stadium record. Come to think of it the ambience reminded me of a Dolphins home game, other than the big-stage stakes, the teeming sellout and the electric feeling in the place.

Notre Dame fans had the better of the decibels early, but that changed fast. Saban’s guys mashed the mute button on the Irish side.

College football’s dream matchup turned out to be what must be regarded as one the colossal letdowns in recent memory.

Alabama made it so. Notre Dame didn’t have a choice.

Saban had been asked it in the buildup to this game a question more pertinent now than before. Did he deserve to be mentioned in the same conversation as Alabama’s legendary former coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, of the houndstooth hat.

“I wouldn’t agree with that at all,” he’d answered, politely, prudently.

Alabama senior linebacker Nico Johnson said: “To win three out of four, that’s something special. Coach Saban won’t let us say ‘dynasty’ but I think I can say that now, it’s a dynasty.”

Saban also deflected all the dynasty talk afterward, only remarking about the “extreme amount of enthusiasm and positive energy” enveloping his program. (But, at least he almost smiled while saying it. I think.)

Three crowns

Well, three crowns in a four-season span make a case even if a coach demurs. Even if a coach reacts outwardly to beating Notre Dame in the championship game as if he had just beaten FAU in September.

Give the devil his due, Miami — and Saban is that to so many among us, of course. He is Nick Satan, still, for the way he lied before bolting the Dolphins for Alabama six years ago. Hold your grudges if you must, South Florida. Don’t forget, or forgive. Despise him. Keep calling him Satan. Whatever.

You need not like him, and his dourness alone can make that a challenge.

You’d better respect him, though — the coach, at least, if not the man.

If you don’t, well, that’s on you now, because Saban has done everything to vault himself into any sane discussion of greatest college coaches, ever, past or present. Four national titles in a 10-year timeline (he also won at Lousiana State in 2003) will do that.

Alabama’s dynasty is the fulcrum of an even larger one: the Southeastern Conference’s remarkable seventh consecutive national title. Remember, though, who is grand marshaling his league’s ongoing parade.

Saban.

It was 28-0 by the half, effectively over, the Tide a 10-point favorite and showing why despite being ranked No. 2 to ND’s No.1. Previously unbeaten Notre Dame hadn’t allowed that many points in any one game all season.

(Amazon.com had emailed congrats to both team’s fans the day before the game — oops! — getting a jump on merchandise sales. They were half right, just a tad early.)

“This game’s not over and our players got to understand that,” Saban said leaving the field at the half, being generous.

Poor Irish coach Brian Kelly. He’d said a few days ago, of the whirlwind of a title game: “Feels like I’m in a dunk tank.” Must have kept feeling like that Monday night.

Alabama dominated because the QB McCarron had his way with Kelly’s defense and because game MVP Eddie Lacy ran through and around it. (McCarron didn’t grow up a Bama fan and dates an Auburn girl. I bet they forgive him.)

Mostly the Tide won because their defense played with an evident chip. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was the Heisman runner-up who collected all the awards hardware this season. But Alabama’s was the best defense on the field by a ton.

That is why the Crimson Tide won a record 10th national title in the sport’s modern polls era (since 1936) and left Notre Dame in second place with eight. Those numbers and these programs’ storied histories make both sets of fans think nights like this are a birthright. Increasingly, you can see why the Roll Tide crowd thinks so.

Most games are forgettable; even most championship games don’t have much shelf life in the mind. This one was different because of the matchup, but not, alas, because of the game that resulted.

The turning point

Saban had said, “In games like this there’s always a turning point where somebody has to take the game.” Except there wasn’t that Monday night. It was all Bama too soon. From Eddie Lacy’s 20-yard scoring run that made it 7-0 three minutes in, all of the turning points kept turning to the Tide.

None of Notre Dame’s old ghosts — Knute Rockne, the Gipper, the Four Horsemen, “Rudy,” the Golden Dome — could rescue the 2012 team from Bama’s grip.

Saban, always mindful of what he clinically calls his team’s “psychological disposition,” had showed his guys video of Michael Jordan talking about taking game-winning shots. The lesson conveyed: “Can you focus only on the next shot?”

Monday night, Alabama had that one shot. At a championship, at a dynasty, maybe at something close to immortality in its sport.

And Nick Saban saw to it:

Alabama’s aim was true.

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