It has been nine years since Nick Saban said one thing and did another, walking out on the Dolphins and hightailing it to Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama.
I guess I have to say it. I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.
Nick Saban on Dec. 21, 2006
It’s safe to say Saban doesn’t regret the decision.
Although his two-year stay in Miami was a dud, with the Dolphins going 15-17 during his short and unremarkable tenure there, his time with Alabama has been anything but. If Saban directs the Crimson Tide to a win over Clemson on Monday, it will mark his fourth national title in nine years at Alabama.
Toss in the championship he won at LSU, and Saban is looking at five.
Paul “Bear” Bryant won seven national titles, six of them at Alabama.
“Bryant was great. I thought he was the greatest ever,” said ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, an expert on college football in the South. “But I think Monday night, if Nick Saban and Alabama win a national championship, you can say Nick Saban is the greatest football coach of all time.”
Don’t fit Saban for a houndstooth hat just yet.
For one thing, Saban coaches with full mane exposed. For another, Clemson is no patsy. They’re No. 1 and the only unbeaten team in the country.
And even if Alabama was to get past the Tigers, Saban — out of polite respect for a mammoth legend — doesn’t feel he deserves comparisons to Bryant.
“First of all, Bear Bryant has to be the greatest coach ever in college football, and in no way do I what do to try to be considered anything like him,” Saban said. “Alabama would not be what it is — the job I have would not be what it is — if it wasn’t for Bear Bryant and all that he did to make Alabama, the University of Alabama. I mean, there’s so many things that I don’t even touch that his presence had.”
Still, there’s little question that Saban belongs in the same breath.
The Crimson Tide was living on hard times before Saban arrived.
Alabama had enjoyed only one winning season in the four under his predecessor, Mike Shula, and hadn’t won a national title since 1992. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, ironically enough, was a player on that ’92 team.
“You’ve got to remember, in ’92 we hadn’t won a national championship since the ’70s,” Swinney said. “That’s like wandering the desert for 40 years. That’s a long time in Alabama.”
Alabama went 7-6 in Saban’s first season.
Since then, it has been docked at the oasis.
The school won national titles in 2009, 2011 and 2012. The Tide’s record from 2008 to 2015: 97-12.
The Tide has an aura and a swagger.
“Alabama is like a bully in middle school,” Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson said.
The Tide has talent, talent recruited and cultivated under Saban’s watch.
In running back Derrick Henry, they have the Heisman Trophy winner. In Ryan Kelly, they have the Remington Trophy winner as the nation’s best center. In Henry, Kelly, linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, they have four first-team All-Americans.
Successful head coaches in any sport are only as good as their players.
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski wouldn’t have five national basketball titles to his name if not for the likes of Christian Laettner and Shane Battier. Where would Bill Belichick be (four Super Bowl wins) without Tom Brady? Or Phil Jackson (11 NBA championships) without Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant?
“You’ve got to have great players,” Swinney said of Saban’s recruiting success. “He’s a lot better coach with Derrick Henry than without him, and it’s the same for me. There’s no secret why they’ve been so successful. You just check their recruiting. Coach Saban does a phenomenal job of that.”
Clemson has its own stars.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson (third in the Heisman Trophy) can run and throw. And Clemson is balanced on both sides of the ball.
But Alabama is Alabama, and while Swinney will be shooting for his first national title and Clemson’s first since 1982, Saban and the Crimson Tide will not be entering unfamiliar territory on Monday.
A victory for Alabama would put Saban in rare company.
“I know the legend of Bear Bryant,” Alabama quarterback Jake Coker said. “And when [Saban’s] done, I feel like it’s going to be the same.”
Monday: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 1 Clemson
What: CFP National Championship.
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m.; University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
TV/radio: ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic, ESPND.
Favorite: Alabama by 6 1/2.
Records: Alabama 13-1 (SEC); Clemson 14-0 (ACC).
Series: Alabama leads 12-3.
Alabama injuries: Out — WR Chris Black (ankle); WR Robert Foster (rotator cuff).
Clemson injuries: Out — WR Mike Williams (neck); DB Korrin Wiggins (knee).