Nick Saban celebrates another national title, his sixth of his career and
fifth with Alabama.
- ESPN.com Ryan McGee - ESPN Senior Writer
January 9, 2018
ATLANTA - The 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship had been
over for nearly an hour and a half. The circular video board that hangs from
the roof of $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium read "Alabama Crimson Tide
National Champions." Staring down from the 340-foot perch above the playing
field in ultra-high definition was the trademark glare of head coach Nick
Saban. On a three-story-tall video tower in one corner of the stadium there
it was again. In the portrait he had his headset on, giving planet Earth a
side-eye, pointed directly at the scoreboard display of "Alabama 26, Georgia
Alabama head coach Nick Saban hoists the trophy as Alabama celebrates after
the Tide's 26-23 overtime national championship win in the Alabama vs Georgia
CFP championship football game, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, at Mercedes-Benz
Stadium in Atlanta.
Photo Credit - Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
An overserved fan dressed in Bama gear and sitting alone in Section 135, the
one beneath the towering image, stood, turned to face the giant face and
began a bowing motion.
"All hail our crimson god!"
The 2017 season closes with Alabama at No. 1, and the 2018 season begins
with the Crimson Tide on top, as well. But they'll have to go through the
likes of Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State and the rest of the contenders in the
Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2018.
Meanwhile, in the tunnels beneath and behind that place of worship, the deity
himself was on the move. He'd already addressed his team, leaving them sweaty
and shouting so that he could make his mandatory meeting with the national
media. When he left that stage he passed behind a black curtain into a secret
pathway that led toward a series of ESPN cameras. The path between was
covered with verbal palm fronds, congratulations from people begging for
some perspective on the history they'd just witnessed from the coach who'd
Coach, is this the best of your six national titles? "Oh, I don't know. I do
know I've never been happier after a game."
Coach, where do you think this ranks you in coaching history? Was this a
legacy-defining game? "That's not up for me to decide. My job is to win the
next game on the schedule. We did that tonight."
Coach, did it feel extra special to beat Kirby Smart?
He paused. He winked. Then he disappeared around the corner, bound for the
You see, this was supposed to be the night when Saban finally suffered defeat
at the hands of the very monster he hath created, the assembly line of
coaches who learned at his right hand, departing one after the other for
head coaching jobs. They have been hired away by rival schools, so downright
desperate to finally defeat Alabama they went with "can't beat 'em, join 'em"
and attempted to replicate the success on his watch by bringing in someone
who helped him construct the tower.
In the days leading up to Monday night's all-SEC title bout, even the most
casual of college football fans likely became exhausted with hearing the
following statistic: Nick Saban was 11-0 when facing teams coached by his
former assistants. Mark Dantonio of Michigan State is 0-2. Derek Dooley,
formerly of Tennessee, was 0-3, as was Jim McElwain, formerly of Colorado
State and Florida. This very season started with a defeat of Florida State
and former LSU lieutenant Jimbo Fisher.
Not only had they not beaten them, they hadn't come close. The thinnest
margin being McElwain's Gators in the 2015 SEC championship, when Florida
lost to Alabama by two touchdowns.
But Kirby Smart had been Saban's most loyal apprentice. While the others
bolted for bigger paychecks, he'd chosen to stay and work alongside Saban
for more than a decade in all, from LSU to the Miami Dolphins to Alabama.
When Smart was hired by Georgia, his alma mater, two years ago, he didn't
do what the others had, trying to modify Saban's sacred "Process" with his
own additions. He cloned it all, all the way down to his scowl in halftime
interviews. And why not? Heck, all four of Saban's national titles in
Tuscaloosa had come with Smart's assistance.
But now Saban has a fifth (and six overall), and it did not come with
Smart's help. It came at his expense. Smart easily came the closest to
snapping the elder's winning streak. But he didn't. So, now that
teacher/student, master/apprentice, Palpatine/Vader stat has been adjusted
"They said we weren't supposed to be here! Now look at us!" Running back
Damien Harris shouted it over and over again as the team dashed and hugged
and cried on the field moments after the overtime victory. He continued
the barking in the locker room later. Alabama, the only non-conference
champion to make the playoff field had been the target of some criticism.
"They said that Coach Saban, he was out of moves, didn't they? Well, it
doesn't look like he was, does it? Am I right, Tua?!"
Tua Tagovailoa was not the starting quarterback in the 2018 national title
game. That honor went to Jalen Hurts, who had started every game in 2017 and
all but one in 2016, coming within seconds of leading Bama to a championship
one year ago. But Saban, sensing a chance that Georgia might be on the cusp
of putting the game away, yanked his leader of two seasons midgame. He
inserted Tua, a true freshman from Hawaii.
That's not the move of a coach who, at 66, isdone taking risks. It was simply
one of the gutsiest coaching moves ever pulled on college football's biggest
stage. Even as the Alabama sideline appeared to be losing control. The third
quarter ended with a personal foul, a sideline fight when the player who
committed that foul went after a coach, all while another teammate was being
carted off on a stretcher after fainting.
Bama trailed the game 13-0 at the half. They never led in regulation. They
ended that regulation with perhaps the most god-awfully shanked would-be
game-winner field goal attempt ever witnessed. They started their OT drive,
down by a field goal, with an equally god-awful sack and loss of 16 yards
all the back to the 41-yard line.
But they won. Again. Thanks to a shockingly gorgeous rope pass from true
freshman Tagovailoa to another true freshman, DeVonta Smith.
Now Saban owns six rings. Only one other active coach, Ohio State's Urban
Meyer, owns more than one and he has only half as many as Saban. His fifth
title in nine seasons is the most successful stretch by any coach in college
football's poll era. That reaches back to 1936, which means it covers all
the legends who only need be identified by one name. The guys already
enshrined in building just a few blocks from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the
College Football Hall of Fame.
Bo, Woody, Joe, Bowden, Osborne, even Bear. They are not at the head of the
line. Nick is.
"He's the best for a reason," Smart conceded Monday night. "I will always be
indebted to what he taught me. Always. But dangit, man. That just makes me
want to beat him so bad."
Smart will likely have other chances. Georgia, like Bama, is built for the
long haul. His fellow former Saban understudies will also have their shots,
and soon. Next season Saban is guaranteed to face off against at least two
of his former employees. Jeremy Pruitt, the same defensive coordinator who
figured out how to slow down Georgia in the second half, is the new head
coach at Tennessee, one of the Tide's most loathed rivals.
Meanwhile, Fisher has left Florida State to lead another annual Alabama
opponent, Texas A&M. On Monday night he was in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, taking
part in ESPN's Megacast coverage of the game. While the celebration was
erupting on the field in the distance, Fisher was bolting for the door and
heading to his new home of College Station.
"Good for Nick," Fisher begrudgingly praised. "I really thought Kirby had
him. One of us will finally get him one of these days. One of these days."
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