I am imagining the sound of the hard drive whirring in Nick Saban’s head in that fourth quarter, just over 10 minutes to play, game tied at 24, the national championship on the line. I am wondering exactly how it works in there, if there is some kind of electrical current that triggers an advanced algorithm that then alerts a custodian who lights a neon sign in Saban’s tidy psyche and screams: Time to take a fuckin’ risk, Nick.
Here is what we can say for certain, after Alabama’s 45-40 victory over Clemson on Monday night, after the Crimson Tide’s fourth national title in seven seasons: Nicholas Lou Saban Jr., with his coiffure and his oatmeal creme pies and a work ethic born out of a demanding father who ran a service station in West Virginia, is now the greatest college football coach of his era, if not any era. This is a long way from stating that Saban is the most beloved coach of his era, for he is most certainly not anywhere near the top 50 on that list; the one man who stands above him with six national championships to Saban’s five, Paul “Bear” Bryant, will always be held fast in the heart of Alabama fans who view the Bear as an untouchable deity. But Nick Saban, now and forever, will be their Chief Executive Officer.
That’s the thing about Saban: Even in the kinds of games that clearly make him uncomfortable by sheer virtue of their chaotic moments, even amid the shootout that this one became, he manages to suss out all the proper choices. He is a logician of the highest order; faced with all those swings of emotion, he puzzles out everything. With the game tied at 24, something in Saban screamed out to take a chance; something told him that his team needed the kind of jolt that they might not have gotten otherwise. So it went – the Tide pulled off a beautiful onside kick, and they got the ball back after kicking a field goal that tied the game, and they scored the go-ahead touchdown less than a minute later and they never again relinquished the lead.
“We needed to do something to change the momentum of the game,” Saban said, and maybe that was true, because all night Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson had given Alabama’s star-studded defense fits by extending plays and ad-libbing, the very kind of football that drives the extremely fastidious janitor inside Saban’s head to fits of pique. You could see Saban growing frustrated, hurling his headset, cursing, demanding more, more, more of everyone around him, until finally he realized that the answer lay within himself: Time to take a fuckin’ risk, Nick.
That was all it took to eventually nullify a heroic effort by Clemson, the one FBS team in the nation that had gone undefeated up to this point. These were clearly the two best teams in the country; it also became evident early on that Clemson had the athletes, both offensively and defensively, to stick with the Crimson Tide, in the way Alabama’s previous three national championship opponents hadn’t been able to do. Watson was brilliant; so was a wide receiver named Hunter Renfrow (who looks exactly like you’d imagine a Hunter Renfrow would look), and so was tailback Wayne Gallman, who spun and juked and dodged so many tacklers on a pass catch in the fourth-quarter, his team trailing 38-27, that you thought maybe the Tigers would refuse to roll over and die.
And they didn’t, really. The problem is that this often doesn’t matter when you’re playing Alabama, because the Crimson Tide have that spectacular ability to spoil the very moment you might be thinking there’s an upset in the making. Down 38-33 with under four minutes to play, the Tigers appeared to be on the verge of getting one last chance, and then what happened?
Lane Motherfucking Kiffin happened, that’s what.
All night, Alabama had confounded expectations by throwing the ball to tight end O.J. Howard, who had essentially been a coat rack with a scholarship in Kiffin’s offense all season long. Suddenly, Howard was looking like the NFL player he will soon become, and on second-and-12, Kiffin – who will never not resemble a heavy from a John Hughes film, but has proven in two seasons as Alabama’s offensive coordinator that he can add a few modern flourishes to the Tide’s oft-plodding rushing attack – called Howard’s number again, and quarterback Jake Coker found him again and Howard danced along the sideline and set up the touchdown that would eventually clinch the game.
Afterward, Saban forced one more smile for the cameras, and by the time you read this, he is no doubt back at it, as he is always is, every day, national championship or not. The man inside his head is shoveling snow and digging ditches, preparing and thinking ahead for the winter, engaged in the long slog that Saban refers to as The Process. Still, it was almost sort of fun there for a minute, wasn’t it?
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb