GLENDALE, Ariz. — Nick Saban’s first four national championship games were mostly boring contests because his teams mostly sucked the life out of their opponents. Like the time his team beat LSU 21-0. Or the time it put away Notre Dame on the first series of the first quarter.
But on Monday night against a 14-0 Clemson team, Saban’s Tide found themselves trailing at the start of the fourth quarter, their defense exhausted from chasing around a precocious Heisman finalist (Deshaun Watson), and their own quarterback frequently buried on the wrong end of a sack. To win a fifth ring, Saban would have to make the most audacious call of his career.
“Stunned,” offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said afterward of the jaw-dropping onside kick early in the fourth quarter that finally swung a thrilling back-and-forth title fight.
“That’s a big-time, big-time call,” Clemson counterpart Tony Elliott conceded.
Sitting at a press conference long after the fact, however, Saban detailed his thought process in his typically stoic, matter-of-fact manner.
“I made the decision to do it because the score was (24-24) and we were tired on defense and weren’t doing a great job of getting them stopped,” he said. “And I felt like if we didn’t do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game — that we wouldn’t have a chance to win.”
If you watched, you know the rest. Kicker Adam Griffith perfectly executed a pop-up that cornerback Marlon Humphrey caught at midfield before it could even touch the ground. Two plays later, Jake Coker hit O.J. Howard for a 51-yard touchdown, and ’Bama never relinquished momentum of an eventual 45-40 national championship victory.
Saban’s fifth national championship was without question his hardest. Now that he’s moved within one of Alabama icon Bear Bryant for the most in college football’s 79-year poll history, he’s etched his status as the greatest coach of at least his generation.
Frankly, what he’s accomplished is much more difficult than the achievements of Bryant or any other earlier-era legend, none of whose teams had to play 15 games in a season or defend a modern spread offense.
“What he’s doing is unheard of,” said Kiffin, who previously worked under another multi-champion, Pete Caroll. “It’s supposed to stop. … There’s supposed to be 9-5 years — because that happens to everyone. He continues to do it. The players change, the (assistant) coaches change. He’s the only one who stays the same.”
That Saban’s Alabama dynasty won its fourth national championship in seven seasons is all the more remarkable given the whole run purportedly ended that September night the Tide lost to Ole Miss. It did not appear evident at the time that tailback Derrick Henry would morph into a 2,000-yard Heisman winner and that the defense would thoroughly dominate the next 11 opponents it faced.
It’s also a credit to Saban and his staff that they found a completely different way to beat the last one.
Alabama won a national championship game in which its opponent scored 40 points and racked up 550 yards. Watson frequently vexed the Tide’s defense like he had many an ACC opponent or semifinal foe Oklahoma, extending plays with his feet and throwing darts into the end zone. Coupling him with the Tigers’ breakneck tempo, “We got tired in the second quarter,” said Saban, “and once that happened, it was even worse.”
He fervently believed the Tide would do a better job containing Watson — who finished with 405 passing yards, 73 rushing yards, four touchdowns and one interception — but “we did not have the same juice in this game that we had in the last game against Michigan State.”
On top of that, quarterback Jake Coker did not look nearly as sharp as he had in that 38-0 rout of the Spartans. Clemson’s stud defensive ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson combined to sack him five times. And save for an early 50-yard touchdown run, the Tigers mostly contained Henry, who ran for 158 yards but averaged a modest 4.4 yards per carry.
Yet despite all that, Alabama never trailed by more than a touchdown and never more than a field goal in the second half. It made plays other ways, most notably three long passes to previously underutilized tight end Howard, who finished with an absurd 208 yards on five catches. The Tide decisively won on special teams, what with Griffith’s onside kick and Kenyan Drake’s back-breaking 95-yard kick return.
And while Watson threw two touchdowns in the last 4:40 of the game, Alabama sacked him twice in the second half, held him to negative rushing yardage in the fourth quarter and stopped him on a two-point conversion run that would have put the Tigers back within a field goal late. Instead ’Bama tacked on another touchdown before Watson led one last too-little-too-late touchdown drive.
“It was tough, it really was,” Saban said. “When you play players like [Watson], the whole team has to win. It’s not just the defense stopping him, it’s the offense doing what they need to do, making plays on special teams that you need to make, and that’s what we were able to do in this game. We didn’t control him as well as we’d like, and we thought that we could, at least in the end, milk the clock so they wouldn’t score again.
“But 12 seconds [left], onside kick … it was over.”
He paused before saying those final words, his shoulders reflexively relaxing as he relived that moment of satisfaction. The noted perfectionist does not allow himself many of those. But nor is he the ostensibly miserable curmudgeon of earlier years.
He cracks jokes, frequently, at press conferences now. He smiles for the camera during those pregame interviews and GameDay set visits. He reportedly hosts karaoke parties for recruits.
“I’m a very happy person,” he said at a press conference two days before the game. “Maybe my demeanor, my image created by a lot of you, doesn’t necessarily reflect that. … I’m a serious person, but I’m a very happy person. And I have a lot of fun, I really do.”
On Monday night, he even broke one of his own staff edicts – smiling during a game. As he joked afterward, had the onside kick call not worked, “If we wouldn’t have got that, y’all would be killing me now.”
Instead, we’re saluting him.
Five national championships — four in the last seven seasons, five in his last 11 as a college coach — is simply a phenomenal accomplishment. And yet, he’s been winning at such a high level for so long now that these milestones have become almost expected.
At least his team allowed for some suspense with this one.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter@slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.