Nick Saban and the Triumph of Coaching

By Monte Burke | for 


College football is a head coach’s game. In the NFL—with the possible exception of the New England Patriots—the teams are known mostly for a superstar player or two. In college, the coach is the face of the program (for better or worse), the one constant in the tidal nature of college football. Freshman and transfers come in. Seniors graduate. Juniors leave early. The coach—if he is good—remains.

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach, Nick Saban, is the best coach in college football right now. One could argue that he is the best ever. (In fact, I did make that argument.) The 64-year-old has been dogged in the past about the way he left different teams in the past—Michigan State, LSU, the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Those departures, and the way they were handled, will always rub some people the wrong way. For some, he will always be “Nicky Satan,” as a fellow head coach once called him.

But his record stands now for itself. He will never break Joe Paterno’s record for the most wins in college football. (Saban now has 196 wins. Paterno had 409.) But Saban now has five undisputed national titles, one behind another Alabama coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Bryant’s title total was compiled in a less scientific age, but it remains the standard.

Saban’s latest title—the come-from-behind 45-40 win over Clemson on Monday night—was his most thrilling. He beat a Clemson team that was incredibly well prepared by its own great young coach, Dabo Swinney. He beat a team that was led by the best player on the field, Clemson quarterback, Deshaun Watson. And Saban did it with coaching.

Saban’s greatest strength as a coach—and perhaps one of the reasons that he did not excel in the NFL—is recruiting. (It’ s a skill that’s devalued in the pros.) Alabama has become the standard in college football since Saban’s second year in 2008 mainly because it almost always fields a team that just simply has better players. Since 2008, Saban has been at or near the top every year in offseason recruiting rankings.

On Monday night, Alabama had a superior number of four and five star recruits on the field (66 to Clemson’s 37). Those highly touted recruits came through for Saban in so many different ways. The Heisman Trophy winning running back, Derrick Henry, gained 158 yards and scored three touchdowns in the game. He was a five-star recruit. Kenyan Drake, who ran a kickoff back 95 yards for a touchdown, was a four-star recruit. O.J. Howard—the heretofore underutilized tight end—was a five-start recruit. He made five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns.

But it wasn’t just about the recruits in the national title game. The game came down to one crucial coaching decision—the successful onside kick with the game tied in the fourth quarter with just over ten minutes left.

Saban has tried trick plays in the national title game before. In the 2010 BCS National Championship game against Texas, Alabama tried a fake punt on its first possession, and failed to convert.

This time, the trick play worked. Saban admitted later that his team needed a spark. Watson was having his way with Alabama’s defense. So, with the score tied at 24, Saban opted for an onside kick. The kick was taken by Adam Griffith, one of the most highly touted kickers to come out of high school in recent years. It was recovered by Marlon Humphrey, a five-star recruit and true freshman. And the game changed completely.

The call was nearly an act of desperation. It took guts. It also took tactical awareness to see that Clemson’s kick return formation was vulnerable. It goes down as one of the single greatest calls in national title game history. Perhaps it is the greatest.

For more on the life and career of Nick Saban, check out the New York Times best-selling book, Saban: The Making of a Coach (Simon & Schuster).


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