TAMPA, Fla.���Nick Saban is one victory on Monday night from stating his case as the greatest college football coach of all time.
Saban’s sixth title, fifth at Alabama since 2008, would tie him with Crimson Tide legend Bear Bryant.
What Saban is doing is unprecedented racing toward unfathomable.
The man Saban is trying to run over on his way to history knows. That man is Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, who is more “Alabama” than Saban will ever be.
Swinney, not Saban, grew up blanketed in Crimson colors. “I was one of those kids who watched the Bear Bryant show every Sunday,” Dabo said Sunday in the final coaches’ press conference in advance of Monday night’s title game.
Swinney walked on at Alabama, um, check that, “I was one notch below walk-on. I was a crawl-on.”
Swinney was a worker-bee receiver on Gene Stallings’ national title team of 1993.
Contextually and historically, Swinney is a better teacher on Crimson Pride than Saban, who was born in West Virginia and played at Kent State.
“I mean,” Swinney said of Saban's run, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
You could make the case what Saban has done exceeds the feats of Bryant, who worked with no scholarship limits and could sign the best players just to keep them away from Alabama’s opponents.
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How, you ask, could there be an asterisk attached to Saban?
Because he decided, in 2006, after winning a national title at LSU in 2003, to test the waters of the National Football League.
Saban, not the history writers, wanted to prove he could win at the highest level, which is the NFL.
And Saban failed, going 15-17 in two years with the Miami Dolphins.
He fled in the dead of a 2006 night, Christmas in fact, after categorically stating “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.”
He left behind the kind of stories that could be told against him years later as Saban was being raised to college football’s highest pedestal.
Last month, one of his former Miami players shot an arrow into Saban’s legacy via that wonderful, often vicious, vessel that is social media.
P.K. Sam’s December tweet was meant to hurt and remind people of Saban’s only career “failure.”
Saban’s setback in the NFL should not, one iota, keep him up at night as he inches up to Bryant on Mt. Rushmore.
But I bet it does.
It is only coincidence his old NFL team made the playoffs this year too.
“I’m happy for the Dolphins to be in the playoffs,” Saban said in Tampa on Saturday. “I don’t necessarily follow the NFL. Sunday is a really big workday when you’re in college football.”
The “but” in Saban’s resume is a minor preposition in a preposterously successful career.
People who know Saban don’t think he needs to return to the NFL to tie up the boat.
But I bet it eats at him. It’s part of the competitive ego that makes Saban as great as he is--failure is never an option.
Pete Carroll, who “failed” in the NFL before leading USC to two national titles, had to go back to make it right.
Carroll, perhaps even more hyper-competitive than Saban, with the emphasis on “hyper,” vindicated his past by winning a Super Bowl championship with the Seattle Seahawks.
Had Carroll given Marshawn Lynch the ball at the goal line, in fact, he would have two Super Bowl rings to go with the collegiate titles.
I was thinking about Saban again Saturday night as Carroll coached Seattle to a wild-card playoff win over Detroit.
Which career would you rather have: Saban’s or Carroll’s?
It’s a bar-stool debate more than anything else, but it is fun.
Will Saban ultimately return to the NFL to complete his circle?
I’ll bet anyone a beer and a sandwich that Jim Harbaugh, if he wins a national title at Michigan, will return to the NFL in an attempt to complete what he left in San Francisco.
Saban’s legacy is only compromised, and we’re stretching that word here, because he tried the NFL.
The college legends of Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden are secure because they never attempted to coach in the pros.
How would John Wooden’s legend have been impacted had he left UCLA and gone two-games under .500 in two seasons with the Phoenix Suns?
Wooden would have still won 10 NCAA titles at UCLA, but his bio would have included a “yeah…but.”
John McKay died with a “yeah…but” in his obituary. He left four national titles at USC for the big money at Tampa Bay, only to fade away with an 0-14 record on his ledger.
Funny that we’re sitting in Tampa now talking about Saban.
There is no question McKay’s legacy would have been cleaner without having to explain the Buccaneers.
McKay was, at least, able to mask his bitterness with a wicked sense of humor. When asked one time about his Tampa Bay team’s execution, McKay quipped “I’m in favor of it.”
There is nothing funny about Saban and he has no such default, deflect mechanism.
Saban has nothing to prove, except to himself.
He can go down as the greatest college coach ever, but he can't be Vince Lombardi or Bill Billichick, his mentor.
Saban can rest on his laurels, but will he ever sleep as well as Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer who, like Pete Carroll, have won college AND Super Bowl titles?
These questions are only asked of our most competitive, talented people, in our silly universe of banal, microwave discourse.
Bill Simmons, the modern-day, multi-platform media maven, said this of Saban on his Friday podcst.
“He’s a coward. He left the NFL. You want to compare against the best. The best coaches aren’t in college.”
Simmons said later he was half-joking and only posing the question as a hypothetical.
Yet, this is the fake-news debate world in which we, and Nick Saban, reside.
Is he Ok with it?
And if Saban ties Bear Bryant’s record of six titles on Monday night, what benefit is there to him of staying at Alabama and breaking it?
How many people in Alabama, deep in the grits of their hearts, really want to see that happen?
“He does loom large,” Saban confessed of Bryant’s extended shadow, “and we’re happy for that.’’
Fine, but how happy?
Saban is a tight, taut 65, seemingly wired to coach for another eight years.
If he and his wife, Miss Terry, are happy at Alabama, good for them. They can retire at Shady Tuscaloosa Pines and plant tomatoes in a 10,000-acre garden.
But if, by chance, Saban wakes up every so often, with a nightmare of being chased down a dark stadium tunnel by a giant Miami Dolphin, now would be a good time to scratch that competitive itch.
The Los Angeles Rams are looking for a new coach to lead a team, soon, into a $3 billion stadium.
It’s right near the beach, Nick, and an airport, so you won’t even have to deal with traffic.
The Chargers need a coach too, and might be moving into that same stadium.
Name your price, Nick, and pick your dream staff. Insist on full player personnel control.
Ask the owner for the “Pete Carroll special.”
Or, stay at Alabama and risk the chance, years from now, of overhearing “yeah but” when his legacy comes up at the country club bar. [/membership]