TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—He is five weeks removed from his sixth national championship, a week removed from National Signing Day, and a full month away from the start of spring practice.
Still, Nick Saban is in a hurry. A big hurry.
The visitor to his well-appointed office glances at the coffee table to see the impressive display of Saban’s various championship rings. And yes, there is ample room for another one.
That will be coming soon because on Jan. 8, with Alabama trailing 13-0 at halftime, the Crimson Tide reached deep into that reserve that champions seem to have and rallied in overtime to win the CFP national championship game over Georgia, 26-23. Saban posted his sixth national championship overall and his fifth at Alabama in the past nine seasons.
I have been on the field for all six of Saban’s national championships. I told him that the post-game in Atlanta was the most emotional I’d ever seen him. He didn’t disagree.
“It (the emotion) was a combination of things,” said Saban. “First it was all the things this team did to overcome all the adversity we had all season long.”
Alabama lost four players at the linebacker position in the first game with Florida State and struggled all season long at the position.
“Then there was the controversy over whether or not we should be in the game,” said Saban, whose team lost at Auburn 26-14 on Nov. 25, seemingly ending its chance at the playoffs. But Georgia beat Auburn 28-7 for the SEC championship and Alabama, at 11-1, got a second chance when the CFP Selection committee picked the Crimson Tide over Big Ten champion Ohio State (11-2) for the fourth spot in the playoffs.
“Then it was the way the (championship) game (with Georgia) went. We got behind (13-0 at halftime). We had a chance to win it in regulation but missed a chip shot field goal. Then we took the sack in overtime. But the players just overcame it all and made the plays they had to make to win.”
Bottom line: Saban is savoring this national championship a little more than the others because it was so unexpected. It was also one of Saban’s best coaching jobs. Perhaps his very best.
“You’re always emotional when you were able to come back in a game,” said Saban. “It was all those things that made this (national championship) a lot more special.”
Saban’s run is unprecedented in the modern era of college football. As revered as Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant will always be in this football kingdom, Saban’s achievements make a pretty indisputable argument for him as the greatest college football coach of all time.
Now that Saban, who turns 67 on Oct. 31, has tied the sainted Bryant with six national championships, a predictable narrative has begun to emerge concerning how much longer he can maintain this level of play.
On national signing day Alabama’s long string of No. 1 recruiting classes was snapped by Georgia and Kirby Smart, Saban’s former protégé’. Alabama’s class was No. 6 and was capped off by the signing of Patrick Surtain, Jr., the nation’s most highly-rated cornerback. Most places would be holding a parade after signing the nation's No. 6 recruiting class. But Alabama isn't most places.
“There was some mixed emotion (about signing day) because there were a couple of guys that we really wanted and really needed and had a great opportunity to get but it didn’t work out,” said Saban. “So we were very disappointed in that but we were also very pleased with the guys that we got.”
Saban did not name the two players but various media reports revealed Bobby Brown, a highly-rated defensive lineman from Dallas, signed with Texas A&M instead of Alabama on Feb. 7. Receiver Justyn Ross, considered the top prospect in the state of Alabama, signed with Clemson.
But these small nuggets of disappointment nevertheless feed a fan and media narrative that since Father Time is undefeated and Saban (we think) can’t coach forever, it must be time to start looking for signs of slippage.
Well, those waiting for such slippage are probably going to have to wait a while longer. Saban celebrated his sixth national championship for 24 hours and then moved on. The message to his team a year ago was “don’t waste a failure” which reflected the disappointment of losing the 2016 national championship to Clemson with only one second remaining.
This spring will be much, much different, Saban said.
“It’s one mindset to win a championship but it’s a totally different one to maintain a championship,” said Saban. “Our players have to understand that they are not going inherit success. You can’t stick with the status quo. You almost have to do everything better as a team because you become the target for everybody.”
This will be a very busy spring at Alabama. Saban has to replace four assistant coaches, including both coordinators. A whole bunch of NFL talent, as always, has walked out the door, but there is a whole bunch of future NFL talent waiting for their turn. There will be the ongoing story at quarterback, where rising sophomore Tua Tagovailoa and junior Jalen Hurts, who was 26-2 as a starter before being benched at halftime against Georgia, will compete for the job. Saban made it clear in our visit that there will be a competition, despite Tagovailoa’s heroics in the CFP championship. He did not discount using two quarterbacks in 2018.
And as Saban prepares for his 12th season at Alabama, he has four of his former assistants—Kirby Smart (Georgia), Jeremy Pruitt (Tennessee), Will Muschamp (South Carolina), and Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M)—as head coaches in the SEC staying up late at night trying unseat him. There is also an Urban Meyer disciple (Dan Mullen) at Florida emphatically promising to return the Gators to glory. And, of course, there is Auburn, which beat Saban’s team the last time they played and returns a very good quarterback (Jarrett Stidham).
In short, right now there are a lot of questions—and maybe a few doubts--about the 2018 Alabama football team despite the fact that the Crimson Tide are the defending national champions.
But you know what? When SEC Media Days roll around in July, Alabama will be picked to win the conference championship again. When the preseason polls come out in August, Alabama will again be No. 1.
On the second Tuesday in February, Saban wants no part of that discussion:
“Why did the mighty fall? Complacency. That’s what you fight.”
Alabama may have a bunch of issues to work through in 2018, but I’m betting complacency isn’t one of them. Why? Because even with all the changes and challenges taking place at the Mal Moore Athletic Complex, the guy sitting in the plush office with all those rings is still there.