Alabama head coach Nick Saban, whose 69-year-old face looked absolutely cheerful, spoke specifically about the fall he had just received while being carried across the field at Hard Rock Stadium like a sack of potatoes on the right shoulder of 6-foot, 6-lb. Landon Dickerson in the 52-24 win over Ohio State in the national college football playoff championship.
But what he was really describing, and what his ticklish expression illustrated, was much more than a moment of tenderness shared with a terrifying offensive lineman. Saban talked about his entire experience with college football in 2020. Somehow, in the midst of the most unpredictable, unsettling and challenging college football season of the 151 seasons, he seemed to be having the most fun.
Of course, it’s easy to enjoy life when you’re on the verge of winning your seventh national championship as a head coach, surpassing Crimson Tide demigod Bear Bryant for most titles in history. And it’s not hard to bask in the glory of the most impressive college football summary of the year ever written: He leads the regular season rankings for all commissions, beating the only two other programs to have a seat at the largest table in the program, Notre Dame and Ohio State … while producing three of Heisman’s top five votes and surpassing the offensive production (48.5 points per game) of the LSU Tigers, historic champions a year ago.
However, the glow that emanated from Saban late Monday night into Tuesday morning was different. The coaching legend is not laughing. They don’t beam in. You’re not laughing. They frown. From Bryant and Woody Hayes to Urban Meyer and John Heisman: The College Football Hall of Fame is a gallery of portraits of men who look like they are wearing underwear that is three sizes too small. Terrible perfectionists who are too busy with a game gone wrong to take advantage of the 60 maids.
Error! The file name is not specified. Alabama defeated Ohio State 52-24 on Monday to win its sixth national title since 2009. Michael Reeves/Getty Images
Saban has long been as worthy to be among them as his record of wins and losses, always ready to discuss the two national games lost far more than the crowd won. But now its public display can look like an ad for teeth whitening strips. It’s not like he never smiled until the fall of 2020. The fact is that no one remembers his smile for that long, especially not during hours or at certain times of the games, but at almost any time of the game day. And he’s been doing that all season.
Oh, he’s really different, but in a good way, said Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, who threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns against Ohio State. Jones has been in Tuscaloosa for four years, testing Saban’s aggressive motivation, and the heartbreaking championship is the worst of the worst. I don’t see anyone on the team we have this year, what every team has this year can’t be different in a good way. I don’t know if most people smile more, but he does.
I don’t know if I’m still smiling, I really don’t know, Saban said around one in the morning. AND Tuesday, towards the end of a series of post-game interviews. And yes, he laughed when he said that. But I think if you’ve taken something away, like we did in spring training and our normal summer and early fall routine, or if you have the potential to have taken something away, the cloud that we’ve lived under all season, I think you should appreciate it more. We all love this game, but when you do, you start to think it will always be there. If not, it’s only natural to stop and enjoy it more when you pick it up.
That cloud never went away. The constant threat of a pandemic of the season ended suddenly or was withdrawn from practice because of the positive COVID-19 test that everyone in the sport carried, whether they realized it or not. This background stress is fueled by living in a football bubble, where student-athletes live most of the title and their lives are limited to online courses and football with little semblance of a social life, including face-to-face contact with their loved ones. This fear hit rock bottom when Saban himself tested positive before being released on the 17th. Georgia’s top five rankings in October. He finally made it to that game when he tested false positive, but five weeks later he tested positive again and missed the Iron Bowl.
Saban, who has always found ways to keep his team as positive as possible, did his best to combat the cloud of 2020.
These players have had a lot of requests, and they’re very busy right now, so he needs to be more relaxed, Greg McElroy said a few hours before kickoff on Monday night. The ESPN college football analyst was quarterback for the first Alabama team to win a title in 2009 and was asked about an angry Saban then and a smiling Saban now.
He always did, McElroy said. If we were doing well, he’d rip us a new one and tell us how awful we were. When we felt bad, he made us. You do everything right. We can do better today. He’ll find a way to compensate you. This team has faced so many outside challenges that they have found a way to settle in and get through an incredibly difficult season.
Just last week, Jones and opposing receiver DeVonta Smith sat next to the Heisman Trophy, both finalists for the most prestigious individual award in college football. Television cameras were pointed at them in an empty football stadium in Alabama. They were minutes away from one player winning the trophy and the other losing. It was embarrassing. Then Saban came and said through the mask: If you want to debate it, let’s move on. The duo immediately broke up.
Now he does it all the time, Mr. Smith called back Monday night. He knows when to pounce on us to make us better, but he also knows when to make us laugh.
Did he always know when to make you laugh?
Um… (Clears throat) The Tide’s fourth-year receiver, Heisman winner and national champion offensive MVP, paused for a moment to think and then laughed his way out. No, not really. That’s why we all like him so much now.
Saban values his life more than the life of 2020. Most do, thanks to the temporary universal bandit that was the coronavirus pandemic. Being the best college football coach with a whistle around your neck certainly doesn’t make you immune to these feelings. Nick Saban has always loved his family, but when he was sent home in March, his quarantine with that family turned into the long stint he always wanted most: He relaxes with his beloved wife, Miss Terry, and their children and grandchildren. But that time was never limited to a few weeks interrupted on the phone for diving headlong into pre-season media days, fall training and recruiting, always recruiting.
Error! The file name is not specified. Nick Saban, coach of Alabama’steam, won his seventh national championship on Monday night, making Bear Bryant the most successful coach in college football history. Kevin K. Cox/Getty Images
The extra time at home this spring, combined with the possibility of missing the fall football season, means the grumpy old coach is trading his worn-out rides for rose-colored glasses.
It’s easy to be positive when it comes to a group like this, he said Monday night. If the best players on your team are also the best, it’s always a good coaching team. And in August, when we told these guys that the team that would do the best in this unique 2020 challenge would be the team that would win the national championship, these players and people didn’t even bat an eye. They’ve just gone to work. It’s easy to smile and develop a special bond with such a group.
It’s not just a connection. It’s a bond that Saban believes will bind this group for the rest of their lives. In other words: It’s love, he said, speaking at the SEC championship party on the 19th. December on stage. When he looked at his players and said: ‘I absolutely love this team and I love all the adversity they have to overcome and …
The team interrupted him with a sarcastic but already really sarcastic chorus of Awwww!
Speaking of breaks: Najee Harris paused as he looked back on the moment and said, in disbelief, that he remembered: This guy, he has feelings, and then he laughed when an Alabama employee jokingly warned him from backstage: Look out!
See? Smile. Smile. It’s nice. Everything is so impossible here in the kingdom of tribulation and even more impossible in this grave season. The season ended in a rain of confetti that washed away 69-year-old coach Landon Dickerson, whose knee was still sore after tearing his ACL in the SEC championship game three weeks earlier. The lineman dressed when he knew he wasn’t going to play. He was alone in his quarters for a pre-game draw. But in the final seconds of the long-awaited win, Saban caught Dickerson and sent him to score the final ball of the night.
Moments later, Saban was hoisted onto Dickerson’s shoulder as two trucks pulled him across the field to finally end the 2020 college football season. This might be the best season a college football team has ever had. It was certainly a season that will end any debate about Nick Saban being the best college football coach of all time. They both couldn’t stop laughing and smiling.
I loved the ride!