Something was different on the sideline after Tua Tagovailoa completed his national-title-winning pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime Monday night: Nick Saban —the eternally stoic head coach of the Crimson Tide —looked happy.
Nick Saban is...happy? pic.twitter.com/YvHk3HtCso— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) January 9, 2018
“I can tell you I was as happy as I’ve ever been,” Saban told ESPN after the game. “I was so happy for our players, I was happy for our fans, I was happy for our team.” He had good reason to be. After trailing Georgia for most of the game, Saban’s team rallied behind a true-freshman quarterback playing his first important collegiate minutes, brushed off two missed field goal attempts, and erased a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. For the fifth time in nine years, and the sixth time overall, Saban will end the season as a national champion.
Saban has won more than half of college football’s national titles since 2009. And had it not been for Deshaun Watson’s late-game heroics last January, he would own two-thirds of the hardware from the past nine seasons. This year’s victory ties Saban with Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant, who claimed six championships in the 1960s and ’70s, for the all-time record of national titles won by a coach in the poll era.
Nick Saban......Bear Bryant. #NationalChampionship #RollTide pic.twitter.com/kkiAu5xO3d— Stadium (@WatchStadium) January 9, 2018
Saban’s success at Michigan State and LSU made him a perfect target for the Tide when his tenure as coach of the Miami Dolphins stalled. When Saban stepped off the plane in Tuscaloosa for the first time, it was to a sea of “Roll Tide” chants from a horde of Alabama faithful who crowded the tarmac. He’s repaid their support with the most dominant run of success in modern college football history.
Over the past decade, Alabama has been the gold standard of college football. Since joining the Tide in 2007, Saban has gone 132–20, with six of those losses coming in his first season. Saban’s teams have reached major bowls nine times, been ranked no. 1 overall at some point during 10 different seasons, and have won it all in five. His teams have thrived in the BCS and the CFP eras alike. And while competitors like Florida State and Clemson have mounted challenges, the latter even besting the Tide occasionally, their successes have felt like only temporary plotlines distracting from Alabama’s story.
Off the field, Saban has recruited the top class in the country every offseason since 2011, per 247Sports, and for all the talk of his falling behind his opponents on the trail this season, his class still sits at fifth nationally and will likely rise by the end of national signing day.
Watching Alabama football win is like looking toward death. It’s ever-present and inescapable. The Tide have played in six national title games in nine years with five different quarterbacks. They’re the Empire if the Empire got a second architect to check out the exhaust ports. Sure, occasionally they fall short, like they did against Clemson last year, but even then, the loss is less “Death Star explodes” and more “someone hit the surface of the ship with an ion torpedo.”
Even this season, when the Alabama Machine looked weak, it found a way to fight back. The Tide nearly slipped up against Mississippi State in November, and then fell to Auburn two weeks later. It was a blow, but not a fatal one. When they sneaked into the playoff after the Tigers lost to Georgia in the SEC championship, they showed flashes of Peak Alabama, stifling Clemson in a semifinal three-match. Against Georgia, when forced to pick up yardage through the air—a rarity for a team that typically dominates on the ground—Saban made a risky move, turning to an untested signal-caller, and it paid off.
Next season will likely start the same way this one did: with Alabama as the preseason no. 1 and the consensus favorite to win again. Thanks to Saban, it shouldn’t surprise you if it ends the same way, too.