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SABAN'S EMINENCE MUST CUT THROUGH ALL THE POLITICAL NOISE
Media and fans are so busy grumbling about playoff expansion and opt-outs that they miss the biggest point: The one and only story in college football is Nick Saban, gunning for national title No. 8
Why isn't he meeting with heads of state? Why aren't songs written about him and expressways named for him? Nick Saban has dominated college football for a span outlasting every iteration of the iPhone, if not every creative whim in Elon Musk's brain. In this century, he has locked down his sport with a deadbolt that Bill Belichick, Mike Krzyzewski, Gregg Popovich and Sir Alex Ferguson — Premier League, kids — only can envy.
In fact, why aren't we calling him Sir Nick Saban? Or Saint Nick? And why can't we find him better commercials than the one where he talks to a duck about insurance?
Oh, because people are so busy yapping about playoff expansion and the deeper meaning of player opt-outs that they're failing to appreciate the unfathomable. From his home base in Tuscaloosa, which isn't Los Angeles or Miami or Austin or even Athens the last I looked, Saban is gunning for his seventh national championship at Alabama, his eighth of the millennium. He is American coaching royalty, sustaining a run of superiority that is even more preposterous given the volatile variables: His program is dependent on young people now looking for the best NIL deals, maybe caring about COVID-19 but probably not, while competitors try to catch up by throwing $100-million contracts at coaches who never have won a national title.
He has controlled his sport, soon to be America's second-richest behind the pro behemoth he annually feeds with top talent, with such a domineering grip that everyone figures the only way to beat him is by changing the paradigm. Twelve teams? Eight teams? Anything but four, they say, which only gives the best single-game coach ever even more time to figure out the enemy. It almost has reached the absurd point that Saban is supposed to apologize for the monotony of his reign. Forty-five years have passed, remember, since Steely Dan gave us the defining lyric — "They've got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose; they call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues'' — and the sight of even more red and white in January 2022 is making a lot of people nauseous. I used to be in the bored-stiff club before realizing, this season, that Saban lost six first-round draft picks and 10 total to the NFL last April … and he still managed to coach up a young team and produce a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Bryce Young.
Now, I want to bow at his feet. What more do you want from this man and his machine? His players generally avoid trouble. He has elevated, maintained and honed Alabama as the gold standard, luring kids from California and Texas and everywhere but Antarctica, because they want a ride on his NFL pipeline. In the eight seasons of the College Football Playoff, which was designed to create more parity, Saban has earned a berth seven times. A Monday night victory over Georgia — which had to raid Saban's staff for Kirby Smart to become nationally prominent again — would give him four championships since 2015.
He is THE STORY.
Yet, what question was lobbed Saban's way in his first virtual media session before the championship game: Where does he stand on playoff expansion? "Look, I'm not the one who needs to be deciding what the playoff needs to be," he said. "There's a lot of good people out there that can make a decision as to what's best for college football. But the more we expand the playoff, we minimize the bowl games, the importance of bowl games, which I said when we went to (a four-team playoff). So I don't think that's changed, and I also think it's come to fruition.''
Michigan was a white-hot team entering the Playoff. Georgia blew out the Wolverines four weeks after Alabama blew out Georgia in the SEC title game. So would it really matter if four or eight additional teams gain entry to the tournament? Isn't Saban still going to be in the title game, and isn't he usually going to win?
"I don't know that expanding ... if these are the best four teams and they played each other, I don't see the logic in it that if we had more teams there would be better games. I don't know how that adds up," he said. "But I am really not in a position to answer that. There are a lot of other good teams, whether it was their consistency in performance or whatever happened to them in championship games or whatever, that may have had the opportunity to get in the playoffs that didn't."
Before Alabama manhandled Group of 5 upstart Cincinnati in a CFP semifinal last week, Saban was asked another question that smacked of an insult. Wasn't new blood good for the sport?
"Good for who?'' he shot back. "The sport? Look, I think it’s good that we have a balance in college football in terms of people who can be successful. I think it’s good for the fans that they all have hope that their team has an opportunity to get in the College Football Playoff. … But I’m not apologizing for trying to have a program like a lot of people have tried to have, a program that can get in the Playoff as many times as possible. I’m sure that’s the goal of a lot of folks. So even though I think it might be healthy for the sport because it’s healthy for fans, as competitors, as coaches, we’re all trying to get our team in the Playoff because that’s sort of the standard of college football right now.”
I'm almost beginning to feel sorry for him. On Thanksgiving Eve, Saban was broadcasting his "Hey Coach Show'' down at Baumhower's Victory Grille in Tuscaloosa. Yes, Nick Saban takes live calls from fans, and most are respectful enough to grasp his body of work. But one was so miffed that games this season were closer than usual, the guy dared to say this: "For example, with Arkansas, we were supposed to blow them out and then you don’t do it, and it was because you have created such a game atmosphere that we go to the games knowing we’re going to win. We just don’t know by how much.''
If Baumhower's bar didn't have a fire extinguisher, you'd have worried the place would burn down.
"When I came here, everybody was happy to win a game. Now we're not happy to win a game anymore,'' said Saban, bristling like we've rarely seen him. "We're not happy to win a game at all. We think we should win games by whatever, and I don't think that's fair to the players either, because our players work their butt off to be the best that they can be, and to get criticized for what they work hard for to do so that you can be entertained, so that you can enjoy and have pride and passion for what they accomplish in what they do. And they're not perfect, they're just college students!
"They go to school everyday, they gotta study, they have to run extra after practice when they miss study hall. I mean, c’mon, gimme a break, this is not professional football. These guys aren’t getting paid to play here. They’re representing you all, you should be proud and happy to support them, and appreciate what they do and have some gratitude. And you know what else, nobody wants to win worse than they do. Not me. Not you, I don’t care what kinda fan you are, nobody wants to win more than the players that play. Nobody.''
It was more than a rant directed at a doofus on the phone. Saban had another agenda: He was motivating his players, and, by no coincidence, Alabama has played its best football since then. If Southern football is religion and the SEC is God's country, Saban is the Lord. He has been most responsible for creating a conference colossus — stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to College Station, from the Ozarks to the Gulf of Mexico, and soon to include Oklahoma and Texas — that represents the best brand of football played beyond the NFL. Whether the winner is Alabama or Georgia, the SEC will have produced 12 of the last 16 national champions. There's a principal reason for the vice grip.
Rather than recoil, salute him. Let everyone else complain about the draft prospects who opt out of bowl games. I realize Kirk Herbstreit has bosses, at ESPN, who all but own and operate the bowl system — and lose out when players protect their health and future by exiting those games. But as the sport's top analyst, Herbstreit shouldn't allow a fat paycheck to sway 2022 common sense. "I just don’t understand. If you don’t make it to the playoff, how is it meaningless to play football and compete? Isn’t that what we do as football players? We compete?'' he said on New Year's Day. "I don’t know if changing (the playoff) or expanding it is going to change anything. I really don’t. I just think this era of football player just doesn’t love football.”
No, Herbie, this era of football player understands he isn't paid — except the fortunate few who cut deals for their names, images and likenesses — and that he shouldn't play in a meaningless, non-CFP game. Ask Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, projected as the top quarterback prospect in April's draft. He would have lost millions had he broken his leg in the Sugar Bowl; fortunately, x-rays were negative. Who of right mind could blame Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett and Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III for prioritizing pro careers over bowl games that make money only for TV networks and universities? Attacked on social media, Herbstreit backpedaled a bit: "Just wanted to clarify some of my comments from earlier today. Of course some players love the game the same today as ever. But some don’t. I’ll always love the players of this game and sorry if people thought I generalized or lumped them all into one category.''
Guess who doesn't have to deal these issues? Nick Saban. Because his teams always are playing meaningful games in late December and January, which explains why prominent teenaged players venture to Tuscaloosa — though some couldn't identify it on a map — and launch their aspiring NFL journeys. And the other disruptive talking point: the transfer portal? Saban has taken advantage, of course, with receiver Jameson Williams and linebacker Henry To'oTo'o playing major roles in their first Alabama season. And the NIL game? Saban has turned his quarterback position into such a prestigious, high-profile brand that Young, who'd thrown only 22 college passes entering the season, lined up deals worth more than $1 million. Think his sponsors — Cash App, trading card and memorabilia companies Leaf, Wild Card and Onyx — aren't thrilled that he won the Heisman? How much more money might his handlers at CAA, the monster talent agency, make for him?
"Basically,'' said Saban, "what I do is try to adapt to whatever the circumstance and whatever the situation we have. "Look, the dynamics of recruiting have changed. We're not supposed to use name, image and likeness as something that influences a player to choose a school. It's something he should earn after he enrolls in the school. All I know is, we want to have the best program that we can in name, image and likeness when they get here as players so they can create and develop value for themselves so that they get opportunities to have additional income when it comes to name, image and likeness. I was very pleased with how our players did this year, and hopefully we'll continue to expand on that in the future."
Oh, he will. As will USC's Lincoln Riley, who is being paid a king's ransom to keep talent poached by Saban — such as Young, from Orange County high-school powerhouse Mater Dei, by way of Pasadena — in southern California. As will Texas A&M, where boosters reportedly have invested $30 million in an organized NIL campaign to land an elite recruiting class. And so will Smart, but first he must beat his mentor. Armed with a defense teeming with future pros, Georgia was supposed to stampede to its first national title since 1980 and bust Saban's rule. Then came the 41 points that Young and the Tide scored in the SEC title-game romp, and once again, no one will be surprised if the mentor torments his disciple again, with a fifth straight win without a loss.
"Each game has been different,” Smart said. "And it will never be about he and I. I know he won’t make it that and I won’t make it that, because that’s for you guys to do that. We have a lot of respect for Alabama and coach Saban and everything they’ve been able to do. And we know that we’ve got to play one of our best games and our guys are excited for the opportunity.''
They all say that, until the championship game is over and Saban is holding another trophy. Can we maybe focus on that snapshot for a while? It's only the most recurring triumph in American team sports since John Wooden at UCLA. And the Yankees and Celtics of the '50s and '60s.
Yet, everywhere we look, Nick Saban is taken for granted. Brian Kelly, who fled Notre Dame and faked a Southern accent, got $100 million at LSU. Saban? His most recent deal doesn't quite get there. As for that expressway? Lawmakers in his home state, West Virginia, have been trying for years to name a stretch of U.S. Route 19 as "Nicholas Lou 'Nick' Saban Jr. Expressway.'' It still hasn't happened.
The politician trying to push it through is Saban's longtime friend, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin.
Yes, THAT Joe Manchin.
And the Aflac duck? Even he's mocking Saban's eyeglasses and tie.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.