You’re asking a lot of tough questions there,” said Nick Saban, in response to a pair of questions that were not really tough at all, but also happened to veer into the realm of genuine human emotion, which is clearly not something Saban feels comfortable addressing in a public forum. It was a Saturday evening in Atlanta, and I presume Saban was relatively pleased, since his team had just survived an epic SEC Championship Game with Georgia and would now play for the national championship. But as usual, it was difficult to tell, and such was the obvious subtext of these queries. “I’m wondering, you personally, how long will you celebrate this win?” (Translation: Do you ever enjoy anything?) “How long will you let it soak in and when will you start preparing for Notre Dame personally?” (Translation: Do you even know how to enjoy anything?)
Already, on the trophy podium, as confetti and streamers popped out of the ceiling with a bang and the air grew hazy and the Georgia Dome took on the smell of an artillery range, Saban took out a pen and a notebook and marked down the word banquet. “First of all, you know, we have our team banquet tomorrow night,” he said now, and then he rambled for a minute or two about how his team doesn’t “practice our way to a game,” about how he wouldn’t fully focus in on Notre Dame for another couple of weeks, until his team started practicing in earnest. It was a deft and almost certainly false deflection; in the Alabama locker room a few minutes earlier, a linebacker named Nico Johnson was talking about how the Crimson Tide would essentially start over again this week, emphasizing the fundamentals, treating the next month like a repeat of fall camp, and insisting that they would essentially take no time at all to exhale because that was not the way their coach did things.
“So that’s how we try to approach it,” Saban concluded, and no one believed him, and Saban could sense that not only did no one believe him, most of what he said didn’t really have much to do with the question of what he was feeling (or, for that matter, if he ever felt anything). And this seemed to please him most of all.
“I’m pretty good at not answering questions,” he said.
I was on the field for the final minute of what might have been the best game of this dynamic and compelling college football season, and so I did not have the benefit of a mediated experience, of Verne Lundquist’s endearing chortles and Gary Danielson’s rigid proclamations about two-point conversions and clock management. It was loud and disorienting and chaotic down there on the Georgia sideline; when quarterback Aaron Murray threw what appeared to be an interception with 43 seconds left and his team trailing, 32-28, an offensive lineman walked back to the sideline and kicked over a chair and spiked his helmet, and he and I both presumed the damned thing was over. But then it wasn’t. The call was overturned, and that bred further chaos, and on the opposite sideline, this lack of discipline — this fundamental ignorance of detail — was driving Nick Saban out of his well-coiffed gourd.
“I know y’all don’t want to hear this stuff, but we’re playing ’33 zone’ so they can’t get out of bounds,” he said. “And we let the guy get out of bounds twice over there without a first down. We tackle the guy inbounds one time and the game is over because it’ll take them 25, 30 seconds, to get the next play going, by the time they regroup and run back to the formation and all that kind of stuff.”
This obsessive micromanagement — and beyond that, the ability to translate this obsessiveness to a room full of 20-year-olds without alienating them altogether — is what makes Saban the best college football coach in this country. It is also why his teams are often purposefully uninteresting to watch; and that, I guess, is why he assumes that we all don’t want to hear about this nitpicky little stuff, even when it’s about as fascinating a window into his soul as we’ll ever get. On Saturday, Alabama managed to be both boring and thrilling at the same time: Their power-run game, behind running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon and one of the best offensive lines in modern history, was culled straight from a John Facenda film reel. When Georgia crept forward in the tackle box to stop it, that’s when quarterback AJ McCarron threw one of the best passes of his career, a deep ball down the sideline that hit freshman receiver Amari Cooper in stride, giving Alabama back the lead in a contest that had swung back and forth several times in the second half, when neither team could seem to stop the other.
In the end, Saban relied on a simple, power football strategy: Use the run to set up the pass. In the end, it came down to what one Alabama player, on ESPN’s Gameday, had referred to as “football the way it’s supposed to be played”; in the end, the SEC championship was decided by the SEC’s primary claim to superiority, which is that they play football the way it’s supposed to be played, and they just happen to do it better than anyone else ever has.
“I thought we were watching a Big 12 game there in the second half,” I heard one Alabama fan say afterward, and there was little doubt he meant it pejoratively, and I assume he was fully aware that the Tide’s only loss of the season had come to the one team that had challenged them on the Big 12’s loose and creative terms. But right then, he might as well have labeled the Big 12 a hippie commune.
I remember looking up at the clock and seeing 15 seconds remaining, and I remember thinking, Maybe they should spike it here. And I remember Georgia running a play, and Alabama’s C.J. Mosley reaching an outstretched hand to tip it at the line of scrimmage, and the ball landing in the hands of the wrong Bulldog receiver, and I remember there was a moment of almost paralyzed silence in the Dome while we all waited for it to register, and then Aaron Murray undid his chin strap and walked toward the sideline, his face contorted into a grimace, and all that ridiculous crap started to tumble from the ceiling and it got very loud in the Dome once more.
“We called a play called stout … it’s a fade by the outside receiver,” said Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, who will now endure another offseason as the most embattled successful/likable coach in the country. “It’s a four-step speed out by the inside receiver [who wound up catching the ball] … Spiking the ball takes time. We had plenty of time to call a play.”
Honestly, I don’t know if Richt made the right call by not spiking it, but I think there’s a rationale here that applies to the BCS Championship Game, and that rationale has to do with Nick Saban, because the one element that seems capable of confounding a Saban team is spontaneity. It is rare that you catch an Alabama team off-guard, and so maybe it was best to attack the end zone before the Tide had a moment to prepare, to set themselves, to process all the micromanagerial lessons that Saban and his coaching staff had drilled down on them all year long.1 I mean, Alabama has lost two games in the past two seasons: One was to Les Miles, who is capable of doing something absurd and nonsensical at any time and has most assuredly worked his way into Saban’s head like no other coach; the other was to Texas A&M, whose quarterback ad-libbed and prolonged plays to the point that order broke down into chaos. Frankly, Georgia might not have set the tempo in this game without the benefit of a successful fake punt in the first half.
I’m not sure if Notre Dame can defeat Alabama on their own terms. Maybe they can — maybe their defense really is that good — but a lot of very good teams have tried and failed over the past two seasons, and the Irish do have a quarterback who can prolong plays and engender chaos, and I imagine that, despite what Nick Saban says, he is already worrying about this while he stares blankly at the Weather Channel every morning. I imagine Notre Dame’s best chance will come if they can lock into a moment or two that rely on improvisation, and that Saban could not possibly prepare for, and that do not fit strictly into the definition of football the way it’s supposed to be played.
“Our players need to learn and execute things,” Saban said. “Like I told them, the most important thing in this game was to execute the plan.”
The answer, once again, had little to do with the question, but it was the answer that may have explained who Nick Saban is better than anything else he could have said. He got up shortly after that, walking fast and purposefully through the tunnels of the Georgia Dome accompanied by a retinue of well-wishers and state troopers, and finally burst through a door marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, into a place where he seemed to belong.