Nick Saban had just hoisted the crystal football with a look that said, Here it is, humans, now let me start working on acquiring another one. He told a reporter that he would enjoy the victory for an entire 48 hours, twice as long as his usual celebration time limit. Senior linebacker Nico Johnson said the returning players would be angry about the two touchdowns they allowed. My friend Munoz asked me if Alabama was going to start practicing right then and there on the Orange Bowl field.
Saban’s attention to detail and his ability to get his players to buy in create moments like what we witnessed on Alabama’s next to last drive of Monday’s national championship. Leading Notre Dame 42-14 with seven minutes left (those details are important to the story), quarterback A.J. McCarron and his center, Barrett Jones, miscommunicated before the snap. McCarron frantically called for the snap and then tried to call timeout before the play clock expired. Instead, Alabama was whistled for a delay of game. McCarron immediately got in Jones’ face, screaming at him; Jones shoved him aside. Saban, meanwhile, exploded at the refs for not granting ’Bama a timeout. The fact that it was a fourth quarter blowout didn’t matter. Perfection is required on every play. And in every practice. And every team meeting. Saban calls this “The Process.”
That is just how Saban and his players are programmed. (And when I say “programmed,” feel free to take that literally. When Saban got his Gatorade bath, Munoz and I thought he might short circuit.)
On the field after the game, running back Eddie Lacy said Alabama was a “great organization,” and I’m not sure if he was absent-mindedly repeating a phrase he’d heard countless NFL players say or if he was being honest about Alabama’s status as a football team.
I remember Johnson saying after the SEC Championship that nobody believed in Alabama. That he could deliver that line without laughing hysterically is a testament to Saban.
“We’ve learned how to manage success and maintain our hunger without necessarily having failure and I think that’s something that’s really hard to do,” Jones told me a few weeks ago. “Coach has done a great job of keeping us hungry and humble.”
It is Saban’s most impressive skill and one that is unmatched by his peers. It is the reason Alabama is so focused and dominant in national championship games (it says it all that much of the post-game discussion was on McCarron’s girlfriend and not the game itself). It is the reason they look sharp in season openers—this year’s 41-14 win over Michigan was the third time Saban’s Crimson Tide has started the season with a win against a top-10 team. It is the reason he has won three national championships in four seasons and will be a favorite to make it three in a row next year.
As long as Nick Saban is at Alabama, it seems as if the rest of college football will be playing for second.