GLENDALE, Ariz. — They had run the play before, time and time again, and it had failed. Over and over again, the ball had hit the ground or fluttered out of bounds. It was not ready for Clemson or a stage this magnificent.
In fact, days before Nick Saban won his fifth national championship by a very un-Saban-like score of 45-40, he watched the play—appropriately named "pop kick"—flop one last time.
Marlon Humphrey dropped the ball; it didn't work.
"It was a 50-50 [play]," special teams coordinator Bobby Williams said as confetti danced around him after the game.
With Clemson on the verge of snatching all momentum and a new wave of "Dead Dynasty" columns waiting to be composed, the normally conservative Saban pulled the trigger on a surprise onside kick. He showcased in one decision his magnificent ability to adapt and cemented his status as the greatest coach ever—a living, breathing—and now gamblin'—legend.
"If we wouldn't have got that," Saban said shortly before leaving the podium in his postgame press conference, "y'all would be killing me right now."
With 10:34 left in the fourth quarter Monday night, Alabama tied the game 24-24 with a 33-yard Adam Griffith field goal.
Even with the score back to even, it had been an uphill climb all evening. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson had given Alabama's impenetrable defense fits, fitting balls in tight windows and picking up yardage on the ground that had not been there for the past three months.
Alabama needed a lift—perhaps emotionally more than anything else. So, instead of turning to his Heisman Trophy-winning running back or one of the many experienced superstars at his disposal, he turned to his kicker and a redshirt freshman cornerback whose ability to execute was by no means a sure thing. He had seen that firsthand.
"We were tired on defense and weren't doing a good job of getting them stopped," Saban said. "And I felt like if we didn't do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game, we wouldn't have a chance to win."
Knowing the complex relationship the school has with its kickers, Griffith took the field just like usual. But instead of blasting the kick deep, he popped it into the air—like a tennis player trying to catch his opponent at the net—and it fell right into Humphrey's arms.
A stunned stadium—both sides—tried to process what it had witnessed. It was perfect in every way.
"I knew for sure we were going to get it, to be honest," Humphrey said, unfazed by the failed practice attempts. "But it was a tie game. That was pretty gutsy."
No matter how you slice it, the call was out of Saban's comfort zone in every way imaginable. From the personnel to the call itself, this was not part of the process. This was gunslingin' at its finest.
In the aftermath, the man who rarely smiles allowed his mouth to curl in that unfamiliar formation. The man who rarely appreciates his work—especially during a game of this magnitude—couldn't help but marvel at how it had all come together. Just this once, Saban looked like a kid on Christmas morning.
Two plays after the recovery, quarterback Jake Coker connected with tight end O.J. Howard on a 51-yard touchdown pass. The onside kick was the shot of adrenaline; this was the moment that made it whole.
"It got the sideline energized," Howard said of the kick. "Everybody was pumped up, and we went down and scored on the next drive, so it was a big momentum swing for us."
Despite Clemson's unrelenting efforts, Alabama never trailed again. The final score told the tale of a game ripe with explosive plays and tremendous swings—things that would have crippled Saban in the past.
But that was just that—the past.
That was before Saban hired the controversial Lane Kiffin to modernize his offense.
That was before Saban reconstructed his defense to generate more sacks.
That was before Saban went out and got Mel Tucker to coach his defensive backs, fully aware what once was a strength had become a weakness.
Long before Saban made the most memorable call of an incredible career, he showed the world he was capable of change. We simply didn't bother to notice.
In many ways, this play was the culmination of Saban's reinvention of himself and his team over the past two years.
Long after Saban retires, this will be the decision that will give life to his legend. It will be discussed and celebrated in Alabama fans' living rooms for generations. It will be recreated at dinner tables and at tailgates.
They will talk about their coach and all of the championships he brought them—each more special than the last. And, yes, they will recount the one time he called a play that didn't work until it absolutely had to.
Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.
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