Nick Saban likes to talk about football as a process, which explains why we tend to think of his greatness as cold and methodical. We see the relentlessness of the talent at Alabama, the consistency of the results, the history of championship games that aren't even close, and we think of Saban as a machine.
But here's what we miss, thinking of him that way: Yes, Saban is methodical, but the method doesn't always take him to the same place.
That's what made it so special Monday night when Saban won the national championship because of an almost whimsical call.
Alabama recovers the onside kick. Crazy it was like a pass. pic.twitter.com/In2xHBhEJO— MarcusD (@_MarcusD_) January 12, 2016
It was the onside kick heard 'round the college football world, with 10:34 left in a tie game, that turned the momentum for Alabama in its 45-40 win over Clemson. Saban called it, and then, of all things and all people, actually smiled on the sideline after doing it.
That feeling when you recover a surprise onside kick and then score. pic.twitter.com/dPMVgabhz1— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 12, 2016
It felt almost gimmicky. It didn't feel like typical cold, methodical Saban. It made you wonder…Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson looked unstoppable, Alabama QB Jake Coker kept taking momentum-killing sacks, and the game was tied 24-24. Saban couldn't count on his usual methodical demolition. He recognized that this time, that wasn't going to win.
Was it all enough to make Saban abandon his process? To become the gambler, the chance-taker?
But then you hear him talk about how they practiced that play, how they designed it, how they called it because of the way Clemson was lining up, how it was situational strategy, and you realize: He stuck to the process; it just took him to a different place this time.
And in another way, to the same place. Four national championships at Alabama in seven years, and five overall in Saban's career. Times change, people change, but you can count on death, taxes and Nick Saban's process.
There had been perhaps some questions about this coming into the year. A year ago in the College Football Playoff, Urban Meyer made Saban look outdated for the first time. Ohio State was stronger, faster and cleverer than Alabama. On Monday? Meyer was in a suit working for ESPN, watching Saban win.
Two years ago, it was Gus Malzahn bringing his modern-genius, no-huddle, spread offense to Saban and beating him in the Iron Bowl. Tick, tock. Clock ticking on Saban? Well, now Malzahn is already in some danger of losing his job.
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And Saban is the national champion. Again.
In fact, every class he has recruited to play at Alabama has won the national championship. Imagine the recruiting pitch he can make: "Your son will win the national championship and will be in an NFL pipeline." Even John Calipari in college basketball can't match that.
Saban reclaimed his spot as the game's all-time best coach with this win. He is one short of Bear Bryant's all-time record six titles. And not to say anything sacrilegious about Bryant, but Saban is better. Bryant surely meant more to Alabama and to pride in the region than Saban does. But in this era, with so much money funneling to so many different programs, it is just so much harder to win.
It's sort of freaky how much Saban compares to Bill Belichick, not only in demeanor but also in the simple fact he comes without an expiration date.
Last year, Belichick's Patriots lost to Kansas City early in the season and Tom Brady wasn't looking great. This year, Alabama lost to Ole Miss and didn't seem to have a quarterback. And then Belichick went on to win yet another Super Bowl, albeit without Saban's smile.
Belichick has different things to fight off, such as the salary cap, and he dumps off famous fan-favorites just before they are paid too much and then finds gems out of nowhere.
This year, Saban had to make his own adjustments, far more than usual. After the loss to Ole Miss in September, Alabama seemed to be slipping. Its record against ranked teams had been falling. We'd seen Saban fight time the past couple of years, starting when Johnny Manziel appeared at Texas A&M and beat him. Saban thought rules should be changed to stop the modern game and then went around the country talking to coaches about how to stop the tempo and spread. He brought in Lane Kiffin with the idea of modernizing his own offense to some reasonable level.
But this year was different. This year was more. While Meyer started the year with three Heisman-level quarterbacks and then wasn't able to get first-rate QB play out of any of them, Saban just had big question marks. This was not one of his best teams.
At 64, he is still growing as a coach. I mean, people consider Phil Jackson to be the greatest NBA coach of all time. Maybe so, but it would sure help his case if he could win a title without a Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal on the roster. That's not to say this Alabama team is filled with scrubs. Running back Derrick Henry did just win the Heisman Trophy.
But this team was without the reliability of AJ McCarron at quarterback. Saban and Kiffin basically had to find a way to coach around Coker most of the year. And while the defense is still often dominant, gone are the days of it giving up less than 10 points per game.
People won't be talking about that stuff today. Saban is back on top, the process reaffirmed.
No wonder he was smiling.
Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.