It took until his third head coaching job, but in 2004, at the ripe old age of 51, Nick Saban had finally arrived atop the mountain. Holding up the crystal ball after beating Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game at the Sugar Bowl, few could have predicted the wild ride the then-LSU coach was about to embark on over the next decade-plus.
But here we stand. That one title led to an NFL gig, which later begat an escape from the league to the comforts of Tuscaloosa. The rest, as they say, is history, and things continued to roll right along for Saban as he put the finishing touches on his fifth title Monday night in dramatic fashion against Clemson.
The resume is now an all-timer for the son of a West Virginia gas station owner, putting Saban one ring behind fellow Alabama titan Bear Bryant for most in history by a college head coach. Considering Saban’s five came in the modern era of 85-man scholarship limits, 24/7 coverage and national recruiting competitiveness, one realizes that all that "greatest of all time" talk is both real and warranted.
That’s why, after he stood on the stage at University of Phoenix Stadium to collect that shiny new national championship trophy once again, one cannot help but wonder: Is there anything left for Saban to accomplish in college football?
When asked about his legacy at his press conference following the title game, Saban said:
I really haven't thought about it. After somebody asked me that question the other day, the first thing that came to my mind was my first game at Michigan State when we played Nebraska, when Tom Osborne was the coach, and we got beat like, 56-7, and I had been in the NFL for four years, and I'm saying, 'We may never win a game as a college coach.'
I learned a lesson that day, and you know, as long as you do this, it's always about your next play. It's always about the next game. So I've never really ever thought too much about all that. I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for all the players who have played for us, came to our school, bought into our program, did the things that they needed to do to have a chance to experience a championship, whether it was at LSU or the four at Alabama.
That's where most of my appreciation lies, with the players.
Let’s start with those players, and the fact that Saban is pretty good at identifying great ones and making them better. The seeds of this year’s title came from the quick development of his 2015 recruiting class, ranked No. 1 in the country in the 247Sports composite team rankings. That's an impressive accomplishment, but it's overshadowed by the fact it was the fifth straight year Alabama finished No. 1 overall.
Nothing encapsulated Saban’s dominance in recruiting more than during a key stretch in the fourth quarter of this year’s title game. After storming back to take a 31-24 lead, the Tide were in danger of letting Clemson retake momentum as they marched down into the red zone following O.J. Howard’s second score of the night.
With most of the defensive line huffing and puffing from the Tigers’ uptempo attack, Alabama rotated in defensive end Da’Shawn Hand. A former 5-star recruit who was ranked by some recruiting services as the No. 1 player in the country, Hand tracked down heroic quarterback Deshaun Watson to drop him for a loss that effectively killed any momentum Clemson had.
The defensive stand eventually led to a field goal, which Alabama responded to with a 95-yard touchdown return by Kenyan Drake, a 4-star tailback back in high school who had to find carries behind a few first-round picks and a Heisman Trophy winner in his college career. That stretch all but put the game away halfway through the fourth quarter.
There’s depth, and there’s Alabama depth. Nobody in college football comes close to the latter.
Then there’s the hardware to go with that. And no, we’re not just talking about the championship rings.
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Running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy this season, the second such player to win that prestigious award under Saban during his time in Tuscaloosa (the school had zero before his arrival). Additionally, Crimson Tide players have taken home the Maxwell (twice), Walter Camp, Doak Walker (twice), Biletnikoff, Butkus (twice), Outland (twice), Rimington (twice) and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm awards. Saban himself has won every major coaching award.
The only hole, if you want to call it that, is the fact that no defensive back (Saban’s coaching specialty) has won the Thorpe Award.
Accepting the Grantland Rice Trophy at another press conference, the coach added:
You remember all the lessons that you learned in terms of developing a process that works for young people to have a chance to be successful, a team dynamic that gives you a chance to be successful, and right now as long as I'm going to continue to do this, I'm going to keep things in perspective and look forward and not backward.
I think it's a tremendous accomplishment by a lot of great people, a lot of great coaches and a lot of great players, a lot of whom were at the game last night. That really makes us proud that they're great ambassadors for the university and always happy to come home.
But I can't really talk to you much more about the perspective and the significance of this, because moving forward, it doesn't really mean a lot.
That’s the Saban we are all used to, the one who watched film of the national title game on the plane ride home and who was no doubt fired up for Wednesday morning’s staff meeting. He is relentless and shows no sign of slowing down to keep the Alabama dynasty on top.
Chuck Dunlap @SEC_Chuck
SEC Network tagged along with Alabama on the ride home from Phoenix today. Yes, Coach Saban watched film: https://t.co/k64jTFBxFb1/13/2016, 3:04:08 AM
This is not a column arguing for the greatest college football coach in history to give it another go in the NFL. The open New York Giants job would be interesting, no doubt, but the college game is better with Saban in it.
Some within the industry believe the next stop for Saban is College GameDay or a similar broadcasting gig, not a different sideline.
The fact is Saban belongs in college football's Mount Rushmore of coaches. The problem with standing on the mountaintop for so long, however, is that there is nothing left to climb. When one is a perfectionist whose whole process is dedicated to taking the next step, that might be an issue.
Yet it isn’t for the uniquely wired Saban.
He’ll still be recruiting a top class for February and will still field a top-five team in September with designs on another title. There may be nothing left to add to that illustrious resume beyond a sixth ring to tie Bryant and leave no doubt as to who is the GOAT. Even then, it wouldn’t add much validation to the already impressive job the head coach has done in his stops across the college football landscape.
There’s simply nothing left for Nick Saban to do in college football, and yet we shouldn’t be surprised at all if he winds up back on that big stage once again in the near future, accepting another trophy. That’s what he does, as the chase for another begins again in 2016.
Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.