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Nick Saban a Deserving, Albeit Unlikely, Coach of the Year Candidate

While Nick Saban's hardware collection is already impressive, it needs to be a little bigger in one respect specifically.
While Nick Saban's hardware collection is already impressive, it needs to be a little bigger in one respect specifically.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Christopher WalshCollege Football National ColumnistDecember 7, 2016

There are so many of them now that the list almost looks like college football's version of a cross between stock quotes and the children's song "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

For national coach of the year, there's the Home Depot Award; those given out by organizations like the American Football Coaches Association and the Walter Camp Football Foundation; a bunch named after legends, including Paul "Bear" Bryant, Eddie Robinson, George Munger and Bobby Dodd; plus those presented by news organizations, including the Associated Press and Sporting News.   

Here's how many times Nick Saban won one of those honors during a season his team captured a national championship at the University of Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015):

Zero.

Seriously, it's zilch, zip, nada or, as some people used to say, diddly-squat.

Granted, over the years he's won nearly all of those awards, but most were either during the 2008 season, when the Crimson Tide lost in the SEC Championship Game, or at LSU in 2003, his only national title that another school can make a claim to. 

Moreover, Saban hasn't been named the Southeastern Conference's Coach of the Year since 2009.

Some would call that atrocious. 

Even though Alabama (13-0) has gone wire-to-wire with a No. 1 ranking so far, something only two other teams in college football history have pulled off—1999 Florida State and 2004 USC, which has since vacated its title—chances are he's about to be overlooked again. 

The reigning national champions have won 25 straight games and three consecutive SEC titles, yet this might be Saban's best coaching job. That might sound familiar, but in addition to going with a true freshman at quarterback in Jalen Hurts, Alabama had to replace 11 starters. The turnover was even more noticeable on the coaching staff with four new additions, including Jeremy Pruitt taking over for longstanding defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

 

Saban is a victim of his own success in this regard because of repeatedly having a talent-rich roster. It's especially true this season after players like Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson, Reuben Foster, O.J. Howard, Tim Williams and Eddie Jackson all declined to enter the NFL draft early last year and could be top picks this time around.

Well, recruiting is part of the job. 

That Alabama has been at least a semifinalist all three years of the College Football Playoff is remarkable by itself.

Think about that for a moment.

Before the playoff pairings were announced, you heard coach after coach publicly plead his team's case.

"What I do know is we just won the toughest conference in college football," Penn State's James Franklin said on national television immediately after winning the Big Ten Championship Game. "We've won nine straight. They say you're allowed to overcome early setbacks. We've done that. It's on you now, the committee."

 

Meanwhile, after beating Florida in the SEC Championship Game 54-16, Saban spent a good part of his postgame press conference talking about ways his team can get better: "There's a lot of things I think we can improve on."

For now, that's Washington's problem, which has had head coach Chris Petersen joking that he wasn't one of the ones holding up a sign reading, "We want 'Bama." He already has a good idea of what his team will be up against in a pro-Alabama atmosphere at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on New Year's Eve.

"I don't think there's a better program in the country," Petersen said on a conference call with reporters Sunday night. "I don't think anybody would dispute that. I think it's one thing to make it to the playoffs once and do some good things now and again.

"But, I mean, every year, you know Alabama is going to be right there. It's just a testament to the system, the program, the whole thing that he's built at Alabama."

Consequently, Saban's often overlooked for coach of the year honors, especially since there's almost never a set criteria on which to base the decision.

Was the best coach the one whose team improved the most, did the most with the least, overcame the most adversity or simply had the best record?

Saban's Coach of the Year Awards
Organization/AwardYear
Associated Press2003, 2008
Paul "Bear" Bryant2003
Eddie Robinson2003, 2008
Home Depot2008
Walter Camp2008
Sporting News2008
Bobby Dodd2014
Compiled by the author

For example, the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award is annually presented to "the nation's most outstanding coach" by the Football Writers Association of America, dating back to 1957 when Woody Hayes was the inaugural recipient.

Saban won it in 2008. Last year it went to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

The big exceptions are those from the AFCA and the Maxwell Football Club. The latter's used to be known as the Joe Paterno Award but was renamed the George Munger Award in 2011.

The winner that year was Michigan's Brady Hoke.

In fairness to the organizations that give out coaching honors, they do so before the national championship is decided and thus don't have the full benefit of hindsight.

That helps account for the coaches who were the popular selections during Saban's championship years at Alabama: TCU's Gary Patterson in 2009, LSU's Les Miles in 2011, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly in 2012 and Clemson's Dabo Swinney last year.

They all have one thing in common: an undefeated regular season.

However, three of the four ended up losing to Saban and Alabama in the title game, the exception being Patterson. His team played in the Mountain West, while both Alabama and Texas were also unbeaten (along with Cincinnati) and met in the BCS Championship Game at the Rose Bowl.

Had voting been conducted after the title games, Swinney still would have taken home some hardware. But the other two you have to doubt. Alabama shut out LSU 21-0 and crushed Notre Dame 42-14.

The Bobby Bowden Award was handed out five times, three to Nick Saban.
The Bobby Bowden Award was handed out five times, three to Nick Saban.Butch Dill/Associated Press

There recently was a coaching award distributed after the bowl season concluded, the Bobby Bowden Award (2010-14). Created by the Over the Mountain Touchdown Club in Birmingham, it was given out five times, and all the recipients were from either Alabama or Auburn. Saban won it after each of his first three national titles with the Crimson Tide.

"I don't know if I see an end to it," Bowden said about Alabama's run before the ceremony in the spring of 2013. "If I was an Alabama man I'd rather have it in his hands than anybody else I can think of."

But Bowden made another relevant statement that night: "It's easier to get to the top than stay there." That's something Saban doesn't get near enough credit for, and neither have a number of other coaches who have been credited with leading modern dynasties. 

For example, Bill Belichick has been named the NFL's Coach of the Year three times, but not since 2010. Chuck Noll never won the award (but did get the Maxwell Club's version in 1989). Phil Jackson won the NBA's version just once during his incredible NBA coaching career.

This isn't to suggest that any coach of the year recipient wasn't worthy of his honor, especially since each organization can give out whatever hardware it deems appropriate.

Colorado's Mike MacIntyre has already been announced as the winner of the 2016 Walter Camp coaching award. Considering the way he turned around the Buffaloes, it was an outstanding choice. Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck has to be given strong consideration by the other services, as does Franklin. 

But something will still seem amiss if Saban doesn't add anything to his personal trophy collection for this. 

Even if it seemed like business as usual for the Crimson Tide, he deserves recognition for the job he's done this year—because it's been nothing short of remarkable. 

        

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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