Is Nick Saban the Greatest Football Coach of All Time?

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterJanuary 9, 2018

Alabama head coach Nick Saban celebrates after overtime of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Georgia Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Atlanta. Alabama won 26-23. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

ATLANTA — It's an argument that carries so much controversial weight but can be no longer denied.

Nick Saban is the greatest coach in football. College or the NFL, no one can match him.

If you didn't believe it before, Monday night's epic chess match and gutsy calls in the College Football Playoff National Championship proved it.

You can have Bill Belichick and his five Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, or Bear Bryant and his dominance at Alabama, or Jimmy Johnson with the Miami Hurricanes and Dallas Cowboys. Or even Vince Lombardi from yesteryear.

I'll take Saban and his unrelenting, unafraid and unapologetic ideal of winning.

"I don't care about that stuff," Saban said when told about his place in college football lore after winning a national title for the fifth time in nine years and sixth overall.

Maybe years from now he'll appreciate the magnitude of this latest title, a 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia that moved him into a tie with the biggest name in Alabama football history. But even Bryant and his six national titles couldn't have dreamed up this scenario.

Want to know what truly makes the greatest coach in all of football? The guts to insert freshman backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa into the national championship game, the biggest game of the season, when you're trailing by 13 and haven’t scored a point—knowing one bad play might end it all.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Then watch it play out like only it can under Saban.

"It's remarkable, but that's Nick Saban," said Alabama co-offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. "It was gutsy last year to replace Lane Kiffin with [Steve] Sarkisian before the national title game, and it was one play away from working. That's why he's the GOAT, the greatest of all time. Those are gutsy calls by a great head coach making those tough decisions."

We shouldn't be surprised. This is Saban, a career shaped by embracing the unconventional while stressing the fundamentals. Everyone does their job, everyone is ready when their time arrives—no matter how it happens.

He did it in 2009 when he scrapped Alabama's run-based offense before the SEC Championship Game, preferring instead to use caretaker quarterback Greg McElroy in a more significant passing role. It came off without a hitch.

He put the 2015 national title game in the hands of another caretaker quarterback, and Jake Coker won a national title. The 2014 team was quarterbacked by Blake Sims, who played running back the year before.

Hell, he hired Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator when no one else would touch him—and then went to the CFP three straight years, winning a national title, losing a national title on the last play and losing in the semifinals.

All unconventional, all wildly successful.

"He has so much confidence in the decisions he makes because he has his players prepared for every possible scenario," said Georgia coach Kirby Smart.

So when it was Tagovailoa's turn this time around, the seldom-used freshman—a 5-star recruit who hadn't thrown a pass against an FBS team since mid-October—walked into the locker room at halftime and was told to get ready. He would start the second half and maybe rotate with starter Jalen Hurts, whose previous 27 games as the Alabama starter ended with 25 wins.

David Goldman/Associated Press

It almost happened a week ago in a College Football Playoff semifinal victory over Clemson. The offense was struggling there, too, and Saban wanted to at least get Tagovailoa in the game but didn't.

Late last week, while Georgia was commuting the 70 or so miles from Atlanta to Athens to practice at home, Alabama was practicing in downtown Atlanta, running the very scenario that had Tagovailoa in the two-minute offense and executing a Four Verticals play. He hit four of four throws in practice.

He hit one of one in the game—a 41-yard strike to DeVonta Smith to win it.

"Not one of those in practice went to [Smith]," Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll cracked.

"I was just the guy in the game at that point in the rotation," Smith said of his game-winning catch. "That's it, really. I just happened to be in that rotation when the play was called and the throw was made. My job was to catch it."

This, everyone, is the sweet symphony that is the greatest coach in all of football. We will get you ready to play, you go play. It's that simple.

Belichick has won five Super Bowls with the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Saban has won national championships with career castoffs at the most important position on the field, guys who have earned a cup of coffee in the NFL or are career backups. And a true freshman who still doesn't have a career start.

Saban has dominated college football in an age when television money has evened the playing field for so many in the FBS and allowed so many more elite programs who find the right coach to arrive (hello, Clemson and Georgia).

Going into Monday night's CFP National Championship, Saban's Alabama teams had been favored in all but one of 113 games since the 2010 season. They'd been ranked in 162 consecutive AP polls.

The four times Alabama didn't win the national title in the last nine years, the Tide lost it on the final play of the season against Clemson and lost a chance to play for it all in 2013 on the greatest play in college football history (Auburn's Kick Six). Or it could very easily be seven of the last nine championships.

Belichick, meanwhile, has dominated the NFL because of Brady, and because Belichick is more shrewd in managing the salary cap and getting players to play for less.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

"Bill [Belichick] gets players developed, so when they arrive, it's his job to refine that development and fit personalities and form a roster that works cohesively," an NFL scout told Bleacher Report. "Nick [Saban] gets 17- and 18-year olds, raw players, many guys that were just the best player on their high school team and did it on athletic ability. He's teaching and developing. So much more goes into it on the college level."

Years ago, after Saban won his first national title at LSU in 2003, he left to take a job in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins. He called his close friend Joe Manchin, whom he grew up with in the small coal-mining towns of West Virginia, before taking the job.

Saban was excited to return to the NFL, the place where he once worked with his good friend Belichick for the Cleveland Browns. Billionaire Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga convinced him to leave LSU in 2004 for the NFL, and Saban needed someone to help reassure him he was making the right choice.

"He says to me: 'Joe, this guy is just like us. He came from nothing and made himself into something through hard work,'" said Manchin, a former West Virginia quarterback, former governor and current U.S. Senator. "He wanted it to work because he felt like he had that connection with Huizenga and because he thought the NFL was where every coach wanted to be. I knew it was wrong. He's a perfect fit in college football. He just keeps showing it year after year."

Late last week Smart was talking about his relationship with Saban, his mentor in the game. Smart coached for nine seasons under Saban at Alabama and was a critical part of the process as Saban's top assistant from 2007 to 2015.

Saban, Smart says, doesn't get enough credit for what has happened at Alabama over the last nine seasons. It's always one thing or another that overshadows the most dominant run in college football's modern era.

David Goldman/Associated Press

It was the BCS and its funky computer system early on, and the College Football Playoff and its funky selection process of late. It's UCF's "national champions" and the idea that Alabama gets every break possible to find a way to the postseason.

All the while, those same narratives are minimizing what Saban has accomplished and focusing on the negatives of the sport and/or the way it chooses its champion.

"Meanwhile," Smart said, "he just keeps winning championships."

With new players, and developing new stars, every year.

At one point in the fourth quarter of the comeback win against Georgia, when Alabama needed big plays and couldn't afford a mistake or a turnover, Saban had true freshmen on the field at quarterback, tailback (Najee Harris), wide receiver (Jerry Jeudy and Smith) and left tackle (Alex Leatherwood).

When the Tide absolutely had to have it, Saban went with guys who haven't even been on campus for a year.

"How many people can say that?" said Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans. "It doesn't matter who you are or how young or old you are. If you're ready to play, you're going in—and you better perform."

For nearly three decades, Tuscaloosa artist Daniel Moore has painted seminal moments in Alabama football history. Some of his classics include "The Kick" (Alabama field goal beats Auburn), "The Interception" (Alabama pick-six beats Florida) and "Goal Line Stand" (Alabama's stand vs. Penn State).

Somewhere, Moore already is no doubt painting another legendary play in Alabama history, with a freshman named Tua. He may as well paint a photo of Saban, too.

The title is simple: the greatest of all time.

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