Alabama head coach Nick Saban holds up the championship trophy after overtime of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Georgia, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Atlanta. Alabama won 26-23. (David J. Phillip/AP)
ATLANTA -- The 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship had been over for nearly an hour and a half. The circular video board that hangs from the roof of $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium read "Alabama Crimson Tide National Champions." Staring down from the 340-foot perch above the playing field in ultra-high definition was the trademark glare of head coach Nick Saban. On a three-story-tall video tower in one corner of the stadium there it was again. In the portrait he had his headset on, giving planet Earth a side-eye, pointed directly at the scoreboard display of "Alabama 26, Georgia 23 OT."
An overserved fan dressed in Bama gear and sitting alone in Section 135, the one beneath the towering image, stood, turned to face the giant face and began a bowing motion.
"All hail our crimson god!"
Meanwhile, in the tunnels beneath and behind that place of worship, the deity himself was on the move. He'd already addressed his team, leaving them sweaty and shouting so that he could make his mandatory meeting with the national media. When he left that stage he passed behind a black curtain into a secret pathway that led toward a series of ESPN cameras. The path between was covered with verbal palm fronds, congratulations from people begging for some perspective on the history they'd just witnessed from the coach who'd written it.
Coach, is this the best of your six national titles? "Oh, I don't know. I do know I've never been happier after a game."
Coach, where do you think this ranks you in coaching history?Was this a legacy-defining game? "That's not up for me to decide. My job is to win the next game on the schedule. We did that tonight."
Coach, did it feel extra special to beat Kirby Smart?
He paused. He winked. Then he disappeared around the corner, bound for the next stop.
You see, this was supposed to be the night when Saban finally suffered defeat at the hands of the very monster he hath created, the assembly line of coaches who learned at his right hand, departing one after the other for head-coaching jobs. They have been hired away by rival schools, so downright desperate to finally defeat Alabama they went with "can't beat 'em, join 'em" and attempted to replicate the success on his watch by bringing in someone who helped him construct the tower.
In the days leading up to Monday night's all-SEC title bout, even the most casual of college football fans likely became exhausted with hearing the following statistic: Nick Saban was 11-0 when facing teams coached by his former assistants. Mark Dantonio of Michigan State is 0-2. Derek Dooley, formerly of Tennessee, was 0-3, as was Jim McElwain, formerly of Colorado State and Florida. This very season started with a defeat of Florida State and former LSU lieutenant Jimbo Fisher.
Not only had they not beaten them, they hadn't come close. The thinnest margin being McElwain's Gators in the 2015 SEC championship, when Florida lost to Alabama by two touchdowns.
But Kirby Smart had been Saban's most loyal apprentice. While the others bolted for bigger paychecks, he'd chosen to stay and work alongside Saban for more than a decade in all, from LSU to the Miami Dolphins to Alabama. When Smart was hired by Georgia, his alma mater, two years ago, he didn't do what the others had, trying to modify Saban's sacred "Process" with his own additions. He cloned it all, all the way down to his scowl in halftime interviews. And why not? Heck, all four of Saban's national titles in Tuscaloosa had come with Smart's assistance.
But now Saban has a fifth (and six overall), and it did not come with Smart's help. It came at his expense. Smart easily came the closest to snapping the elder's winning streak. But he didn't. So, now that teacher/student, master/apprentice, Palpatine/Vader stat has been adjusted to 12-0.
"They said we weren't supposed to be here! Now look at us!" Running back Damien Harris shouted it over and over again as the team dashed and hugged and cried on the field moments after the overtime victory. He continued the barking in the locker room later. Alabama, the only non-conference champion to make the playoff field, had been the target of some criticism. "They said that Coach Saban, he was out of moves, didn't they? Well, it doesn't look like he was, does it? Am I right, Tua?!"
Tua Tagovailoa was not the starting quarterback in the 2018 national title game. That honor went to Jalen Hurts, who had started every game in 2017 and all but one in 2016, coming within seconds of leading Bama to a championship one year ago. But Saban, sensing a chance that Georgia might be on the cusp of putting the game away, yanked his leader of two seasons midgame. He inserted Tagovailoa, a true freshman from Hawaii.
That's not the move of a coach who, at 66, is done taking risks. It was simply one of the gutsiest coaching moves ever pulled on college football's biggest stage. Even as the Alabama sideline appeared to be losing control. The third quarter ended with a personal foul, a sideline fight when the player who committed that foul went after a coach, all while another teammate was being carted off on a stretcher after fainting.
Bama trailed the game 13-0 at the half. The Tide never led in regulation. They ended that regulation with perhaps the most god-awfully shanked would-be game-winning field goal attempt ever witnessed. They started their OT drive, down by a field goal, with an equally god-awful sack and loss of 16 yards all the back to the 41-yard line.
But they won. Again. Thanks to a shockingly gorgeous rope pass from true freshman Tagovailoa to another true freshman, DeVonta Smith.
Now Saban owns six rings. Only one other active coach, Ohio State's Urban Meyer, owns more than one and he has only half as many as Saban. His fifth title in nine seasons is the most successful stretch by any coach in college football's poll era. That reaches back to 1936, which means it covers all the legends who only need be identified by one name. The guys already enshrined in a building just a few blocks from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the College Football Hall of Fame.
Bo, Woody, Joe, Bowden, Osborne, even Bear. They are not at the head of the line. Nick is.
"He's the best for a reason," Smart said Monday night. "I will always be indebted to what he taught me. Always. But dangit, man. That just makes me want to beat him so bad."
Smart will likely have other chances. Georgia, like Bama, is built for the long haul. His fellow former Saban understudies also will have their shots, and soon. Next season Saban is guaranteed to face off against at least two of his former employees. Jeremy Pruitt, the same defensive coordinator who figured out how to slow down Georgia in the second half, is the new head coach at Tennessee, one of the Tide's most loathed rivals.
Meanwhile, Fisher has left Florida State to lead another annual Alabama opponent, Texas A&M. On Monday night he was in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, taking part in ESPN's Megacast coverage of the game. While the celebration was erupting on the field in the distance, Fisher was bolting for the door and heading to his new home of College Station.
"Good for Nick," Fisher begrudgingly praised. "I really thought Kirby had him. One of us will finally get him one of these days. One of these days."