Nick Saban didn’t go out on top, which is about the only notable blemish on a college coaching resume that eclipsed all others.
In true Saban fashion, he still managed to slide into retirement while leaving little doubt he remained as good as anyone at whipping a team into championship shape.
What turned out to be Saban’s final season — he called it quits Wednesday as Alabama’s coach, on his terms, at age 72 — will go down as perhaps the best coaching job of his career.
The Crimson Tide were a mess early in the year, getting manhandled at home by Texas and barely scraping by South Florida. They were struggling to settle on a quarterback. They had none of that Bama swagger.
Not surprisingly, there was plenty of speculation that Saban had suddenly lost his touch, a not-unreasonable hypothesis to pin on any coach who hangs around deep into his AARP years (see: Bobby Bowden, Bill Belichick, et al).
But Saban wasn’t all washed up. Nope, he was just getting started.
By the end of the season, he had molded his last team into one of the nation’s best, capped off by a stunning upset of Georgia — ranked No. 1, two-time reigning national champs and riding a 29-game winning streak — for the Southeastern Conference title.
If another play or two had gone its way in the College Football Playoff, the Tide would’ve played for Saban’s eighth national championship.
Instead, it was Michigan that prevailed in an overtime thriller at the Rose Bowl, a semifinal victory that propelled the Wolverines to a decisive victory over Washington for the national title.
Saban decided that close-but-no-cigar effort was enough to satisfy his insatiable quest for perfection. He resisted any urge he might’ve had to come back for one more season. Maybe he recognized this was a fitting way to call it a career. Maybe even better than a championship.
“One thing that I told them in the locker room after the game, this is one of the most amazing seasons in Alabama football history in terms of where this team came from, what they were able to accomplish and what they were able to do,” Saban said.
“I just wish that I could have done more as a coach to help them be successful and help them finish, and all we can do now is learn from the lessons that sometimes failings bring to us.”
Whatever lessons are to be learned from this point on will have to be taught by someone else.
Now, maybe for the first time in his life, Saban can actually relax and savor life outside the pressure-cooker with his wife for more than a half-century, the unheralded Ms. Terry. Perhaps he can even take a few minutes to truly appreciate what he has done, though looking back was never part of “The Process.”
Even settling for seven national titles, Saban stands alone at the top of the heap. No coach comes close to matching what he did after arriving at Alabama in 2007, charged with rescuing a storied program that had lost its way through the dark years of DuBose and Franchione and Price and Shula.
The folks in Tuscaloosa would have gladly settled for Bear Bryant Lite.
Instead, they got Bear Bryant 2.0.
By Saban’s third season in the Land of the Houndstooth, Alabama was a national champion again — for the first time in 17 years. Back-to-back titles followed in 2011 and ’12. Then another in 2015, yet another in 2017 and still another in 2020.
Even in the years when they didn’t win it all, the Crimson Tide was usually in the mix. They missed out in 2013 because of the infamous “Kick Six” loss to Auburn. The following year, they fell to Ohio State in a semifinal shootout of the first college playoff. There were a pair of losses to Clemson in the national championship game, plus a setback to Georgia in another title clash.
Through it all, there were a handful of highly regarded coaches who seemed capable of challenging Saban’s dominance.
Urban Meyer was an early nemesis. Dabo Swinney was the next big thing. Finally, it was Kirby Smart guiding Georgia to a pair of national titles, seemingly gaining an upper hand on his former boss. But Saban won their final meeting, delivering one last salvo to anyone who threatened the G.O.A.T.
Any analysis of Saban’s greatness starts with the CEO-like way that he ran his organization (and he always called it an “organization”). There were unwavering principals — hard work, meticulous attention to detail, valuing the journey over the result — that survived through the generations.
He had his weaknesses, to be sure. His temper got out of line on more than one occasion. He wasn’t above bullying those who dared challenge the way he was doing things, especially in his early days at Alabama, which only made this towering figuring look small and insecure.
But it was Saban’s chameleon-like approach to those aspects of the game that did evolve over his career, not to mention a willingness to surround himself with other innovative minds, that truly defined his greatness.
He was a defensive coach who would’ve gladly won every game 3-0, but came to recognize that run-and-gun offenses ruled today’s college game. When it was time to adapt to the idea of winning 41-38, he did it better than anyone.
In more recent years, he rued the influence that NIL and the transfer portal were having on the college game, but quickly rolled with the punches to make sure Alabama stayed on top.
Saban also recognized, again better than anyone, that his organization was only enhanced by having a bunch of head coaches-in-waiting (or those waiting for their next chance) on his staff. He was never threatened by someone else’s intellect, whether it was Smart or Steve Sarkisian or Lane Kiffin.
All have gone on to great success standing on their own two legs.
But Nick Saban always stood higher than them all.
We may never see his like again.
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press.