Fort Lauderdale – Taking a break from leveraged buyouts, the Wall Street Journal devoted four full Friday pages to college football, labeling Alabama-Notre Dame “the biggest game ever.” And it well may be. Alabama claims 14 national championships, Notre Dame 11. Alabama had the Bear, Notre Dame the Four Horseman. But you know all this already.
The mood on the ground in South Florida is a bit different. In January 2005, USC met Oklahoma here for the BCS title, and that, at least until kickoff, felt like a bigger game. Four of the top five vote-getters in the 2004 Heisman Trophy balloting — Matt Leinart, Adrian Peterson, Jason White and Reggie Bush — were on display, and three of those would actually win a Heisman before leaving school. (Then the game began and a Sooner named Mark Bradley fumbled a punt and the Trojans won 55-19. So much for buildup.)
Before the other Mark Bradley got involved, that championship game seemed a collision of colossi. This time there’s only one giant, and he’s the guy envious rivals insists wears lifts in his shoes.
Nick Saban, 5-foot-6, towers over college football in a way that even Paul William Bryant didn’t quite. The Bear had peers — Ara Parseghian, Bud Wilkinson, John McKay, Darrell Royal, Woody Hayes, Bob Devaney, Barry Switzer, Joe Paterno. Saban stands alone. Only Urban Meyer has a case for similar eminence, and if Alabama wins Monday night Meyer will have half as many BCS titles.
Brian Kelly has steered Notre Dame to an unbeaten season, and his Irish enter the title game ranked No. 1 to Alabama’s No. 2. Yet the most revealing question directed toward Kelly at a Sunday morning briefing was, “How much of a compliment is it for someone to say they see a lot of Nick Saban in you?” Kelly’s response: “A great personal compliment … I would take that moniker any time.”
Saban has won so big at Alabama — this would make three national championships in four seasons, and it would make the Tide the first repeat titlist of the BCS era — that questions for him tend to center less on this particular team than his famous “process,” which on its face is Football 101: Work hard, recruit well, establish team discipline. This wouldn’t have been a revelation to Bear Bryant, who delighted in arriving at work before dawn and calling the Auburn football office and getting no answer, which meant he was outworking his nemesis.
Said Kelly: “I know Nick has talked about it, too — it’s a little bit old fashioned in the sense that this (game) is about the big fellas up front. It’s not about the crazy receiving numbers or passing yards or rushing yards; this is about the big fellas, and this game will be decided unquestionably up front.”
There are no gimmicks to Saban’s football. His defensive schemes are complex — when Saban was at LSU, a defensive player told the Baton Rouge writer Glenn Guilbeau that the Tigers named their different blitzes after states and ran out of states — but Alabama under Saban is essentially as Alabama was under Bryant, big and strong and fierce and above all consistent.
In his book, “How the SEC Became Goliath,” Ray Glier reports that Saban has a physical profile for recruits: Bama doesn’t want little guys, or inflexible ones. According to Glier, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who worked under Saban at Michigan State, has brought those guidelines to Athens. Such is the immensity of Saban. He’s not some hot coach with a sexy offense. He’s he guy who came to the league that already played the best football and has forced everyone else to do as he does.
Business publications like Fortune and Forbes have sought to discover what makes Saban so successful, as if football was all nuts and bolts and no blood and guts. (A Fortune nugget: To save time and confusion, Saban eats a salad with turkey strips for lunch every day.) But he nearly teared up when he spoke of his dad, who was known as Big Nick and who ran a service station and a Dairy Queen in Monongah, West Va., and mentioned that he hated having to wash blue and black cars because Big Nick would make him do it again if he found streaks.
Said Saban: “So we learned a lot about work ethic. We learned a lot about having compassion for other people and respecting other people, and we learned about the importance of doing things correctly. And when I started to play for him in Pop Warner football, he was the same way as a coach — attention to detail, discipline, do things what you’re supposed to do, the way you’re supposed to do it, when you’re supposed to do it, the way it’s supposed to get done … discipline was engrained in just about everything that we did.”
This isn’t to say the Saban Process is all sweetness and light. Alabama did flout the spirit, if not the actual rule, by its oversigning of recruits, and many in South Florida hate Saban for running out on the Miami Dolphins after two nondescript years. But we can’t dispute the magnitude of what he has done at Alabama, and what he has done is render himself bigger than the biggest collegiate game in many a moon.
Further reading: History may favor the underdog Irish, but Bama is too good.
Still further: Bama’s Geno Smith went the wrong way on UGA’s final play.
By Mark Bradley