Entries in Nick Saban (3)


Saban handles defeat better than his team handled Clemson

By Art Spander
For Maven Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — He handled the defeat better than his secondary handled the Clemson receivers. This was a momentous defeat for Nick Saban, his worst at Alabama, his second worst as a college football coach, and yet he dealt with it forthright, candidly, if somewhat bewildered by his team’s failings.

Read the full story here.

Copyright 2019, The Maven


An Alabama team that wasn’t great wins a game that was

By Art Spander

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Those other college bowl games, those mismatches of the last few weeks? Those were merely teases to keep us grumbling and griping.  But when it came to the big one, the national championship, the sport burst out in a show of brilliance, a reaffirmation of what is possible when two of the country’s top programs face each other and what is probable when Alabama is one of those.

It isn’t as if the Crimson Tide came into Monday night’s title game being thought of as hopeless. Yes, Clemson was unbeaten in 17 straight games, all 14 previous this season, and hadn’t trailed in the fourth quarter since some time in 2014. Yet, Bama was a touchdown favorite, mostly because it plays in the overpowering Southeast Conference and mostly because, well, it’s Bama.

Yet there was the thought that Clemson, behind quarterback DeShaun Watson, would have too much offense for the Crimson Tide. Indeed, Clemson had plenty, outgaining Alabama 550 yards to 473, but the resolute, unflappable Tide, won 45-40 with, surprise, an onside kick when the game was tied in the fourth quarter, and with big passes from its own great quarterback, Jake Coker.

Nick Saban once more proved his genius, winning a fifth championship  — one at LSU, then four after becoming Alabama coach in 2007. “There weren’t many people who thought this team could do it,” he said immediately after the victory. 

What the game, before 75,765 at University of Phoenix Stadium maybe a dozen miles west of Phoenix, did was restore faith in undergrad football with a game of lead changes and great performances. 

Watson completed 30 passes in 47 attempts for 405 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for 73 yards, becoming the first player in the Football Bowl System to total more than 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in a year.

Coker was 16 of 25 for 335 yards and two touchdowns, while Bama’s Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner, carried 36 times — yes, 36 — for 158 yards and three touchdowns. Alabama receiver O.J. Howard contributed five catches for 208 yards — including one for 63 yards — and two touchdowns.

“We played the national championship against the best team in the country,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, an Alabama grad, “and we had a chance to win.” A chance, but we’re not talking about chances. It’s results that count, and Alabama, finishing at 14-1 as Clemson did, got the results, its 16th title.

If there was a turning point in this game of many turns and twists, it was that onside kick after a Clemson field goal had tied the game with 10:34 left on the clock. “We have that in our kickoffs,” said Saban. “We needed something to change the momentum of the game, and that changed the momentum.”

It was popup kick that Marlon Humphrey grabbed from the air right on the 50. From there in two plays, a one-yard Henry run and a 49-yard pass from Coker to Howard, Alabama scored the touchdown that would lift them into the lead for good.

“I’m very proud of this team,” said Saban. “After losing to Ole Miss (in the third game of the season), they worked as hard as any team I’ve had. I coached this team as much as I ever coached any team.

“This game, we didn’t always play pretty. It wasn’t one of our best games. But we competed when we needed to. That’s why we won.”

On the West Coast particularly, there was disappointment when Henry was voted the Heisman Trophy over Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. But Henry is what football people call a horse, someone who carries as often as it's required, making one or two yards on some runs and as many as 50 on others.

“We didn’t have the same juice we had in this game as we had in the Michigan State game,” said Saban, referring to the 38-0 win in the semifinal that lifted the Tide into the championship game. Teams don’t always play at the maximum from game to game, but the best teams end up with more points than the opponent.

“Championship football,” sighed Swinney, the Clemson coach, “is a game of a few plays. And that’s really what this one came down to. It was a slugfest out there, and I thought a couple of special-team plays were huge momentum (changers). Four national championships. I mean that’s an incredible accomplishment.”

The onside kick? Swinney said Clemson didn’t have the opportunity to catch the ball, so he screamed at the officials. But he conceded it was a smart, great play by Alabama. “Then we followed with a bust for a touchdown,” he said of Alabama’s rapid score. “So it was a combination of mistakes.”

The adage is in football the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins. That team again was Alabama, in a game that will be remembered, even by Clemson.


Saban does it his way, which is a winning way

By Art Spander

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The thinking is that the only thing that matters at Alabama is football, but there in the school’s playoff brochure, a mere 128 pages compared to the 208 of the season media guide, are photos of head coach Nick Saban shaking hands with players wearing mortarboards and clutching sheepskins, not pigskins.

That the photos are on the page following pictures of Derrick Henry and Saban posing with Henry’s Heisman Trophy and Ryan Kelly clutching his Rimington Trophy as outstanding college center provides a sense of perspective. Yes, education is important at this institution of higher education, but at the University of Alabama, nothing is important as football.

In the Southeast Conference — SEC, not the S&EC, or Securities and Exchange Commission — nothing is important as football (except at Kentucky, where basketball is No. 1.) If it’s not one SEC school, Auburn or LSU, winning the national title, then normally it’s another, Alabama.

The number for the Crimson Tide is 15, four since Saban took over in 2007. The school and the man go for another tonight against Clemson, whose head coach, Dabo Swinney, is an Alabama grad, at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Two teams from the Deep South meeting for the national title. Imbalance?  More an issue of propriety. Success breeds success, and, heavens, that little corner of the United States has been inordinately successful. The Big Ten has tradition. The Pac-12 was competitive with USC, then Oregon, now Stanford. But nothing quite compares with the South, or with Alabama.

A New York Times article a couple of months ago by Joe Drape called the football field “the center of the Alabama universe,” pointing out “over the past decade, the success of Crimson Tide football can be measured off the field as well, as it has become a powerful engine for the university’s economic and academic growth, a standout among other large public universities with a similar zest for capitalizing on their sports programs.”

In other words, the $7 million a year earned by Saban (who graduated from Kent State, outside Cleveland) is a wise investment for a place that prizes Saturday’s Heroes, even if on this January 11 they have the opportunity to become Monday night’s heroes.

Coaches come in different varieties. Some, such as the late John McKay or Jerry Glanville, were quick with one-liners, quotable if not always personable. Others treat interviews like trips to the dentist, necessary but painful.

Vito Stellino now covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for the Florida Times Union, but he spent many years in Pittsburgh, where he said of conversations with then-Steelers coach Chuck Noll, “He talks to you like there are only two people who understand what he’s talking about, and you’re not the other one.”

Saban, who surely has earned his arrogance, fits in that category. When on media day for the championship game he was asked about stopping quarterback DeShaun Watson of the No. 1-ranked, 14-0 Tigers, the coach did his best to avoid a sneer.

“Well, I don’t know that there’s anything specific that you would be able to understand,” he said, “without me having a grease board up here and draw stuff up, but I think that would be really kind of hard to explain.”

So, buzz off, and we’ll discuss something any sports writer would understand, like pizza and beer.

What Swinney, not quite as protective as Saban, is willing to talk about is 14-1 Alabama, not only his alma mater but arguably the standard of undergraduate football.

“It’s incredible,” said Swinney, “Coach Saban and what he has done. I mean he’s one of the greatest coaches that’s ever coached the game. Regardless of what happens Monday night, you can’t argue that. He’s already won four national championships (one at LSU) — this is the first one I’ve sniffed at — and he’s going for his fifth.

“People will say anybody can win at Alabama. Well, no, that’s not the case. Not everybody can coach a great team. Not everybody can coach a great player, and I think he has a gift to be able to do that. You have to be able to recruit consistently. You have to be able to put a stand together and build that, so you have to have a vision for what you want to do … and the consistency is unprecedented.”

Saban, 64, seems caught between a shrug and a gloat in post-game victory photos, especially those in which he’s lifting a championship trophy of some sort, sort of “OK, I’ll smile, but I’m not holding it.” He contends we misunderstand the look.

“I’m a very happy person,” Saban insisted. “Maybe my demeanor, the image created by a lot of you (the media) doesn’t reflect that. I’m a very happy person. And I’m a serious person about trying to do things to have a very good program that benefits the players personally, athletically and academically.

“I think I’m guarded in terms of what I do because everybody has a camera, and I think my image as a leader for our organization is very important, and I think it’s important for everybody in our organization to try to represent it in a first-class way.”