My newspaper column this week:
Nick Saban captured an astonishing fourth national championship in seven years Monday night, when Alabama defeated Clemson in the national title game, and his fifth national championship overall.
In doing so, he cemented his status among college football’s all-time greats. So what else is there to accomplish among mere mortals?
I’ll get right to the point: It’s time to go, Nick. To an NFL job. To the Texas Longhorns. To a retirement home in some coastal paradise. Anywhere but Tuscaloosa. (Or any other SEC school, for that matter. [Except maybe Tennessee.])
As a diehard Vols fan, I’ve accepted that Tennessee isn’t likely to beat Saban — ever. And while the game might someday pass Saban by in much the same way it passed by some of the all-time greats like Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon, either.
It isn’t that Saban is invincible. Only one of his national championship teams — his first at Alabama in 2009 — have been undefeated. But in a conference where you’re probably going to have to beat Alabama twice to keep them out of the playoffs, Saban’s title run likely isn’t over. And considering Tennessee — as the only SEC East team to face Alabama every single year — would have to beat Alabama twice in an average year just to get into the playoffs, it’s a dire situation.
So it seems too much to ask that Saban will fall on a run of bad luck. As fans of opposing schools (yes, Auburn, we know you’re in this same boat — even if you won’t admit it), we have little choice but to hope the SEC pressure-cooker becomes too much for Saban.
And no one would blame him if it did. Alabama fans are without question the most rabid in all of college football, which is as bad as it is good. It’s been only months since more than an occasional Roll-Tide’r on the internet message boards was calling for an end of the Saban era after Alabama lost to Ole Miss.
Saban has proven that he has the longevity to survive in the SEC, recruiting at the top of the list year-in and year-out. (But think how much easier it would be in Austin, Nick. You would have college football’s fullest coffers in one of the nation’s top prep talent pools at your disposal — not to mention a much easier conference to compete in, with a fanbase much easier to appease.)
Not that Texas has a vacancy. Charlie Strong is on the hotseat, but his dominating win over Oklahoma secured his job for at least one more year. Or did it? What would happen if Saban expressed an interest in the job? What’s the old saying about it not hurting to ask? (Have Jimmy Sexton test the waters, Nick.)
When the SEC became too much for Urban Meyer, he had to feign a heart attack to get out of Gainesville and bolt for the Big 10. But no one would blame Saban if he simply rode off into the sunset.
What more does he have to prove? He’s still one national championship behind the Bear, but he’s accumulating trophies at a faster pace than even Bryant. Bryant won three in a five-year span from 1961 to 1965, and three more in a seven-year span from 1973 to 1979. But four in seven years?
Not even the man who rocked the houndstooth could pull that off. Saban has had Alabama at No. 1 in the polls for eight consecutive seasons. The Bear never came close to that. Not even the Miami dynasty of the ’80s pulled that off.
Then there’s the NFL. Saban’s stint with the Dolphins didn’t end well. (Hey, Nick, you’re a heck of a college coach, but you’re a terrible NFL coach. Did you hear me? Terrible! Don’t you want to prove me wrong?) As luck would have it, one of the franchises with a vacancy is the Cleveland Browns. As in Jimmy Haslam’s Cleveland Browns. Haslam has donated tens of millions of dollars to the University of Tennessee over the years to ensure its athletic success. Making Saban an offer he can’t refuse to coach the Browns would essentially be an extension of the same thing.
Or maybe the allure of retirement is Saban’s kryptonite — a hut on some Caribbean beach where all the drinks have umbrellas and the day’s biggest worry isn’t the whimsical tendencies of an 18-year-old recruit but whether to fit your 18 holes into the morning or evening hours. (Let’s face it, Nick, you’re not getting any younger, and you don’t want to coach until you’re knocking on death’s door, like the Bear did, or like Paterno did. Enjoy yourself a little.)
I’m being somewhat facetious, of course. I don’t truly think Tennessee will never beat Saban. It could have easily happened this year, in fact. Giving up the late fourth quarter touchdown is one reason why Tennessee brought in Bob Shoop and why John Jancek is job hunting.
But I’m also not going to hold my breath. Saban recruits well enough that he’s almost always going to have the most talented team on the field, which means that if you’re going to beat him you’re going to have to out-strategize him — which is no easy feat.
So that’s life as a Tennessee fan. It wasn’t always this way. When Bear Bryant was establishing himself as one of the best coaches in America, General Neyland was beating him with ease. Bryant famously quipped that anytime the subject of Neyland came up he had to excuse himself to find a place to barf. And when Neyland finally retired, Bryant was overheard muttering, “Thank God the old guy finally quit.”
Times have changed. (“Thank God Derek Dooley finally quit,” said no college coach ever.) Sadly, the Mike Dubose era in Tuscaloosa is far in the rearview mirror. If Tennessee fans are to stop living vicariously through Clemson and — shudder — Ohio State, it may require Saban deciding that he’s accomplished all there is to accomplish in the college ranks.
(And if that ever happens, Mr. Battle, can you please promote Lane Kiffin?)
• Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.