BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- In a banquet hall nestled deep in the Birmingham suburbs, Nick Saban managed a chuckle. He’d been there before.
And at least one important person believes the Alabama football coach will be back again. For the second time in its three-year existence, Saban was honored as the Bobby Bowden National Collegiate Coach of the Year.
“I’m just proud to have someone like him win this darn thing,” said Bowden, whose 377 wins ranks second in major college football history. “I think maybe me and him meet here, and we won’t invite y’all.”
Saban, who also won his second BCS national title in three years, was joined by cult hero and ESPN personality Lee Corso at the Sunday banquet. The College GameDay commentator and former coach was honored for his lifetime achievements by the Over the Mountain Touchdown Club.
Corso just wanted to talk about the Alabama defense that shut out then-No. 1 LSU in the Jan. 9 national title game. The hitting “was incomparable,” he said.
“Before the game against LSU, I was comparing the defense from Alabama to 1986 Oklahoma defense, which was considered by many as the best defense in college football,” Corso said. “But after that game, after Nick’s great performance, they went down as the greatest defense in college football.”
Bowden, who honored Auburn coach Gene Chizik with the 2010 award, said the voting for this season’s winner took a late turn. Another candidate pulled in quite a few votes before the season ended, and Saban overtook him after it ended.
The former Florida State coach remembered Saban as a child at football camps when he coached West Virginia. He hired Saban as a graduate assistant before moving on to build his empire in Tallahassee.
Over time, he recognized they coached differently. Bowden opted for “freedom” while Saban “was a better organizer.”
“We need more fathers doing that for these kids nowadays that don’t have daddies,” Bowden said.
When it comes to Saban’s work with defenses, Bowden’s compliments continued.
“I coached for 57 years, and I thought I saw a lot of them,” he said. “But I did not. They were just the most physical I think I’ve seen -- the most physical. Golly, to try to line up and run the ball down their throat? That’s suicide.”
Saban deferred the praise.
“It’s not my defense,” he said. “It’s our defense. They were truly a lot of warriors. I’ve never had a trainer come up to me week in and week out and say to me ‘Mark Barron’s hurt this week. Dont’a Hightower’s hurt this week. Jesse’s hurt this week.’
“But these guys are warriors. They’ll be there to play in the game, and they’ll compete in the game as hard as they ever have, and you’ll never even know it.”
The Alabama offense shouldn’t be forgotten, Saban said. The five field goals and one touchdown scored in the 21-0 win in the championship game came from their production against the second-best defense in the country.
Saban also addressed the headlines made by Trent Richardson’s pre-BCS injury. The Heisman finalist tailback reportedly had minor knee surgery last month after taking a hit in the last few practices before the national title game.
“He wasn’t real limited at all,” Saban said. “I didn’t even think he knew he was hurt.”
Richardson took a facemask to the knee in practice, but he didn’t complain of pain until after the game, Saban said. An MRI revealed a “real minor injury” that kept Richardson from participating in last month’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. He’s still expected to be a top-10 pick in the April draft.