University of Alabama

Joe Medley: Saban teaches Swinney a trick or two


GLENDALE, Ariz. --- Dabo Swinney might be Alabama’s coach one day, but the legendary coach he might replace got him Monday.

Nick Saban got Swinney with the most uncharacteristic of Nick Saban plays.

Nick Saban got Swinney with a play executed as if the Tide had practiced it the Saban way … so often his kickoff team couldn’t get it wrong in the game that mattered most.

Call it the onside kick and catch.

Call it a completion from Adam Griffith to Marlon Humphrey.

Whatever you call it, call it one of the gutsiest, most cold-blooded and cunning calls in a championship game ever, and call it the play that changed everything in Saban’s fourth successful title-game shot at Alabama.

Alabama’s Adam Griffith had just kicked a field goal to tie the game 24-24 with, get this, 10:34 to play.

So much time left in a tie game, so many ways a major gamble could come back to haunt the Tide, but does Nick Saban care? Nope.

The guy who hadn’t been challenged in a national-championship game at Alabama didn’t care. Like with every other Alabama team he took into the season’s final game, he came prepared.

Saban had a card to play in an even match, and he pulled it at the most unexpected time.

After Griffith’s tying field goal, Saban ordered the onside kick, but it was no typical onside kick. Griffith kicked a lob to his right and led Humphrey like a Jake Coker pass. Humphrey caught the ball like a wide receiver catching a fade.

Alabama got the ball back and capitalized with the the go-ahead score, Coker’s 51-yard touchdown pass to O.J. Howard.

Just like that, Alabama went from on the edge to in command.

Just like that, Saban flashed a rare smile on the sideline, the kind often seen in a “You mad bro” meme.

Just like that, Swinney was outwitted by the best college football coach of this generation … or maybe any generation.

It’s something Swinney can take with him, if so much of the talk leading up to this game comes to fruition some day.

It’s natural to speculate about a 64-year-old coach like Saban retiring or taking on that unsatisfied career challenge, while there’s time. It’s natural to think of Swinney, who played for Alabama’s 1992 national-title team and who built Clemson into a team that could challenge Saban-era Alabama in a title game, as a possible successor.

That scenario got air time and ink in the lead-up to this most nervous of championship games for Saban’s Alabama teams, but wait. Don’t go giving the hottest young coach in college football the old legend’s job just yet.

Saban still has something for his challengers, something more than yet another national recruiting championship. He has preparation, ideas and guile, and wow, does Saban have timing.

Credit Swinney for making Saban take chances in a championship game. Credit Saban for having an ace and playing it like the force he still is.

It got Alabama its 16th national title and fourth under Saban.

It got Saban a fifth national title, including his one at LSU, spanning his national titles over the BCS and College Football Playoff eras.

The onside kick also taught Swinney a lesson that just might benefit his alma mater some day.

Contact Sports Columnist Joe Medley at On Twitter, @jmedley_star.