The “Brady or Belichick” debate has been waged among NFL analysts for several years now, and probably will continue long after both are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The debate is this: Which man is more responsible for the New England Patriots’ unparalleled dynasty? Is it Brady, perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history? Or is it Belichick, arguably the smartest head coach in NFL history? (It’s Belichick, by the way.)
As Alabama continues its unparalleled college football dynasty, there is no such debate. Nick Saban is solely responsible for the Crimson Tide’s five national championships — and one win away from title No. 6 — in the past 10 seasons.
Yeah, the Crimson Tide has been loaded with talent every year since Saban started assembling one No. 1 recruiting class after another. The argument can be made that during that 10-year stretch, which began with Saban’s third season at Alabama, that the Crimson Tide has never faced a team more talented than themselves.
Only a handful were even possibly as talented as Alabama. LSU in 2011, Ohio State in 2014, Clemson in 2016 make the short list.
And yet …
As obviously great as Saban is (the greatest college coach of all time), his trophy case is conspicuously bare in one regard. He has never been recognized as National Coach of the Year during any of his national championship seasons at Alabama. Not any of the 10 or so most recognized Coach of the Year awards — Bobby Dodd, The Sporting News, Associated Press, Eddie Robinson.
Not. One. Time.
That will change Monday night if Alabama beats Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Saban already has been selected for the Walter Camp Coach of the Year award. Some of the awards for 2018 have not yet been announced.
But so far, nothing.
Saban was recognized by some of the various entities in 2003, but that was with LSU. He was almost the unanimous winner in 2008, but Alabama lost to Florida in the SEC Championship Game. What’s worse, he has beaten some of the winners in the national championship game: LSU’s Les Miles in 2011, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly in 2012, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney in 2015, Kirby Smart in 2017.
The fact that Saban’s teams have been more talented year in and year out is exactly why he has been overlooked. His teams have made winning look ridiculously easy. His teams have lost 12 games over the last 11 seasons. Four of those losses were to teams that won the national championship. Two others (LSU in 2011 and Auburn in 2013) came against teams that played for the national championship.
Many voters take the position of “How did he play the hand he was dealt?” In Saban’s case, many think of him as the dealer playing with a stacked deck.
To a certain extent that’s true. Lose six guys to the NFL draft, replace them with six more guys who will be drafted — in some cases, even higher than the guys before them.
But to think any team can just plug-and-play new talent minimizes the importance of building a team. Recreating new chemistry, growing new leaders, adapting play calls and personnel rotations, or, most recently with the offense, implementing an entirely new scheme to get the most out of his players’ talents. He has won national championships with four different offensive coordinators: Jim McElwain, Doug Nussmeier, Lane Kiffin and Brian Daboll.
In 2015, after losing to Ole Miss for the second consecutive season, Alabama dropped out of the top 10. There were signs that the Saban dynasty might be ending. The Crimson Tide went into Athens as a rare underdog against Georgia. You might recall what happened. The Tide overwhelmed the Bulldogs, which basically was the game that got Mark Richt fired, and ended up winning the national championship.
Their starting quarterback was Jake Coker, who had struggled so mightily the year before that he couldn’t beat out Blake Sims, a converted running back.
So many say that is owed to the tutoring genius of Kiffin. But it was Saban who hired Kiffin (first as an analyst, then as offensive coordinator) when many others considered Kiffin to be toxic.
But perhaps Saban’s most remarkable coaching job came last year. The Tide were coming off a devastating loss to Clemson in the national championship game. That loss hit Saban harder than perhaps any other, including the Auburn loss in 2013, because Alabama was one minute away from winning another title. It was still eating at him two months later when he was interviewed by ESPN’s Chris Lowe.
“I’ll never get over it because you never do with those kind of losses,” Saban said. “I never got over the returned field goal at Auburn. I never got over playing poorly against Ohio State (in the 2014 semifinals) and losing that game late. And then in this game, we didn’t play very well, and Clemson did when they had to. That’s what eats at you.”
The Tide once again had to deal with attrition. Ten more players were drafted by NFL teams, seven of them in the first two rounds. Then came a string of injuries that would have been insurmountable for any other program. That meant true freshmen or underclassmen who had been relegated to the scout team the year before were now starting or playing significant minutes.
Saban should have won Coach of the Year then. But most of the outlets selected Central Florida’s Scott Frost. The Sporting News picked Smart.
That was Saban’s most amazing coaching job ever.
Until this year.
Alabama lost its offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator, and Saban reshuffled several other members of his staff. He handled a potentially divisive quarterback situation, supplanting two-year starter Jalen Hurts with the more talented Tua Tagovailoa, and diffused it. (Side note: Hurts deserves more credit than anyone for the mature way he stayed focused on improving and being a team player.)
Saban thoroughly out-coached Smart in the SEC Championship Game to secure the Tide’s spot at the No. 1 seed in the playoff.
Yet most of the Coach of the Year awards that have been named so far have gone to Kelly.
Maybe there’s a better solution. Just name the thing the Nick Saban Award and give it to whoever is second best.