As long as there's another game to be played, Nick Saban never allows himself to reflect on anything other than the next step in the journey. When that journey ended Monday night, and Alabama had captured its fourth national championship since in seven seasons, Saban's mind raced to places even he didn't expect it to.
The Crimson Tide's newest national championship -- their 11th of the official variety, 16th by the T-shirt count -- was rooted in the Crimson Tide's 43-37 home loss to Ole Miss. Saban's fifth national title, beginning with the one bestowed on LSU by the coaches after the 2003 season, was rooted in his years of moderate success at Michigan State.
Saban thought back to his first game as the head coach with the Spartans. They lost 50-10 to Nebraska, which was in the midst of its own run of three national championships in four seasons.
"I'm saying (to myself), 'We may never win a game as a college coach,' " Saban said. "And I remember running across the field, and Tom Osborne said, 'You're not as bad as you think.' "
"So I learned a lesson that day. As long as you do this, it's always about your next play. It's always about the next game."
Saban thought about another game when the Spartans faced a No. 1 team. It was his fourth season at Michigan State. They upset Ohio State 28-24 on the road.
"You remember those times, and you remember all the lessons that you learned in terms of developing a process that works for young people to have a chance to be successful, a team dynamic that gives you a chance to be successful," he said. "And right now, as long as I'm going to continue to do this, I'm going to keep things in perspective and look forward and not backward."
Yet, Saban isn't really caught up in winning titles. This might disappoint some Bama fans, especially being at a school so consumed with national championships that they have to include some dubious ones to inflate the count. He insists he draws more satisfaction from the very ideals that Mark Richt has been somewhat lampooned for espousing.
Molding young men. Instilling discipline. Relishing their success in life like a proud father.
"I know it's an entertainment business. I get that. I understand that. I know winning is really important," Saban said. "But from a program standpoint, from a philosophy standpoint, helping these young guys develop as people, seeing them have a chance to be more successful in life, seeing them graduate, going to graduation, taking 23 pictures at mid-semester with guys that graduated, having 29 guys playing in this game that already graduated, seeing guys develop the kind of competitive characteristics and work hard to develop physically so they have a chance to play at the next level, see people develop careers, see our institution use the resources it has to help guys launch their careers, I mean, this is what college
football is all about. This is the self-gratification that you get from being a college coach.
"It's not just winning the game. It's not just winning the championship. It's always the goal as a competitor. But there's a lot more things that are very positive in terms of what you try to do internally in your organization to help people, build relationships, and I think that's the fun part of being a part of a team."
Saban has repeatedly mentioned how much he loves this team. Perhaps some of that is his own personal development and being reminded of the role he plays in these young men's lives. Certainly, there's plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. But his teams are always talented. This one, though, had more of those intangible qualities that coaches love. Determination. Togetherness. Leadership. Selflessness.
"I think if you've never been a part of a team, it's probably hard to understand," Saban said. "But it's fun to be a part of that, everybody working for a common goal every day, not having a lot of people who dissipate from the principles and values which you try to lay down to show them what they need to do to have a chance to accomplish the goals that they have, and when a group of people do that, it's just something really special, and that's what this team has been. They probably came further as a group because of that than maybe any group that we've ever had."
Saban plans to give the players a little extra time off before diving back into offseason conditioning. As for himself, though, recruiting picks up hot and heavy. A new journey awaits.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at email@example.com