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ATLANTA – Nick Saban stood on a stage in the middle of the field, confetti, streamers and the Georgia Bulldogs having fallen all around him.
Alabama had won another SEC championship, Alabama was headed to another BCS title game, Alabama had outlasted those Bulldogs in perhaps the most tense, tenacious title game they've ever played down here. And that's saying something considering Saban once beat Florida in a battle that ended with Tim Tebow in tears and Urban Meyer in the hospital.
This time it ended with Bulldog WR Chris Conley tackled at the 4-yard line, leaving Alabama fans exhilarated with a 32-28 victory and everyone else exhausted after nearly four hours of epic college football.
Up on the quickly constructed stage, where Saban would soon be presented the championship trophy, his players took turns smiling and hugging and pointing to the crowd. Saban did a little of that, too – a lot for him – but mostly he stood there and rocked back and forth all by himself, impatient even in one of life's fleeting forever moments.
Then a thought crossed his mind, so he reached into his right pocket and pulled out a pen and what he calls his "field notes," simple game reminders that even an iron-focused coach might need to anchor him in the swirl of the battle.
Right there next to "long yard coverage" and "4-man rush," he wrote "(banquet)."
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Then he folded up the paper, put it back in his pocket and stood waiting for CBS to throw the broadcast back to reporter Tracy Wolfson so they could begin the process of getting out of here.
"Well, you know, I'm always thinking what I'm going to say to the team, what the team has to do next," Saban said later in a quiet moment in one corner of a near deserted Alabama locker room. "And I usually write all that stuff down. And I had written that we had a 3 p.m. team meeting tomorrow, but I hadn't written down that we have a team banquet tomorrow night.
"So I was thinking about, what are we doing next here?"
Saban took a moment, shook his head slightly, sheepishly laughing at himself.
"I mean, you just won a championship, they haven't even given us the trophy yet and I'm already thinking about what's next, what do we have to do next?" he said.
That's Nick Saban being the incomparable Nick Saban. He's 61 years old and he isn't changing. Not that anyone in Tuscaloosa would allow it. He's 60-7 over the last five years and one game from his fourth career national title.
"So that's what I wrote," he said.
Saban possesses a maniacal commitment to preparation, concentration and taking care of the smallest of details – and reminding a team in the delirium of a championship locker room that it has a banquet the next night would qualify as the smallest of the small.
Everyone already knows this about the man, although sometimes the depth of his focus is not always truly appreciated. This isn't just the intensity on the sidelines or the rushed news conferences or the way he paces a sideline with his arms folded tightly.
And it isn't just sitting at a postgame SEC championship news conference, the cheers from one of his greatest wins still ringing around the Georgia Dome as he breaks down how his players failed to defend the sideline on the final desperation drive when the Bulldogs worked the clock enough to get to the 4-yard line.
"Attention to detail and doing little things right," Saban said, beginning an exasperated, unsolicited public evaluation of his team. "I know y'all don't want to hear this stuff but we are playing "33 Zone" so they can't get out of bounds. And we let the guy get out of bounds twice over there without a first down.
"We tackle the guy in bounds one time and the game is over because it will take them 25, 30 seconds to get the next play going by the time they regroup and run back to the formation and all of that kind of stuff.
"So all those little things add up to the opportunity that they had at the end of the game," he continued. "And, you know, our players need to learn and execute things. Like I told them, the most important thing in this game was to execute the game plan. The second most important thing was to have a relentless competitive attitude that you will not be denied what you want …"
He went on for a while. And he was talking about the winning players.
In many ways Saturday could be called Saban's greatest victory, and, yes, he's won three BCS titles at two separate schools. This isn't his best team, though. This team isn't even as good as last year's team, which, he notes, didn't even win the SEC (falling short of one goal), although it acquitted itself with a national title.
Yet even with a team that has some flaws and holes, the Tide won here against a Georgia team that kept throwing haymakers, kept seizing the lead and the momentum and simply wouldn't die, even after 'Bama nearly intercepted Aaron Murray on the last drive – a call that was overturned.
It's one thing to win with a dominant club against opponents that crumble. It's another to come back and come back and come back again (three times, including twice in the fourth quarter), to come back against big offensive plays, a blocked field goal for a TD and various self-inflicted wounds.
"We tell them that this is kind of what we are training you to do," Saban said, "to have the mental toughness and the physical toughness to overcome adversity and persevere when [things] don't go right."
This was everything Saban teaches and preaches, everything he obsesses over, on full display, under incredible pressure, with a season on the line. "Accomplishments of significance," is a term he likes to say a lot. That's the reward. This was the process, and it's the process that pleases the coach, not the trophy in the case.
This here on Saturday, this was Nick Saban football.
Afterward, Saban was asked how long he'd enjoy the victory, celebrate and savor it before turning his attention to Notre Dame, the unbeaten No. 1-ranked team that waits in the BCS title game next month in South Florida.
Saban began talking about how there would be some down time because you can't "practice your way to the game" because the layoff is too long. He tried to claim he wouldn't start preparing until practice began.
"So I've got a couple weeks, I think," he said.
No one believed him.
No one ever could believe him.
Without even the trophy in his hands, with fans still screaming, with his wife Terry standing in front, beaming with pride – "I'm happy tired," she laughed – with colored bits of paper still drifting down from the roof, with an all-time great triumph for Saban to bask in, his mind was focused on jotting down a note to remind his team about some banquet which, somehow to him, felt as significant at that moment as long-yardage coverage.
So you really think Manti Te'o isn't already running through his mind?
"Yeah," Saban said back in that locker room, shrugging his shoulders, "so that was it, that's what I wrote about … the banquet."
He chuckled to himself, about himself. Then he went to film his TV show.
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