GLENDALE, Ariz. – The greatest coach in college football history has seen the future come for him, seen the trick offenses and innovative tempos and be-your-pal coaches who dab and dance and relate in ways he just can't.
They've thrown everything and anything at Nick Saban through the years and in an era of unprecedented competitiveness, the 64-year-old has beaten them all back with a steely resolve to honor the basics – an old-school offense, a physical defensive front and a daily work ethic that is as intense as it is effective.
Saban has captured his fifth career national title, including his fourth in the past seven years at Alabama, courtesy of a 45-40 victory over Clemson on Monday.
Numerically, he now ranks second all-time, trailing just Crimson Tide legend Bear Bryant, who has six championships. In accomplishment, though, he stands alone. For all Bryant's undeniable genius, he worked in a different era of the game, with fewer schools committed to competing at the highest levels, with more scholarships to stockpile talent and starve the competition and during a time when opinion polls, not 15-game seasons determined the title.
Perhaps comparing coaches from such disparate eras is futile, but to say what Saban is doing is more impressive than what Bryant did is to take nothing from the Bear. It's just the reality of what the sport has become, a mega-billion-dollar national pursuit. A good reason for that, certainly in Tuscaloosa and across the South, is because of how Bryant built the sport.
Paul, in many ways, begat Nick.
Scholarship limits, widespread TV exposure, huge budgets everywhere, more games, expanded conferences, hyper intense recruiting and an insatiable and rarely satisfied public fed by a 24/7 media cycle make everything tougher.
Yet standing at the top is Saban, who isn't young and isn't cool and isn't running a newfangled offense and isn't reinventing the game, but rather sticking with core beliefs strategically while falling back on the most traditional of values he learned in small-town West Virginia. Namely, the proof is in the proof.
It's not that he hasn't innovated, he has – his bold, fourth-quarter onside kick changed the momentum of this game.
"I felt like if we didn't do something, we wouldn't have a chance to win," Saban said.
And it's not that he doesn't find ways to relate to college kids who get increasingly younger – his behind-the-scenes persona can, at times, be loose, or at least looser than his public one.
"He's makes a lot of funny jokes," wide receiver Calvin Ridley said. "He's pretty funny."
"Maybe not ones I'd say here, not for family," Ridley said, laughing. "He's very cool. At times he's serious because he's about winning. That's what I am about too."
Saban has a belief in how to lead, how to organize and motivate his staff, how to recruit, who to recruit, how to coach the players, how to set up a system and how to communicate the value of following it. He doesn't deviate from it.
There's a simplicity to it. And there is a humility to it. He's the last guy who wants to talk about Bear Bryant but the first guy to say a thing like, "I really wanted to do the best that I could do for this team."
It's the kind of line that breezes past most or causes eye rolls with others because, externally, a man with this much success is viewed as something close to infallible. If 'Bama loses it must be because the players didn't do as he said.
Saban, though, still lives in fear of failure, still just wants to try his best, knowing the game is always waiting to humble you. The players see that too. It's what makes him genuine to them.
"After somebody asked me [about legacy] the other day," Saban said, "the first thing that came to my mind was my first game at Michigan State [in 1995] when we played Nebraska, when Tom Osborne was the coach, and we got beat [50-10] and I'm saying, 'I may never win a game as a college coach.'
"And I remember running across the field and Tom Osborne, I think they won the national championship the year before and maybe that year, too, he said, you're not as bad as you think," Saban continued. "So I learned a lesson that day. And you know, as long as you do this, it's always about your next play. It's always about the next game."
Saban is not a charismatic person, at least not in the traditional way. He isn't folksy like Bryant. If anything, he's shy, at least publicly. Even after winning the national championship here he barely smiled, barely celebrated in the way many others have.
Right after the trophy presentation, he went up the tunnel and to the locker room, even as all his staffers and assistant coaches remained on the field. They basked in the moment. He was mostly alone.
Later he lamented, even in ultimate victory, the lack of effort in practice running up to the title game.
"I told the players, 'Hard practice, easy game. Easy practice, hard game,' " Saban said. "I told all the big guys, if you don't rush and run to the ball every time … you're going to die in the game, because this is the kind of game we've got to play.
"So they got 40 points."
When he made the rounds doing media obligations, he rarely cracked a joke, often answering questions with precise verbiage, his arms folded in front of him.
That's him, though. That's how he chooses to enjoy it, with quiet satisfaction. In a sport overrun with salesmen, his pitch is in the Gatorade baths and confetti showers. Others can talk success, but he succeeds. Others may have more thrilling offenses, but what's more thrilling than winning? Other coaches may be more colorful, but don't think Saban doesn't love his guys.
"Sometimes people criticize us and say we're all like business," Saban said. "But I'm going to tell you what, there were more players in the locker room that played for us at Alabama at this game today than I'll bet you anybody has ever had at a game. And that's because they had a great experience at Alabama."
He treats and teaches players the way he was treated and taught by Don James way back at Kent State in 1970 because he believes it's the right thing to do and it will produce great players and great people who then become ambassadors for the next round of great players and great people.
He doesn't believe anything has changed that much.
"The thing that [Don James] did to help me be successful [is] he taught us a lot of lessons of life," Saban said. "And we want these guys to succeed first of all as people, make the right choices and decisions, have the right thoughts, habits and priorities that help them make those right decisions so they can take advantage of their gifts. Be more successful in life for having been involved in the program."
Soon, Saban was on the postgame set of the SEC Network, where one of the analysts, Marcus Spears, helped him earn his first national title back at LSU in 2004. Spears was making the point that this fifth title puts Saban at another level, puts him at the greatest ever.
Saban didn't like the idea that anything is "now" or "different" or "new." The winning is just the result. The part that matters is the journey. Team meetings for next season begin at 3 p.m. Wednesday, after all.
"You and I go way back," Saban said to Spears. "I haven't changed."
The sport has changed, not just from when Bryant coached, but also from that day Nick Saban was drilled by Nebraska. The greatest coach in college football history hasn't. Instead, he just keeps getting stronger.