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ATLANTA – Two years ago, with the national title game slipping away and Alabama on the cusp of defensive desperation, Nick Saban made one of the boldest coaching decisions in modern college football history. Nearly five minutes into the fourth quarter of Alabama’s first title game matchup with Clemson, Saban decided the Crimson Tide defense couldn’t stop Deshaun Watson. So he called an onside kick to steal a possession, the defining moment of turning a tie game into a Crimson Tide victory.
On Monday night in Atlanta, Saban managed to make an even bigger gamble to steal another national title victory for the Crimson Tide. With quarterback Jalen Hurts sputtering through the first half, Saban inserted true freshman Tua Tagovailoa into the game to start the second half. He’d never started a game and never faced a moment close to the breadth of this one.
Saban’s decision jumpstarted a dormant Alabama offense, allowing the Crimson Tide to turn a 13-point deficit into a 26-23 overtime victory. Tagovailoa lobbed a 41-yard touchdown to DeVonta Smith in overtime for the victory, a streak route on a play known as “Seattle.”
The victory secured Saban’s fifth national championship at Alabama, his sixth as a collegiate head coach and further etches his reputational immortality in the annals of the sport. And this one had Saban’s fingerprints all over it, as his halftime adjustment changed the tenor of the game.
Saban now has tied the record for most national championships with Alabama legend Bear Bryant, as he nudges past Woody Hayes (Ohio State), Howard Jones (Yale and USC) and Bernie Bierman (Minnesota) on the all-time list.
“If you look at the greatest coaches of all time, Coach Bryant is always a major part of that conversation,” said Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne. “Coach Saban is certainly a part of that conversation as well. We’re fortunate they are both part of the University of Alabama.”
Saban was unemotional when asked about walking arm-in-arm in history with the Bear, staying forever locked in on the precious present. But Saban did express his happiness for his players before declaring: “I’ve never been happier in my life. Never!”
Alabama trailed 13-0 at halftime and mustered just four first downs and 94 yards on 24 plays through the game’s first 30 minutes. Meanwhile, an aggressive offensive gameplan from Georgia let quarterback Jake Fromm rip, as he threw ball 23 times in the first half. To move up to the highest echelon in collegiate coaching history, it took a move that was gutsy in real-time and obvious in retrospect. After a three-and-out to open the half, Tagovailoa jumpstarted the Alabama offense with a spin move run for nine yards on third-and-7. Tagovailoa Houdini-ed himself away from three Bulldog tacklers and the Crimson Tide never stopped running.
He completed four straight passes, hit Henry Ruggs for a six-yard touchdown and the Crimson Tide offense found a confidence and identity.
Tagovailoa finished the game completing 14-of-24 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns. He did throw an interception, but was only replaced for the final offensive snap of regulation when Hurts scrambled to the center of the field to set up a field goal attempt. Alabama’s Andy Pappanastos duck-hooked from 36 yards, setting up Tagovailoa’s overtime heroics.
And with that, Saban has found himself in conversations of whether he or Bryant, the man Alabama’s home stadium is named after, is the greatest coach in the history of college football. The question isn’t simple, as it involves comparing different eras, as the sport has transformed itself with scholarships restrictions, an influx of money, conference championship games and a three-game playoff to determine the sport’s biggest winners.
“The game is just so different,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher told Yahoo Sports. “They’re both great. I think it’s impossible to compare.”
Few living coaches have the perspective of Hall of Famer Bobby Bowden, who coached in the state during Bryant’s time at Alabama. He was hesitant to declare Saban superior to Bryant, but did not hold back on his compliments for what Saban has put together while at Alabama. “It’s about as high as you can get,” he told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “I came up during Bear’s time. I didn’t think anyone could match him. Especially no one could come to ‘Bama and do it, he’d be too hard to follow. I don’t know how everyone else will feel, but they’re even. Nick will have time to move on.”
Saban’s five national titles at Alabama have come in 11 years. Bryant’s six titles at Alabama took 25 years. Saban has shown no signs of slowing down. And while Georgia emerged as both a worthy foil on Monday and in the SEC in the future, it’s hard to envision Alabama will cede any ground after appearing in three straight title games.
Now that he’s caught Bryant, the rest of Saban’s career will be spent chasing history. He’s 66, in great shape and still has the singular focus required to win at this level.
Former Florida coach Steve Spurrier admits that “it was easier” to win titles during Bryant’s time, as the dynamics of football in the SEC and nationally have changed so drastically. But he declined to declare Saban superior to Bryant. “I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’ll let you sportswriters do that. When it’s all said and done, you added them up and they’ll be right with each other.”
And now that Saban has caught Bryant, he’ll spent the rest of his career chasing immortality.
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