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Alabama’s Nick Saban downplays legacy, looks to future

Alabama head coach Nick Saban poses with the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy on Jan. 12, the day after winning his fifth overall title and fourth in seven seasons at Alabama. (Photo by Malcolm Moran)

Alabama head coach Nick Saban poses with the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy on Jan. 12, the day after winning his fifth overall title and fourth in seven seasons at Alabama. (Photo by Malcolm Moran)

By Zach Wagner | @zachwagner22

Sports Capital Journalism Program

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In the crimson afterglow of a fourth national championship in seven seasons and the fifth in his career overall, Alabama coach Nick Saban thought of a far more humbling experience. He remembered a moment he shared with former Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne following the conclusion of the second game Saban coached at Michigan State.

Early in that 1995 season, with Michigan State on the way to a 6-5-1 season and Nebraska headed for a national championship, what Osborne told him at midfield soon after a 55-14 defeat never left his mind.

“I’m saying I may never win a game as a college coach,” said Saban. “And I remember running across the field and Tom Osborne, he said, ‘You’re not as bad as you think.’”

Osborne’s words of reassurance taught Saban that getting caught up in wins and losses can be a dangerous mind game.

“I learned a lesson that day,” Saban said. “As long as you do this, it’s always about your next play. It’s always about the next game.”

In winning his fifth title, Saban joins an elite club with just two members, current and former coaches of the Crimson Tide. The late Paul “Bear” Bryant won six championships as the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide from 1958 through 1982.

That era of college football, before bowl games were used to create championship matchups, complicates the comparison process. The Associated Press did not establish a permanent post-bowl poll until the 1968 season.

Of the six titles that Bryant won, his 1973 championship stands as controversial in the eyes of history. Bryant’s team that year lost its final game of the season, a dramatic 24-23 loss to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. After Alabama’s 11-1 season, the final AP poll in 1973 placed Alabama fourth. The final United Press International poll of coaches, which was released before bowl games from 1950 through 1973, had Alabama locked in as number one.

On that basis, Alabama claims the 1973 championship as one of 16. Both Notre Dame and Penn State finished undefeated during the 1973 campaign.

As Saban continues to win, the comparisons to Bryant have become more and more of a relevant talking point, which Saban sees as more of a sign of respect to his players than any other factor.

“I’ve never really thought too about all that,” he said. “I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for all the players who have played for us, came to our school, bought into our program, (and) did the things they needed to do to have a chance to experience a championship.”

Even though Saban deflects much of the credit for Alabama’s consistent excellence, those around him recognize his special qualities.

“No one realizes how much mental effort and execution and ideas that Coach Saban puts into the game,” said Kirby Smart, who served as Alabama’s defensive coordinator for the final time in his transition to becoming head coach at Georgia. “I don’t get into comparisons, but I will say that he is very, very good at what he does.”

Smart reiterated in the locker room after the game that winning in the current landscape of college football makes Saban’s achievements even greater.

“To win four national championships in seven years, in a world where the parity is so great in college football, is so incredible,” Smart said. “You gotta change quarterbacks every year, kids come and go, kids transfer, it’s just a different world of college football. It speaks volumes to his coaching ability.”

Alabama’s feat of winning four championships in seven years has only been duplicated once in the modern history of college football, when Notre Dame, under Frank Leahy, became consensus champions in 1943, 1946, 1947 and 1949.

“It’s a tremendous accomplishment by a lot of great people, a lot of great coaches, and a lot of great players, a lot of whom were at the game last night,” Saban said Tuesday morning. “That really makes us proud that they’re great ambassadors for the university.”

Quarterback Jake Coker said that going beyond football, Saban’s character makes players want to do the best they can for him.

“His grasp on the things that are more important in life makes him a special coach,” said Coker. “Everyone wants to make coach proud.”

Sometimes Saban looks back and can’t believe how great the game of college football has been to him.

“If somebody would have told me then that this would have happened, I would have said, ‘I think you’re crazy,’” Saban said.

When asked about his future on Tuesday morning, Saban said he still has a strong drive to coach and be around the game.

“I’ve been a part of a team since I was nine years old,” said Saban. “It scares me to ever think of the day when I wouldn’t be a part of the team.”

“That’s kind of how I feel about it. I know you can’t do this forever, but I certainly enjoy the moment and certainly look forward to future challenges.”

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