For weeks late in the 2006 season, Nick Saban denied he would leave his job as the Miami Dolphins’ coach. Saban had been linked to the opening at the University of Alabama, which had fired its coach, Mike Shula, after a 6-6 season. But even though Saban had excelled at the college level at Michigan State and LSU, he vowed he would remain with the Dolphins, where he went 9-7 and 6-10 in two seasons.
In January 2007, though, Saban reneged on his words. He left Miami and signed an eight-year deal with Alabama for a guaranteed $32 million.
Turns out, that was a brilliant decision for Saban and an all-time bargain for Alabama.
On Monday night, the No. 1 Crimson Tide defeated No. 3 Ohio State, 52-24, in the College Football Playoff championship game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. It was the program’s sixth national title in the past 12 seasons and Saban’s seventh championship, which is a new record for a college football coach. Saban, who also won a title at LSU in 2003, was previously tied with former Alabama coach Bear Bryant, who had won six championships during his tenure from 1958 to 1982.
Late in Monday night’s game, with the game already a blowout, ESPN’s Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit discussed where Saban ranked among the best college coaches in history.
“There are so many great names that are out there,” Herbstreit said. “But, to me, he’s at the top. He didn’t need to win necessarily tonight to prove that, but as you say it sure helps getting that seventh.”
It’s hard to argue with Herbstreit. Yes, Alabama is among the most storied programs in college football, dating to even before Bryant arrived on campus. But the Crimson Tide were mediocre and inconsistent for a decade until Saban took over. From 1997 to 2006, Alabama finished at or below .500 four times and went a combined 67-55 under three coaches (Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Shula).
As such, Saban wasn’t a sure bet to thrive at Alabama. The Crimson Tide then went 7-6 in Saban’s first season in 2007, although each of the losses was by seven points or fewer. Since then, Alabama has won at least 10 games in each of the past 12 seasons and won titles in the 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2020 seasons.
On Monday night, Alabama and Ohio State were tied, 14-14, early in the second quarter. But from there, Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones threw three touchdown passes in the next seven minutes as Alabama took a 35-17 lead into halftime.
By then, Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith already had 12 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns, setting records for most receptions and touchdown catches in a national title game during the BCS and CFP eras that date to 1998.
Smith, who won the Heisman Trophy last week, sustained a hand injury in the third quarter and never returned. But the Crimson Tide didn’t need him as they were in control and Ohio State couldn’t mount a comeback. Jones completed 36 of 45 passes for 464 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions, while running back Najee Harris gained 79 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns.
Alabama finished the season 13-0, only the second time it went undefeated during Saban’s tenure, the other time occurring in 2009 when the Crimson Tide went 14-0. Back then, it was hard to imagine Saban would accomplish so much in Tuscaloosa. But now, the Crimson Tide is in as good a position as ever.
Although Jones, Smith, Harris and others will be gone next season, Alabama will enter the season as a 3-1 favorite to win the national title, according to Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. The Crimson Tide also has the nation’s top recruiting class, according to 247Sports.
Saban, who will turn 70 on Oct. 31, remains a workaholic who loves coaching and recruiting. As long as he’s around, the Crimson Tide should be in the national title hunt.
After Monday’s game, ESPN’s Allison Williams asked Saban if he could process what it meant to surpass Bryant with his seventh championship.
“Not really,” Saban said. “I’m just happy that we won tonight. I’ve never really thought about that because we’re always looking forward. I just love this team so much and what they’ve been able to do. I can’t even put it into words.”
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