Nick Saban was so very close to eliminating numbers from the discussion. He had that sixth national title — the one that would tie him with legendary Bear Bryant — in his grasp almost all night in the championship game against Clemson on Monday night.
As Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said after an all-time great college football finale, Saban and Alabama had “the best team in the country up until the last second of this game.” But then, with that one tick to go, former walk-on Hunter Renfrow, of all people, caught the winning touchdown from Deshaun Watson to stun the Crimson Tide.
So, what now? Did Clemson 35, Alabama 31 smudge Saban’s legacy? Here’s the short answer: hell-freaking no.
Sure, it sullied his perfect record in national championship games, but the loss does not make it any less true that Saban is the greatest coach in the history of college football. He didn’t need to match The Bear in trophies to surpass him in status, even if that’s blasphemous in some corners of Alabama.
He’d already accomplished that feat before kickoff Monday. In an era far less conducive to dynasties than Bryant’s, Saban has been equally dominant. Bryant went 88-14-7 and won three national titles in his first 10 seasons at Alabama. Saban now is 119-19 with four crowns in his first decade leading the Tide.
Getting to the top is hard enough but staying there for any extended period of time these days is nearly impossible. Since Saban won his first national title in 2003 at LSU, four other coaches have won championships and then been fired or resigned under pressure from the same school within eight years: Jim Tressel, Gene Chizik, Mack Brown and Les Miles.
Meanwhile, Saban just came within a whisker of winning his fifth championship in the last eight seasons. So, a last-second loss to Clemson, which snapped a 26-game winning streak for the Tide, changes nothing but the available space in the Tuscaloosa trophy case.
The question now, of course, is how many more the 65-year-old Saban will stuff into that thing before he walks away — for a new challenge or a rocking chair. The guess here: He’ll tie Bryant in titles, at minimum, and probably blow right on by him.
“You get to a station in your life … that you just feel like you’re entrenched. You can’t even visualize being somewhere else, and that’s where I am right now,” Saban told ESPN this summer. “My philosophy is that I’m going to be here for as long as I feel like I can be effective, impact the players, help them be more successful in life and continue to have a successful program.”
In that case, strap in for several more championship runs. If Saban is getting bored with this, it isn’t showing in his recruiting. He’s about to sign the nation’s No. 1 class — per 247Sports — for the (insane) seventh straight year, and this one might be (gulp) his best yet.
He already has commitments from the top-rated dual-threat quarterback, running back and outside linebacker in America. More than half his pledges are considered top-10 prospects at their positions, and Saban isn’t even done casting his net for 2017. So many shiny new toys to play with.
Who in his right mind would walk away from that? The best college football coach who ever lived surely won’t any time soon.