The 1979 college season was a landmark one for Alabama fans, with head coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant securing his fifth national championship (citing only the Associated Press poll) — an individual record for football coaches since the AP poll debuted in 1936.
The ’79 campaign might have also marked the last time Nick Saban smiled — midway through a game — while occupying the sidelines. Back then, Saban was a precocious, but driven defensive backs coach at West Virginia, enjoying the fruits of clean, intense competition … minus the all-out pressure of competing for national championships every year.
That 37-year-old speculation comes with tongue planted in cheek, of course. But then again, no one can disprove it, either. Throughout his highly decorated career (five national championships, six SEC crowns, nine SEC West titles), Saban has been a notoriously difficult nut to crack during games, always choosing menacing glances and laser-like focus over fun, frivolity or even happiness along the sidelines.
That is, until Monday night.
With Alabama and Clemson deadlocked in a 24-all tie early in the fourth quarter, Saban authorized the stealth attempt of an onside kick — immediately after Adam Griffith’s game-tying field goal. The impromptu plan went off without a hitch, with Griffith booting a perfect Baltimore Chop-style kick/floater into the waiting arms of a Crimson Tide teammate (Marlon Humphrey).
This beautifully timed move not only provided Alabama with ideal field position (50-yard line), it also prompted Saban to flash a wide smile in the general direction of the other coaches and players … as if he knew this momentum shift would lead to the Crimson Tide’s 16th national championship in history.
And that’s exactly how things turned out, albeit in stomach-churning fashion, with the Crimson Tide edging No. 1 Clemson in the College Football Playoff title game, 45-40.
“I have all the confidence in the world in (Humphrey),” said Saban after the game. “I think (the Alabama players) see what happens in practice. But the way we line up on kickoffs with squeeze formation and try to corner-kick the ball, when a team squeezes the formation like that, we call it pop kick. …
“I made the decision to do it because the score was (tied) and we were tired on defense and weren’t doing a great job of getting them stopped; and I felt like if we didn’t do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game that we wouldn’t have a chance to win.”
For posterity sake, the ESPN cameras were on the spot after the deft kick, capturing Saban’s smile for all time; and that’s a good thing, just in case the coach never flashes those pearly whites again before the clock hits zero.
It takes a perfectly executed, 4th quarter fake onside kick in the title game to make Nick Saban smile. pic.twitter.com/DHElnii9BR
— Andrew Beaton (@andrewlbeaton) January 12, 2016
* * *
You couldn’t have asked for a more entertaining championship game. It worked on so many levels:
Frenetic pace of play? Check.
Explosive plays from big-time playmakers? Check.
Back-and-forth scoring? Check.
The ‘over’ crowd in betting circles getting monetary satisfaction? Check. (The over/under was reported at 50.5 … or 34 1/2 points less than the actual tally of 85.)
An enduring uncertainty of which program would claim the national title? Check.
ESPN execs dancing in the streets of Connecticut, in anticipation of boffo ratings from Monday’s telecast? Check.
Not a bad checklist. In fact, the only thing missing for the casual observer involved the lack of a dramatic, last-second finish — excluding Saban’s celebratory Gatorade shower (Fruit Punch) with 12 ticks left.
By then, Alabama quarterback Jake Coker (335 yards passing, two TDs) and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry (158 rushing yards, three TDs) had perfected their title-clinching leaps onto the packs of white jerseys. And by then, America (by way of TV and social media) had already been treated to Saban’s killer smile — after the momentous onside kick.
The funny thing is, this championship clash didn’t require special-teams heroics to be deemed great by the masses. Both Coker and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson enjoyed monster outings at quarterback, with the former connecting with tight end O.J. Howard (five catches, 208 yards) for two touchdowns … and the latter accounting for 478 total yards (405 passing) and four TDs.
And yet, you cannot tell the story of Alabama’s exhilarating victory without mentioning D.J. Pettway’s successful blocked field goal (with the score tied at 14), Kenyan Drake’s 95-yard kickoff-return TD (putting the Tide up 38-27) and, of course, Humphrey’s recovery of the Griffith onside kick — a simple, seamless transaction which almost bore the look of a Griffith-to-Humphrey pass.
“Great play by them. It was a great kick,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, while lamenting Alabama’s onside attempt during his post-game address. “First of all, (Griffith) put it right in a good spot, and their kid (Humphrey) did a great job of going and getting it. It was a huge play. But then we followed it up with a (defensive) bust for a touchdown. So, it was a combination of mistakes.”
With the defeat, Clemson (14-1) missed out on becoming the first 15-0 NCAA/FBS champion in 100-plus years. On the bright side, the Tigers might have a stronger national following after Monday’s showcase of talent and heart. Truth be told, they outplayed Alabama for long stretches of this championship match … but came up short in the end.
* * *
And just like that, a hotly contested debate has quickly become a seemingly indefensible notion: Nick Saban has trumped all comers, even the legendary Bear Bryant, in the realm of ‘Greatest College Football Coach Of All Time.’
Yes, technically, Saban (four championships with Alabama, one with LSU) and Bryant each boast five Associated Press national titles. And yes, both leaders already have bronze statues outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
However, The Bear (232-46-9 in Tuscaloosa) accrued his five championships (six, if you count the UPI/coaches’ title from 1973) in an 18-year span … while Saban (100-18 with Alabama) needed only 12 years to pull off the similarly stellar feat. And let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room here: It’s harder to win a national title in today’s relentless, dog-eat-dog culture of college football, compared to the sport’s primitive days of the 1960s and 1970s.
For example, big-armed quarterbacks like Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler and Richard Todd once dreamed of playing for Bryant at Alabama, even though they would be orchestrating run-oriented offenses. In today’s game, however, those same blue-chip QB recruits might sidestep Alabama’s steep tradition … for a pro-style offense more tailored to their immense passing talents.
On the flip side, as a theoretical young coach, Bryant would likely have adjusted to the modern-day advancements of the college game, in terms of speed, strategy and sophistication. But who knows how The Bear might have reconciled the 24/7 fishbowl of being the Alabama coach (more daunting than ever), the countless rejections on the recruiting trail and the stunning depth and size of power conferences — especially the big, bad SEC?
Case in point: From 1961-79, bottom-feeders Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Mississippi State rarely, if ever, competed for SEC titles, minimizing the number of potential land mines on Alabama’s schedule. Fast forward to the present: We live in a quirky world where Florida remains an annual pick for the SEC title game … but still has the capacity for single-day meltdowns against Vandy, Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and/or Georgia Southern.
In 1975, Alabama could shake off a season-opening loss to an eventual six-win club (Missouri) and still compete for the national title by year’s end. It was just an easier road to conquer back then.
The ‘Bryant vs. Saban’ debate may be a tired one inside Alabama state lines, with each side never wavering from their stubborn stances (regardless of championships won), and that’s fine. But it certainly has a fresh window of opportunity on the national sports-talk front.
After all, at this time, golf fanatics could not universally support the notion of Tiger Woods (14 majors) topping Jack Nicklaus (18 majors) as the greatest golfer of all time. Just like few seamheads — regardless of geographical ties — could refute the New York Yankees (27 world championships) as the most storied franchise in Major League Baseball.
The rationale here: Championships matter; and when that number becomes a subject for debate (AP poll vs. UPI poll, era vs. era, etc.) … “time” should serve as the clinching tiebreaker.
More on Alabama
- Nick Saban thinks of something great and wins title No. 5
- Watch: Alabama buses left Lane Kiffin behind
- Nick Saban finally gives ESPN a smile
- Behind the scenes of Alabama’s defining play
- Alabama makes Sports Illustrated cover
- Nick Saban talks about eventual retirement
- Alabama stars will make NFL decision after talks with Saban
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.