He is the best in the business; arguably the best of all time. Kentucky faces him Saturday. Playing Alabama at almost any period in the history of college football has been a daunting task, but even more so now. Nick Saban makes it so.
The Alabama coach has won five national championships — four at Tuscaloosa; one at LSU — including three in the past five years. Alabama has not lost more than one SEC game in a season since 2010. It has won 30 of its last 33 games overall. It is, again, the top-ranked team in the country.
OK, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, owner of three national championship rings, is in the best-coach conversation. Every other coach is fighting for No. 3 on the ladder.
When it comes to No. 1, however, the discussion begins and ends with Saban. Here are five reasons why:
1. His ridiculous work ethic. The story goes the morning after Alabama won the national title in 2012, Saban was on the phone with a golfing buddy back in Tuscaloosa. The friend offered congratulations. Saban grunted. “That damn game cost me a week of recruiting,” he replied.
By all accounts, Saban’s work ethic came from his late father in West Virginia. Nick Saban Sr. coached Pop Warner football. A steep hill was located next to the practice field. When it became too dark to see the football, Saban would command his young players to run to the top of the hill. To make sure they made it all the way to the top, he required they bring back a leaf off a tree.
2. Recruiting and development. According to Rivals, Alabama has had the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in five of the past six years — 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016. It finished second in 2015. No doubt Saban was not pleased in 2015.
It’s one thing to sign prospects. It’s another to develop them into NFL Draft picks. Since 2009, Alabama has had 55 players drafted. Eighteen of those were first-round draft picks.
3. Ability to adapt. Lane Kiffin was considered brash, arrogant and something of a pariah back when he was fired as head coach at Southern Cal five games into the 2013 season. Saban didn’t care. He believed his offense needed an update. He liked Kiffin’s play-calling and football mind. Saban brought him to Tuscaloosa. The critics howled.
In 2014, with first-year starter Blake Sims at quarterback, the Tide reached the College Football Playoff. In 2015, with first-year starter Jake Coker at quarterback, the Tide won the national title. Kiffin is among the candidates mentioned for LSU’s new opening. The howling has stopped.
4. Attention to detail: Alabama’s Adam Griffith had kicked a 33-yard field goal to tie Clemson at 24 with 10:34 left in last year’s national title game when Saban ordered a surprise onside kick.
It was the play of the game. On film, he had spotted a slight vulnerability in Clemson’s alignment. Special teams coordinator Bobby Williams had coached it up. Bama executed it to perfection. Two plays later, Coker and tight end O.J. Howard connected on a 51-yard touchdown pass. Alabama won 45-40.
“Coach Saban,” said Williams afterward, “leaves no stone unturned.”
5. The Process: It’s easy to make fun of “The Process,” the title for Saban’s mode of operation. Don’t focus on the outcome, he says. Focus on what you have to do to achieve the desired outcome. That’s the process. It’s boring and simplistic and totally true.
The key? Here’s a hint. Last March, Saban spoke to an Atlanta clinic. He told a story of being an 11-year-old boy fishing at a spot where the hot water ran off a West Virginia coal mine. Saban wasn’t getting a bite. A man close by was reeling in one catfish after another. Saban noticed something odd.
Finally, he asked why the man was keeping the smaller catfish, while throwing the bigger ones back. The man’s answer was simple. He only had a 9-inch skillet.
“See,” Saban told the crowd. “You have to know who you are.”
And right now, Nick Saban is college football’s best coach.
John Clay’s Top 25 current college football coaches
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
3. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
4. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
5. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
6. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
7. Bobby Petrino, Louisville
8. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
9. Gary Patterson, TCU
10. David Shaw, Stanford
11. Tom Herman, Houston
12. David Cutcliffe, Duke
13. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
14. Chris Petersen, Washington
15. Bill Snyder, Kansas State
16. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
17. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
18. Mark Richt, Miami
19. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
20. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
21. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
22. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
23. Mike Riley, Nebraska
24. Mike Leach, Washington State
25. Larry Fedora, North Carolina