The Dynasty’s Architect
Nick Saban plays victim to no one. However, he has been a victim of sorts of his own success as it pertains to individual honors, not that those have ever mattered to the Alabama leader.
Saban is the premier head coach in college football, an opinion with so much support that it borders on fact. The greatest of all-time? He’s quickly headed in that direction, if he hasn’t already arrived. Of course, the rub of being so widely acclaimed is that expectations are perennially set in a different galaxy. Fail to win a league title and compete for a national championship, and it’s an off year that warrants a mea culpa. Fill the trophy case with more hardware, and, well, you did what you were asked. While no one will shed tears for Saban, nor would he want them to, he sort of begins each year in a no-win situation.
Coach of the Year honors have traditionally been earmarked for men who soar the furthest beyond a preset, media-driven bar. Yet, where does that leave someone like Saban, whose teams are ranked at or near the top of the polls each summer? Typically, with a consolation prize that’s the equivalent of an honorable mention. But not this year, and not this coach.
Bama began the season ranked No. 1 … again. The Tide rolled through a rugged SEC West schedule … again. And for keeping a collection of student-athletes focused, hungry and sharp the year after winning a national championship, Saban is the recipient of the 2016 George Munger Collegiate Coach of the Year Award.
Throughout his distinguished coaching career, Saban has been governed by a time-tested set of specific principles for success, colloquially known as “the process”. He’s meticulous in his preparation, makes a daily commitment to excellence and tunes out those noises that distract from reaching goals. Saban does things the right way, without exception, and he demands no less from his players. It’s the basis for a coaching luminary who in one decade in Tuscaloosa has won four national championships and five SEC crowns, and has finished in the top 10 in each of the last nine seasons.
And since Saban owns a personal blueprint for sustained prosperity, on and off the field, it surprised no one that his Crimson Tide were right back in the national title hunt the year after winning it all.
USC ended the 2016 season as hot as anyone in the country. However, the Trojans began the year by being thrashed by Alabama, 52-6, which started an inexperienced quarterback who wouldn’t even be a part of the program a month later. For the Tide, it was merely a day at the office, and the start of another memorable season.
Bama trucked everyone in its path, save for a narrow, 48-43 escape of archrival Ole Miss in Week 3. The Tide didn’t just win games during the regular season. It mauled opponents with an assertive ground game, which no longer had reigning Maxwell Award winner Derrick Henry, and a defense that was historically stingy. That suffocating D, a trademark under Saban, held 12 teams to less than 17 points and produced an FBS-best 11 touchdowns.
But something was different with this latest edition of the Crimson Tide, and it made Saban’s tenth season in Tuscaloosa arguably his most impressive one.
Saban, like most coaches, sleeps better at night when he has a veteran at quarterback. Understandable, since upperclassmen are experienced and less likely to become unnerved by the moment. The coach’s last three starters under center? All seniors, Jake Coker, Blake Sims and AJ McCarron. His starter this past fall? Jalen Hurts, the first true freshman to ever lead a Saban-coached team. And yet, the results remarkably remained as sterling as ever.
By starting Hurts, after benching Blake Barnett early on, Saban displayed a willingness to step outside of his comfort zone and adapt to the unique skill set of his personnel. With the youthful and athletic Hurts, Bama deftly shifted to more read option and less downfield passing. It worked swimmingly, with the Tide easily capturing a third SEC championship in a row and the rookie QB earning first team All-SEC.
The year after losing a 2,000-yard rusher, a seasoned quarterback, three starting offensive linemen and a swath of the defensive front seven, Alabama was right back in the hunt for a title. No performance dips. No hiccups. No hangovers after sitting atop the college football world a year earlier. It was a businesslike performance, much the way Saban and his staff had scripted it.
Bama defeated nine teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at kickoff. Nine. And eight of those victims succumbed by double-digits. The Tide led the FBS in scoring defense, ranked No. 15 in points scored and excelled on special teams. This was a textbook collaboration that reached its precipice with a 26-game winning streak, third longest by a program this century.
Yes, the Crimson Tide is home to some of the game’s top athletes, a who’s who of former blue-chippers on both sides of the ball. But that’s simply another reason to celebrate Saban, not diminish his achievements with the program. He has created a winning culture that’s attractive to coveted athletes and assistants alike, the bedrock of a dynastic run that’s propelled the program to college football’s peak. Plus, Saban not only lands stars, but he also develops them and somehow keeps them grounded and focused on the macro team goals.
Saban did not win his sixth national championship to tie Bear Bryant’s all-time mark, falling one painful second shy of defeating Clemson in Tampa. It was a crushing defeat for the coach, who so steadfastly pursues perfection and who was a Deshaun Watson toss in the flat from going 15-0 with a rookie under center and an enormous target on his chest. What was not crushed at Raymond James Stadium was Saban’s resolve or his belief that preparation and an attention to detail produce dividends.
Saban wins when everyone on the planet expects him to, one of the most difficult tasks in coaching at any level. Letdowns or rebuilding? Never on his watch. He is a model of consistency, a characteristic that resonates with his players. Saban’s program is a developer of quality young men, sans the ego, as well as a pipeline to the NFL. He is so exceptional at his profession that he is routinely taken for granted, a compliment in a twisted way. In 2016, though, Saban raised the bar to a new height, opening the season with 14 straight wins, minus much experience in the offensive backfield.
Saban is a living legend, yet he’s still learning and still searching for new ways to gain an edge. He is a leader of men, a master motivator and the standard by which future coaches will be measured. He is the college coach of the year for once again making certain that with proper direction and leadership great athletes can achieve great victories as a team.
Winner: George Munger Award – 2016 University of Alabama