“Tricky Nick” Saban leads Alabama to title win over Clemson

GLENDALE, Az.–Alabama won a thrilling national title game Monday night because coach Nick Saban got crazy and called for an on-sides kick, in the fourth quarter, of a tied game.

This was Nick Saban who did this, not Steve Spurrier, or Les Miles, or Charles Barkley from a Las Vegas blackjack table. This was Nick S-A-B-A-N, who built his reputation on safe, solid, traditional, cloth-coat football.

Saban, if you had to label him football politically, is a staunch conservative, so this was sort of like Ted Cruz putting out a rap album.

Saban, even later, hardly changed expression in describing the decision. He explained it the way you would order Chinese food over the phone.

“I think we had it in the game anytime we wanted it,” Saban said.

This play, we should stress, will go on the top shelf of meaningful moments in Crimson Tide history. It hijacked the course of the game and helped the Crimson Tide to to 45-40 win over Clemson at the University of Phoenix Stadium.

The call aborted a game that could have gone either way and helped Saban win his fourth national title at Alabama since 2008. It pushed Saban toward the pinnacle of all-time great coaches and allowed his name to be mumbled in the same breath as Bear Bryant.

Yeah, it was that big. Yet, to Saban, it seemed like no more important than picking out a sweater vest. The man is ice, man, ice.

Alabama had just tied the game at 24-24, with about 10 minutes left, when Saban ordered the on-sides.

“It was worth the risk, I felt, ” he said as if ordering a ham and cheese on rye. “It was calculated. And the way they lined up it was available to us.”

What must it feel like to do something so fantastically daring? Rankman won’t even drive in California if the streets are wet.

This is why the man is who he is. Most of us would be petrified in that predicament. No wonder Saban makes 7 million a year, or is it now going to be 15?

Saban ordered the squib by Adam Griffith and watched it fly into the arms of Marlon Humphrey. They practice it all the time, with Humphrey usually flubbing it. But not this time.

Humphrey got the job done and it led instantly to the go-ahead dagger, a 51-yard pass from Jake Coker to tight end O.J. Howard.

Howard, by the way, is an NFL tight end that Alabama has kept in the garage like a vintage Cadillac. Howard could have filed a grievance for being allowed to catch only 14 passes all season (no touchdowns).

Howard made up for it with five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns.

Clemson got suckered in a matter of seconds and never recovered. Saban said his coaches in the press box are trained to call down to indicate when a team is vulnerable for the on-sides kick.  Saban knew early he had the kick any time he wanted it.

He waited for the right moment and called it in like a pizza order.

Saban stone-faced later: “If we didn’t get that, you’d be killing me now.”

So true. And that, kids, is why he’s Nick Saban and we’re all second-rate second-guessers.

Alabama and Clemson was just what college football needed after the ratings for the semifinals games were beaten like a hum-drum.

It wasn’t USC versus Texas, played 10 years ago at the Rose Bowl, but what game could match that?

It was enough that Monday’s game dared to threaten the boundaries of the greatest game, maybe, in college football history. It even teased, for a time, matching  the 41-38 final that thrilled a nation a decade ago.

In the end, though, Alabama and Clemson had to set aside epic and settle for very, very, very good.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, hard as he tried, couldn’t reprise Vince Young. He came very, very, close, throwing for 405 yards and rushing for 73.

Clemson even outgained Alabama in total yards, 550 to 473, if Tiger fans ever wanted to put that on a t-shirt. Alabama, when all was said and sung, was just a little too big and a little too much. When you threw Saban’s chicanery into the game plan, well, forget about it.

Alabama did what USC could not do 10 years ago. Alabama officially became a dynasty Monday. The win only dented a notion the Crimson Tide had the best defense since Fordham’s “Seven Blocks of Granite.” Or, even Alabama’s defense of 1961, which allowed only 25 points all season.

Saban, though, gave Alabama fans another reason to erect a statue. He may not have yet reached Bryant status. Knowing Saban, winning his fifth overall national title won’t ever make up his lousy stint with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Perfectionist coaches tend to dwell on their short-comings.

Saban, in the very least, wrenched the mantle of college football’s best current coach back from Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Monday was also a huge night for Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who may have parlayed another brilliant 60 minutes of play-calling into another head coaching position, maybe in the NFL.

Kiffin, as a USC co-offensive coordinator a decade ago, came up on the short end of the Trojans’ loss to Texas. His career now seems completely rehabilitated after a wacky, head-coaching run with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Volunteers and the Trojans.

The night, though, belonged to “Slick Nick.”  He’ll probably celebrate by ordering a glass of warm milk and a 7:30 a.m. staff meeting Tuesday morning.

It must be so friggin’ cool to be him.



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