- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
“I enjoyed the ride!”
Alabama head coach Nick Saban, his 69-year-old face looking downright cherubic, was specifically talking about the lift he had just received, as he was carried him across the field of Hard Rock Stadium like a sack of potatoes on the right shoulder of 6-foot-6, 324-pound Landon Dickerson, celebrating their 52-24 victory against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
But what he was really describing, and what his tickled facial expression was illustrating, was much more than simply a tender moment shared with a burly offensive lineman. Saban was talking about the entirety of his 2020 college football experience. Somehow, amid this most unpredictable, unsettling and unnerving of college football’s 151 seasons, he has seemed to enjoy this one the most.
Sure, it’s easy to enjoy life when you are in the process of winning your seventh national championship as a head coach, surpassing Crimson Tide demigod Bear Bryant for the most titles in history. And it isn’t difficult to bask in the glory of what is arguably the most impressive one-year college football résumé ever written, running the table on an all-SEC regular-season schedule and defeating the only other two programs with a place at the “greatest program ever” table, Notre Dame and Ohio State … all while producing three of the top five Heisman vote-getters and topping the offensive output (48.5 points per game) of even the historic LSU Tigers champions of one year ago.
However, that glow emanating from Saban late Monday night and well into early Tuesday morning — this was different. Coaching legends don’t smile. They don’t beam. They don’t grin. They scowl. From Bryant and Woody Hayes to Urban Meyer and John Heisman, the College Football Hall of Fame is a portrait gallery of men who look like their underwear is three sizes too small. Grimaced perfectionists all, too busy worrying about the one play that was run incorrectly to enjoy the 60 that were.
Saban has long been as worthy to stand among them as his win-loss record, always willing to discuss the two national title games he lost in much greater detail than the pile he won. But now his display at the Hall might end up looking like an ad for teeth-whitening strips. It’s not that he never smiled before the fall of 2020. It’s that no one can remember him smiling this much for this long, certainly not at the times of day and at certain moments in games and in nearly every spot on the clock of game days. And he’s done it this entire season.
“Oh, he’s definitely different, but in good ways,” said Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, who threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns against Ohio State. Jones has been in Tuscaloosa for four years, experiencing Saban at his snarling motivational best and heartbroken championship-lost worst. “I don’t see how anyone on any team who has gone through what we have this year, what every team has this year, couldn’t be different in good ways. I don’t know if most people are smiling more, but he sure is.”
“I don’t know if I’m smiling more, I really don’t,” Saban said around 1 a.m. ET Tuesday, nearing the end of a gantlet of postgame interviews. And yes, he was smiling when he said it. “But I do think that when you have something taken away from you, as we did when it came to spring practice and our normal summer and early fall routines, or you have the potential to have something taken from you, the cloud we lived under all season long, then I think that has to make you appreciate it more. We all love this game, but when it’s all you do, you start thinking it’s always going to be there. Then when it isn’t, it’s only natural that you pause to appreciate it more when you get it back.”
That cloud never went away. The constant pandemic threat of the season abruptly ending or being pulled out of practice for a positive COVID-19 test, it wore on everyone in the sport, whether they realized it or not. That background stress was fueled by life in the football bubble, student-athletes forgoing a large part of the “student” half of that title, their lives limited to online classes and football with zero semblance of a social life, including in-person contact with loved ones. That fear bottomed out when Saban himself tested positive prior to the Oct. 17 top 5 showdown with Georgia. He eventually made it to that game when the test turned out to be a false positive, but five weeks later he tested positive again and missed the Iron Bowl.
Saban, who has always conjured up ways to keep his team groupthink as positive as possible, made sure to do whatever he could to be a wind against the cloud of 2020.
“A lot has been asked of these players, and they are extremely high-strung right now, so he has to be more laid back,” Greg McElroy explained a few hours before Monday night’s kickoff. The ESPN college football analyst was the quarterback on Saban’s first Alabama title-winning team in 2009 and had been asked about the surly Saban of then versus the smiley Saban of now.
“He has always done that,” McElroy said. “When we were feeling good about ourselves, he would rip us to shreds and tell us how awful we were. When we were feeling terrible about ourselves, he would build us up. ‘You guys are doing things the right way. We can get better today.’ He would find a way to balance you out. This team has had to deal with so much externally, he’s helped them find a way to calm down and work their way through an incredibly difficult season.”
Just last week, Jones and wide receiver DeVonta Smith were sitting next to a Heisman Trophy, both finalists for college football’s most prestigious individual award. Television cameras were pointed at them in an empty room of the Alabama football facility. They were mere minutes away from one player winning the trophy and the other losing it. It was awkward. Then, Saban came strolling in and said through his mask, “If you guys are going to fight over this, let’s get on with it.” The duo instantly cracked up.
“He does that all the time now,” Smith recalled Monday night. “He knows when to get on us to make us better, but he also knows when to make us laugh.”
Has he always known when to make you laugh?
“Um …” The fourth-year Tide wide receiver, Heisman winner and National Championship Offensive MVP paused to think and then broke up laughing. “No, not really. That’s why we all appreciate it so much now.”
Saban appreciates a lot about his own life more than he did before 2020. Most do, thanks to the universal time bandit that has been the coronavirus pandemic. Being the greatest college football coach to ever wear a whistle around their neck certainly doesn’t make one immune to those feelings. Nick Saban has always loved his family, but when he was sent home in March, quarantining with that family turned into an extended edition of the time he always coveted most: chilling with his beloved wife, Miss Terry, and their children and grandchildren. But that time was always limited to only a couple of phone-interrupted weeks before diving headlong into preseason media days, fall practice and recruiting, always recruiting.
The extra time spent at home this spring, paired with the possibility of no fall football season, made the crusty old coach trade in his well-worn readers for a pair of rose-colored glasses.
“It’s easy to be positive when it’s a group like this one,” he said Monday night. “When the best players on your team are also the best people, it always makes for an enjoyable team to coach. And back in August, when we told these guys that the team who best handled this most unique challenge of 2020 would be the team that would win a national championship, those players and people didn’t even blink. They just went to work. It’s easy to smile and develop a special bond with a group like that.”
It isn’t just a bond. It’s a connection Saban believes will connect this group for the remainder of their lives. In other words, it’s love. He said as much as he stood atop the stage during the SEC championship celebration on Dec. 19. When he looked down on his players and declared “I absolutely love this team, and I love all the adversity that they had to overcome, and …”
That team interrupted him with a sarcastic-yet-genuine chorus of “Awwwwww!”
Speaking of interruptions, running back Najee Harris interrupted himself when recalling the moment, saying with disbelief, “We were like, ‘Man, this dude, he does have feelings,'” and then catching himself in a fit of laughter as an Alabama staffer jokingly warned from the wings, “Easy there!”
See? Laughter. Smiles. Fun. All appearing so impossibly here in the kingdom of The Process and even more impossibly during this most serious of seasons. A season capped by the 69-year-old coach being carried through a rain of confetti by the player wearing No. 69, Landon Dickerson, his knee still searing with pain after tearing his ACL in the SEC championship game three weeks earlier. The lineman dressed out knowing he wouldn’t play. He was in his pads for nothing more than the pregame coin toss. But in the closing seconds of the long-ago iced victory, Saban grabbed Dickerson and sent him into the game to fire off the final clock-killing snap of the night.
Moments later, Saban was hoisted up onto Dickerson’s shoulder as the two trucked it across the turf into, finally, the finish of the 2020 college football season. It might very well have been the greatest season that any college football team has ever had. It was most certainly the season that will forever end any debate as to whether Nick Saban is the greatest college football coach there’s ever been. Both couldn’t stop laughing and smiling.
“I enjoyed the ride!”
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