It’s hard to find a number regarding Saban that sticks out – because, duh, they all do – but we’ll try this. Counting his time at LSU, his teams played for the SEC title 12 times. They won 11 times. The exception was against the Florida of Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow in 2008, and the Crimson Tide led that one with 10 minutes remaining.
That’s 11-1 on a neutral field. That’s 11-1 against the champion of a division in the conference where It Just Means More. That’s 12-1 against the likes of Meyer, Phillip Fulmer, Mark Richt and Kirby Smart.
The latter stands as the best of all the Saban assistants rival schools hired in the effort to take down the man himself, and Smart did beat his mentor – one time in six tries. (Bama led in the final 10 minutes of that loss, too.) Their final collision saw Georgia favored and ranked No. 1 to the Tide’s No. 8. Bama won the game and made the College Football Playoff. Georgia did not.
This was a lesser Bama team, which meant it didn’t quite win the national championship. Came close, though. It led Michigan inside the final two minutes of regulation. It lost when the Tide, for one of the few times over 17 Saban seasons, ran a play that didn’t make sense. It came on fourth-and-goal, five weeks after Bama ran a fourth-and-goal play at Auburn that somehow worked.
Saban’s first words after Jalen Milroe’s miraculous completion: “We actually practice that.”
Saban got the best players – he once complained that beating Notre Dame for the BCS title cost him a week’s worth of recruiting – and made them better. There was never anything sloppy about Saban’s Bama – because the little man with the headset couldn’t abide sloth. And all those learned assistant coaches and all those NFL draftees-to-be knew that, in a pinch, the little man would think of something.
He called an onside kick in the fourth quarter of a national championship game because Clemson’s Deshaun Watson was slicing Smart’s defense to pieces. Two years later, he changed quarterbacks at halftime of another title tilt, this time at Smart’s expense.
He was a demanding boss, though none of his lieutenants complained when they went on to million-dollar contracts because they’d apprenticed under the only coach who mattered. His marriage to Miss Terry – they were high school sweethearts – is among the cutest ever, she being tall and elegant, him being less tall and prone to moments of pique.
Someone connected with the Aflac campaign involving Saban and Deion Sanders told me a story. During filming, Saban was having a hard time with a particular line. Miss Terry said to the director, “Let me handle this.” She said to her husband, “The faster you get this right, the faster we get to the lake.”
The Sabans love lakes. They have houses on two – Lake Burton in Georgia, Lake Tuscaloosa outside guess where.
Nick Saban is 72. Maybe he could have gone on a year or so longer, but there’s nothing he could do he hadn’t done a half-dozen times. Maybe he’ll take to wearing one – or two or three or seven – of his championship rings. That’s something he didn’t do as a working coach, which prompted someone to ask what he did do with them.
Said Saban, almost smiling: “Sometimes I throw them on the table for the recruits.”
Best there ever was. Best there will ever be. We’ll not see his likes again.