I grew up all over the East Coast, a geographical mutt. But Alabama—where my mother is from and where we spent holidays with a seemingly innumerable cast of cousins and where we eventually settled—was always the constant, the ancestral home. My grandparents lived there, in a redbrick house on a hill that overlooked the old steel city. And it was my grandfather, whom we called Toots, who introduced me to another constant in my life: Alabama Crimson Tide football.
On game days, Toots would don his camel-hair jacket, grab two rather tatty seat cushions, and put me in the back of his big blue Buick. When we arrived at Birmingham’s old Legion Field (where Alabama played some of its home games until 2003), we’d slalom through the crowd to our spots in the cold aluminum stands, shield our eyes from the sun, and watch Paul “Bear” Bryant’s team flood the field with crimson. During the games, Toots would cackle with unbridled joy, deriving near total pleasure from Bryant’s dominant teams. Toots, as family lore has it, was once one of Bryant’s drinking buddies, a claim, I suspect, that very many could make back then. The decades of hard drinking had already taken a toll on Bryant by the time I started following the team, his guttural voice left nearly indecipherable, his face looking like “an aerial shot of a drought area” as Richard Price once memorably described it. The drinking would eventually catch up to him. The Bear died, and then, a few years later, my grandfather died, too. But Alabama football always remained.
In last night’s College Football Playoff Championship Game, Alabama thoroughly dismantled a talented Ohio State team, 52–24. It became abundantly clear that there was not even a close second-best team in college football this year. Alabama finished the season a perfect 13–0, beating five teams ranked in the top ten along the way. Some will say that this Alabama team was college football’s best ever, especially given the hardship of playing out a season amid a global pandemic (Saban himself caught the virus and was forced to sit out the Auburn game). The “greatest ever” argument is best hashed out while seated at a bar, but certainly Alabama’s offense, at the least, could make the claim. Three Alabama players were in contention for the Heisman Trophy, and they finished a hopscotched 1 (wide receiver DeVonta Smith), 3 (quarterback Mac Jones), and 5 (running back Najee Harris) in the final voting. The astonishing Smith lived up to the Heisman hype in the championship game—which doesn’t always happen—with twelve catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half. (Smith injured a finger early in the third quarter and never returned to the game and was still named the game’s most valuable offensive player.)
The defense? Suffice to say, it was not Saban’s best. In fact, after giving up seemingly miles of yards to both Ole Miss and Florida before the playoff, the defense appeared to be among his worst while coaching at Alabama. But the college game has evolved in recent years. Great defenses no longer win championships (and, in fact, may no longer exist). It’s a game now of quick-twitch, multi-faceted offenses. Saban, who came up in the coaching ranks as a defensive mastermind, is the rare old dog who craves learning new tricks, and has adapted to the new form of college football better than anyone in the game.
Saban has now won seven national titles, the most ever in the modern era, breaking a tie with Bryant. Six of those championships have come in the last twelve years. Under Saban, Alabama has never gone more than three consecutive years without one. Every one of Saban’s recruiting classes at Alabama has won at least one national title. Saban is now, undeniably, the greatest coach in college football history. He has provided legions of Alabama fans with an enormous amount of pleasure.
In 2015, I published a biography of Saban. It wasn’t the easiest of projects. For starters, I had to balance—and, really, separate—the fan/journalist sides of my persona. Early on in the process, it appeared that Saban would willingly take part in the book. But then he abruptly decided against it. He never did try to get in the way, though, and, in fact, helped secure interviews with some of the people closest to him, like his golfing partners. Once the book came out, some things within it displeased him. In one of his press conferences—held while I was traveling across the state on the book’s tour—Saban even went into one of his trademark rants, this time about the biography. To Saban, the book was what he deemed “rat poison,” that is, something that gets in the way or distracts the team from its mission, something that could play a role in the derailing of a dynasty. Needless to say, the dynasty stayed on track. Alabama has won three national titles since the book’s release.
Ever since he came to Alabama in 2007, Saban has been the constant. Each of the thirteen other teams in the Southeastern Conference has made at least one coaching change since then. Collectively, they’ve made fifty-eight. Each one of those changes has been made in search of the answer to the big question: How do we beat Saban? The answer, for now, remains out of grasp.
Saban remains a somewhat divisive figure. Success creates enemies, and his past actions, most especially his abrupt departure from the Miami Dolphins, have left scars that will never heal. But the edges have been softened as he’s aged (Saban both smiled and appeared to tear up after last night’s game, two things that would have been unthinkable a decade ago), and the general sporting public, as it does when legends begin to gray, has softened its stance toward him and begun to embrace him a bit more. There is a realization that we are witnessing true greatness in real time, a greatness that, perhaps, will never be replicated. And there is a sense, one feels, that his excellence and constancy should be appreciated because, as these tenuous recent times have brought into greater relief, nothing should ever be taken for granted.
Monte Burke is the author of the New York Times bestseller Saban: The Making of a Coach (Simon & Schuster)