He could have been the goat.
Now some think he’s the GOAT.
So in Monday’s national championship game vs. Clemson, Alabama coach Nick Saban made a bold decision to onsides-kick in the fourth quarter of a 24-24 game.
Had Clemson recovered with a short field to negotiate offensively, the Tigers likely would have scored – they were moving the ball with ease – and assumed control of the game. The Monday evening quarterbacks would have pegged Saban as the goat.
But that is the alternate ending, as you know. Alabama recovered, in effect stealing a possession that became a Tide touchdown in a 45-40 victory. The call very likely made the difference in winning and losing.
And Saban, with five national titles, is being called the GOAT. As in Greatest Of All Time.
But is he? Given the uneven playing fields of college football, how do we really know if he is even the best in 2015?
It’s time to add disclosure: I’ve been crushing on Alabama football since the first time I saw them play, a 24-24 tie vs. Oklahoma to wrap up the 1970 season in something called the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl. And obviously, in this dynastic run of four titles over seven seasons, I can’t imagine anyone in the universe better suited to lead this or any program.
But I occasionally have fantasized about a “Prince and the Pauper” plot twist in which a coach at one of the “haves” swapped places with one presiding over the “have-nots.”
For example, what if we put Saban, who also coached collegiately at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU, at New Mexico State? How would he fare? Could “The Process” work at a school that spends less on the entire football program ($6.4 million in 2014-15, per U.S. Department of Education records) than his $7 million salary in T-Town? Never mind figuring out how to defend the No-Huddle, Hurry-Up; it takes skills like the guy who divvied up five loaves and two fishes.
Couldn’t current Aggies coach Doug Martin, meanwhile, keep the Tide Rolling in Tuscaloosa?
Alabama draws ESPN or CBS every weekend; attracts 101,821 for home games; and spent $51 million while generated $97 million in 2014-15.
New Mexico State, bowl-less the past five decades, just last year had to use Learfield Sports money to buy enough tickets to maintain 15,000 paid football attendance, necessary to retain Football Bowl Subdivision status.
In 2009, Aggies coach DeWayne Walker had to swallow the school’s pride and make a plea to the public to provide snacks for the players at preseason camp. Between-meals food was a
casualty then of a $1.5 million athletics budget cut. I still crack up at a New Mexico State news release from that preseason with no apparent effort at levity: “Walker Happy With Team’s Hunger.”
That an NMSU and an Alabama are even in the same Football Bowl Subdivision is just as laughable. I predict that within a decade, they won’t be. The business model that requires schools to spend more on cost-of-attendance for athletes and other increasing expenses will create an even wider schism between the rich football schools and the poor, and the two classes eventually will break off and compete for separate and unequal national championships.
Lobo fans shouldn’t snicker. I believe UNM will be on the other side of the tracks with NMSU. This isn’t at all a “pick on the Aggies” exercise.
UNM coach Bob Davie’s unscripted career trek has gone opposite of what is typically a one-way street for successful head coaches: They achieve at a lower-tier school, and then bigger and better jobs become available. Almost always they take them.
Instead, Davie’s first head coaching job was over the most glamorous football program around.
But Notre Dame didn’t think a 35-25 clip was good enough, and off he and his golden tones went to ESPN.
He has just finished his first bowl season and first winning season at UNM, at 7-6 against softer competition than he faced with the Fighting Irish. For that, he got a contract extension and raise to take him over $800,000 annually. The reward seems like an implicit acknowledgement that the Lobos are doing as well as one can expect UNM football to do.
In evaluating Saban, his two-year foray into the NFL – 15-17 with Miami – can’t be ignored. It’s not a large-enough sample size to claim him a failure at that level. It’s his failure to stay on the job longer that rankles Dolphins fans. That and his infamous “I’m not going to Alabama” statement shortly before he, you know, went to Alabama.
But that short stint underscores the big difference between the college game and the pros. The NFL is structured for parity. The college game encourages disparity.
At places like Alabama and Notre Dame, the number of first-round draft picks you get every year is limited, theoretically, only by scholarships available and recruiting skills. Facilities and resources and tradition and all other critical tangibles are limited only by commitment and imagination.
And in that realm, Saban has won everywhere he’s been.
But he hasn’t been everywhere.