There was never much grass in Nick Saban’s yard when he was growing up.
Not because the Sabans were poor. His family wasn’t well off, but they owned a Dairy King restaurant and a gas station in tiny Monongah, West Virginia.
It was because the Sabans' yard was where all the kids came to play football.
Saban’s father, also named Nick, was himself a football coach. He was one of the people who helped start Pop Warner youth football in West Virginia.
The team was called the Black Diamonds. Young Nick, whom the family called Brother to differentiate him from his dad, was the quarterback.
“And they didn’t lose,” his wife, Terry Saban, once said.
When he was the coach at LSU, Saban was fond of quoting another memorably cranky coach, Ohio State legend Woody Hayes.
“Woody Hayes used to say, ‘If you’re going to fight in the North Atlantic you have to train in the North Atlantic,’ ” Saban often said. By that, Hayes meant if you were going to compete in all kinds of weather, you had to practice in those same elements. There are pictures of Hayes coaching in a short-sleeved starched white shirt in a snowstorm.
Monday night, Saban and his Alabama Crimson Tide will take on Hayes’ Buckeyes for the College Football Playoff national championship (7 p.m., ESPN).
Former Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant also had a famous quote about himself:
“I ain’t never been nothing but a winner.”
Between them, Bryant and Hayes won 11 national championships — the Bear six, Woody five. But both will take a back seat to Saban if Alabama wins Monday night.
Saban has won six national titles: five at Alabama, since 2009, and his first in 2003 at LSU. A seventh would put him in a category all by himself. Even old school Bama fans who still revere the Bear above all might have to admit that such an achievement would mean Saban is college football’s best coach ever. Especially in this modern era, with so many schools having poured millions of dollars into their coaching staffs and facilities. With the 85/25 scholarship restrictions. And without being able to stash players on scholarships in other sports like swimming or tennis just to keep them away from an archrival school.
In other words, it’s harder to win than it ever has been. And Saban wins more than anyone.
He doesn’t win every time, of course. If Alabama wins and finishes 13-0, it will be just his second perfect season, joining the 2009 national champions who went 14-0. And the last time the Crimson Tide was in this position, Bama got carved up by Clemson 44-16 in the 2019 CFP title game.
But you knew Saban and his charges would eventually be back. After an “off” year going 11-2 in 2019 with losses to LSU and Auburn, Saban could teach a master class in the re-recruiting he did to get stars like Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver Devonta Smith of Amite, All-American tackle Alex Leatherwood and former University High linebacker Dylan Moses to return for their senior seasons. With players opting out and going pro left and right everywhere, especially this season, Bama players were opting in at an astonishing rate.
Some have argued that under the circumstances, this has been Saban’s best coaching job ever. “Great,” fans across the Southeastern Conference are muttering. “He’ll be 70 years old this year, and he’s still getting better.”
In what qualifies as a brand of football irony, the national championship game is being played in the one place where Saban actually failed: the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium. When he left LSU after the 2004 season, he spent two years coaching the Miami Dolphins, scratching the pro football itch everyone always knew he would one day have to address.
His first team in Miami went 9-7, including a win over the Saints in post-Katrina Tiger Stadium in which he was cheered like one of the Rolling Stones or something. The second team went 6-10, his only losing record in 27 years as a college or pro head coach. It was the year that had Saban looking for an off-ramp back to college football.
You know the rest.
Though Ohio State impressed with its 49-28 romp over Clemson in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Alabama is more than a touchdown favorite. The Tide offense is so good with Smith, tailback Najee Harris and quarterback Mac Jones, all three top-five Heisman vote-getters, behind a Berlin Wall-like offensive line, it seems like the best bet.
Saban has a defensive background, but the old Black Diamonds quarterback has grudgingly embraced fast-break offense in recent years. Not unlike the way former LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman embraced the home run ball after years as a small-ball man.
Bertman may have been the best college baseball coach ever, one who adjusted to the times as well or better than anyone.
Again, sounds familiar.
COACHES WITH MOST NATIONAL TITLES IN POLL ERA (SINCE 1936)
• 6: Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979
• 6: Nick Saban, LSU and Alabama 2003 (LSU), 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017 (Alabama)
• 5: Woody Hayes, Ohio State 1954, 1957, 1961, 1968, 1970
• 4: Frank Leahy, Notre Dame 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949
• 4: John McKay, Southern California 1962, 1967, 1972, 1974
CFP National Championship Game
No. 1 Alabama (12-0) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (7-0)
When: Monday, 7 p.m. CST
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida (65,326; capacity limited to 16,000 for game)
Television commentators: Chris Fowler (play-by-play), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst), Maria Taylor and Allison Williams (sideline reporters)
Radio commentators: Sean McDonough (play-by-play), Greg McElroy (analyst)
Line: Alabama by 8½