A week before delivering an all-time performance in the college football playoff championship game, DeVonta Smith was faced with a question about the lasting lesson he will learn from playing for Nick Saban.
“With him, it’s the way you treat people,” Smith said Jan. 4. “No matter how people treat you, you always treat everyone with respect.”
Saban will be treated with reverence after leading Alabama No.1 to a 52-24 resounding victory No.3 Ohio State Monday. This gave Saban a sixth national championship with the Crimson Tide, and seventh overall as a head coach. He also broke the record set by former Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Saban treats this comparison with an unmatched level of respect.
“I don’t think anyone really compares to Coach Bryant,” Saban told reporters at his post-game press conference. “Back when he was coaching; when he won. He won in many different ways. He won by throwing it. He won by running with a wishbone. He won by running formations. conventional offensives. His legacy has lasted a long, long time. “
Seems familiar? Saban accomplished the same feat, and those dueling legacies once again converged with the Buckeyes as a backdrop.
Jeff Rutledge remembers walking into Bryant’s office a week before the 1978 Sugar Bowl game against the Buckeyes. The Alabama quarterback was planning to tie the knot the following weekend, but that meant an uncomfortable conversation in Bryant’s office. Rutledge remembers this moment with remarkable precision:
Bryant: “Do you know who we’re playing?”
Rutledge: “Yes, sir, we’re playing Ohio State.”
Bryant: “Damn no, son. We play Woody Hayes. I’ve never played him, and you’re getting married?”
After an awkward silence, Bryant broke the tension.
Bryant: “Do you love him?”
Rutledge celebrated his 43rd birthday with his wife Laura on Jan.7, four days before Saban overtook Bryant for the most national championships by a head coach. These memories came back when Rutledge heard Smith talk about Saban.
“I heard that, and Coach Bryant spoke about these things,” he said. “Forget football. He would come and talk about calling your mom and dad. Calling your high school soccer coach and thanking them for raising you the way they did. It was a matter of life. about that respect. “
Football, of course, was the mechanism of motivation. Bryant left this conversation with a simple message for Rutledge.
“You better play your ass, son.”
Rutledge obliged. Alabama beat Ohio State 35-6 and went on to a national championship the following season. Bryant would win his last national title in 1979. It was his sixth in 25 seasons – a bar that seemed impossible to cross when Saban took over from Alabama in 2007.
Still, Saban followed Bryant’s formula to perfection, at an accelerated pace. Saban now has six national championships in 14 seasons, and he has done so playing with a sport that has moved from the BCS era to the four-team college football playoffs.
Alabama’s BCS Championship teams were known for their ground and pound and elite defenses. The national teams of the CFP era title have changed with the distribution of high scores and friendly for the quarterfinals. Three of those national championship teams featured the Heisman Trophy winners in Mark Ingram (2009), Derrick Henry (2015) and now Smith (2020), the first wide receiver to win the award since 1991.
The 2011 national title team allowed 8.2 points per game. This year’s championship team Mark 48.5 points per game.
“We all have to adapt over time,” Saban said. “Obviously things are a little different now. The challenges are a little different with the extended offense, the things that make it harder, I think, to play good defense in these times.”
Rutledge notices another common thread between the two coaches. As a quarterback, he had more contact than most players with Bryant during his playing days.
“Coach Bryant would come to our meetings from time to time, and sit down, listen to who our coordinator was,” said Rutledge. “He let our coaches train. From what I see, Coach Saban is doing the same.”
The offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is proof of this. Sargsyan accepted the position in Texas on January 2, becoming the 12th current FBS head coach to serve as an assistant under Saban. Sarkisian, who was a two-time head coach at Washington and USC, joined the Alabama staff as an analyst in 2016.
“He is the greatest college football coach of all time and recognize the space you are in,” Sarkisian said. “There have been a variety of us who have been there. But he’s a great mentor, and if you allow yourself to be mentored, I think you gain even more from this experience.”
Sarkisian rewarded this experience in 2020, perhaps more than any previous assistant. He was the interim head coach of the Iron Bowl when Saban tested positive for COVID-19. Smith, quarterback Mac Jones and running back Najee Harris all finished in the top five to get the vote in the Heisman Trophy race.
Sure, Saban built the dynasty with five-star recruiting classes, but there’s a twist. Smith and Harris were among the players who could have opted for the 2020 NFL Draft. After all, Alabama is a factory that has produced the most first-round picks in the last decade.
Saban is active in these annual discussions, where he points out to players the difference between the money in the first round and the pick on the second day. He does this out of respect for the future of these players.
“At the same time, I always tell the players that if you aren’t 100% determined to improve in the things that you need to improve, you are not going to improve your status in the draft,” said Saban. “So it probably won’t do you good to come back.”
It paid off for these players in 2020, who make up Saban’s most decorated squad. Smith won the Biletnikoff Prize. Harris won the Doak Walker Award. Center Landon Dickerson won the Rimington Trophy and Alex Leatherwood won the Outland Trophy. Jones, starting as a quarterback for the first time, won the Davey O’Brien and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm awards. Cornerback Patrick Surtain II, finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, was one of five Alabama All-Americans unanimously (Jones, a consensus selection, finished first on four of five All-America teams) .
Jones, like Rutledge, delivered against Ohio State: He passed for 464 yards and five touchdowns on Monday. Jones was then asked if Saban is the greatest coach of all time.
“Come on, man,” he replied. “Of course he is. How could he not be? He does it the right way. He recruits well, but more importantly, develops great players and young men. I’m so lucky. that he gave me a chance to come here with all my teammates. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. He’s the best at it.
“He will be the greatest for a long time.”
Rutledge knows how Jones feels. Rutledge is still talking about the feeling after a big game when Bryant hit his helmet with the scoring depth board he was holding in his hand – a rare measure of emotion during games. While Saban may be more emotional on the sidelines, this respect spans the generations.
“Records are meant to be broken, but knowing that I played for Bear is a great achievement for Coach Saban,” said Rutledge. “It took a long time to break this record, but you’re happy for the current players because you know what it takes.”
Saban shared that respect for this year’s squad, which battled an unprecedented pandemic to end the season. He smiled a little more than usual after the win and called this group the “ultimate team”.
“We played 13 games and went unbeaten with all the disruption we’ve had this season,” he said. “I think there is a lot to write about the legacy of the team.”
It is the quintessence of Saban. While the focus is always on his accomplishment, instead he prefers to talk about the players and coaches who made it possible. Then it’s on to the next one.
It is the root of the “Process”. No matter how many national titles Saban has accumulated, he won’t see this praise the same as everyone else.
Saban prefers to show respect for the coach he just passed and the game both mastered in Alabama.
“I think Coach Bryant is sort of in a class of his own in terms of what he’s been able to accomplish, what his track record is, the longevity he had and the tradition he’s established,” he said. Saban said. “Without Coach Bryant we could never do what we did.”