Alabama win back-to-back title 42-14 over Notre Dame
Saban reflects on lessons from his father as his Alabama team win their third title in four years
At some point, this much success should have brought joy, or at the very least, a deep sense of satisfaction. It's only made Nick Saban chase each win more relentlessly than the last. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see him try to top this one.
Alabama's Crimson Tide slipped on the BCS crown for the third time in the last four years, crushing Notre Dame 42-14. Quarterback AJ McCarron threw four touchdown passes and finished with 264 yards through the air, while running back Eddie Lacy and receiver Amari Cooper had two scores each as the Crimson Tide claimed back-to-back titles.
Almost as impressively, they forced a wide grin from their sometimes dour and always serious coach. The win was his fourth national championship, which left him tied with Notre Dame's Frank Leahy for second on the all-time list, behind only Paul "Bear" Bryant, the most famed of his Alabama predecessors.
"I'm satisfied with this team because of what they accomplished," Saban said afterward. But he has a rule that celebrations are cut short after 48 hours - and a rule is a rule. "Two days from now," Saban said without a hint of humour, "we got to start on next year."
The weekend before the championship, more than a few people wondered whether Saban might finally open up. Saban did - just not the way most expected.
He began with a story about inheriting his uncompromising work ethic from a father that he and everyone else in their tucked-away corner of West Virginia always called "Big Nick".
"There was a bum that used to come to my dad's service station early in the morning because he'd give him free coffee and doughnuts," Saban said. "We had had a tough game the night before; I don't remember whether it was a basketball game, a football game or whatever. The guy was giving me a hard time and I sort of sassed him. I was 17 years old. I got the strap right on the spot.
"It was the right thing. I needed to learn a lesson. I was disrespectful to an older person."
Saban rarely comes off as a man who speaks from the heart. Maybe that's what made that story he told about his father seem even more revealing when the subject came up a day later.
This time, the lesson was not about respect, but about always striving for "a standard of excellence, a perfection". Saban recalled being 11 years old, already working at the service station.
"I hated the navy blue and black cars, because when you wiped them off, the streaks were hard to get out. And if there were any streaks when he came," Saban paused, referring to his father, "you had to do it over".
Sport is not the only place where the father-son dynamic ignites a spark of ambition that grows and grows until it becomes a consuming flame. And there are men like Saban atop every profession. They clamber up the ladder without regard for consequences, treating each job like an audition for the next one. His story is instructive that way.
Saban played defensive back at Kent State, despite standing only 5-foot-6, and the determination he showed won him a job as a graduate assistant there in 1972. Next came a half-dozen more stops as an assistant before Saban landed his first head-coaching job at Toledo in 1990. He brought the school a Mid-American Conference title in his only season there, bailing out to become defensive coordinator with the NFL's Cleveland Browns.
In the ensuing 15 years, Saban burned through three more jobs, each one good enough to be considered a "destination" among his peers - first Michigan State; then LSU, where he won his first national title; and finally with the Miami Dolphins. After two years he flat-out denied he was leaving for Alabama - and then left for Tuscaloosa three weeks later.
That was 2007, and Saban is still there six seasons later, longer than his tenure lasted anywhere else. He's even won over the fans and alumni who used to insist no coach deserved the Crimson Tide job without a connection to Bryant.
Saban has sunk roots in Tuscaloosa, relocating the charity he and wife Terry set up more than a decade ago. It's named for "Big Nick", who taught his son never to take on a job unless he intended to do it right.
Judged by winning percentage, he's certainly done that. The only remorse he feels is not having figured it out in time to say thanks to "Big Nick".
"Probably when I was a senior in college, that's probably when I realised it. And my first year of graduate school was when he passed away. I never really ever told him," Saban said, "which I regret."