Nick Saban is the GOAT, and his argument only gets stronger with time

Pete Thamel
·5 min read

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Former Florida coach Steve Spurrier went to speak at a high school clinic in Alabama in 2016 soon after he stepped down from South Carolina in the fall of 2015.

Spurrier chatted up his old friend and foe, Nick Saban, and Spurrier offered a prediction: “You will coach here until you lose three games in one year,” Spurrier recalled with a laugh in a phone interview on Monday afternoon.

In the five seasons since Spurrier’s prediction, Saban has lost five total games. And on Monday night, Saban won his sixth title at Alabama and seventh overall national championship to become the coach with the most national championships in the history of college football.

Alabama sprinted past Ohio State, 52-24, to complete a perfect 13-0 season in a game that doubled as a metaphor for Alabama pulling away from the rest of the sport.

Whether Saban is the greatest ever or not will always be subjective, a debate topic sure to arise as Saban’s seven total championships puts him one ahead of Paul “Bear” Bryant, who won six at Alabama.

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While the discussion over the greatest coach in the sport’s history can still live on at rib shacks, tee boxes and front porches in and around Tuscaloosa, there’s also some subtext to the debate that’s becoming difficult to ignore — Saban still has a chance to distance himself from the field.

“I think he’s got a lot more left,” Spurrier said. He recalled Saban joking with him that “all hell would break loose” if they lost three games in one year. That doesn’t appear imminent.

“I don’t see him losing three in one year anytime soon,” Spurrier added. “There’s no letup. He loves what he’s doing and has more years left to do it.”

Bryant’s run in college from 1945 to 1982 — with a record of 323-85-17 — has long been considered the best in the sport’s history. Saban’s 25 seasons as a college head coach that began at Toledo in 1990 are surely the best of his era, as he’s 261-65-1.

You can disagree that Saban is the GOAT, if you’d like. But you best acknowledge that he’s going to be grazing for a few more years. Anyone betting against Saban, 69, playing for an eighth title next season or a ninth somewhere down the road is probably the same guy telling you to buy stock in typewriters, phone books or Avias.

“His focus and his energy level, you can’t even describe them,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne told Yahoo Sports. “He’s so disciplined on continuing the process, and not allowing successes to have him hit the pause button.”

He added the essence of Saban: “He does not give in to success.”

Alabama head coach Nick Saban is soaked in a sports drink after their win against Ohio State in an NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Alabama won 52-24. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Head coach Nick Saban is soaked after Alabama's win against Ohio State in the national championship game on Monday night in Miami Gardens, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Saban is the head of the greatest machine in all of college football. And perhaps in the history of it. And if you buy the popular theory that Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have distanced themselves from the rest of the sport, it’s fair to observe that this College Football Playoff showed how much Alabama has distanced itself from those programs.

Alabama also appears to have surged ahead of the SEC, whose once-vaunted depth has suddenly hit tea-coaster levels. LSU is flailing and risking its future on reviving Joe Brady’s schemes – without Joe Burrow. Auburn has brought in an outsider from Boise to attempt to topple Saban. Tennessee has run out of dumpsters to light on fire. Both Mississippi schools are more interesting than they are threatening.

Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M are all formidable, but it’s easy to see Saban has such a fear of rat poison. There will be heaping helpings of it until foot meets leather this fall.

“I’m not sure that story has been completely written,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told Yahoo Sports. “There’s another chapter.”

Maybe more.

There will certainly be personnel losses, ranging from Smith to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to the inevitable NFL declaration of quarterback Mac Jones. But considering Alabama lost the most explosive player in college football to injury for a majority of the season (Jaylen Waddle) and that enabled the Heisman Trophy winner (Smith) to emerge, there’s a certain air of inevitability about sturdy replacements being available.

“Times have changed and recruiting has changed,” Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer told Yahoo Sports about Saban on Monday. “The way they’ve been able to hang right in there for so many years, that’s been pretty impressive. I think about the staff turnover and how it keeps developing. There’s been some talented coaches that have left, and the product is the same the next year.”

Sankey pointed out how Saban has adjusted and endured, as this game offered the latest salvo on an identity transformation that flipped the program from a defensive-first ethos to attacking vertically and outscoring opponents. Saban’s Alabama team has become what he has always hated to defend and once railed against.

As he runs away from the rest of the sport, there are few signs of him slowing down.

“He’s got an incredible fire internally in his belly to keep going, and I’m not talking about the performance on the field,” former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “You look at the sideline and the way that he grinds and coaches. His energy must be incredible, you can’t do what he does without incredible energy.”

And that energy remains as strong as it’s ever been on the recruiting trail. Nick Saban wakes up tomorrow as a seven-time national champion and with the No. 1 recruiting class in the country.

Those GOAT alternative arguments have a chance to be much quieter the next few years.

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