By Monday night when Alabama plays Ohio State, the Alabama coach will have appeared in nine of the past 18 closing nights. He will have appeared in closing nights from South Florida (twice), New Orleans (twice), Atlanta, Tampa, suburban Phoenix and both Southern and northern California.
Discount his two years with the Miami Dolphins, which rendered him ineligible for closing night, and that’s nine of 16. Discount his first year at Alabama because the only people who don’t discount coaches’ first seasons are those who have overdone the tipple at the tailgate, and that’s nine of 15.
It’s a stretch unmatched in the history of college football, a history so weird that it’s hard to imagine what’s matched and what isn’t. It’s a stretch that stretches all the way back into a different era, when Saban appeared in a Sugar Bowl in which the teams combined for 466 yards. Combine for 466 yards nowadays, and speaking of the TV producers, they come to the sideline and run you the hell out of the stadium on a rail.
(Combined yardage, past six title games: 1,003, 1,023, 887, 736, 925, 1,022.)
Saban and his cast-iron voice have appeared for so long that the situation surrounding the first time will take some explaining to children, who long have heard about how previous eras were better even as they usually were dumber. Kids, Saban coached LSU the first time. His team beat Oklahoma, 21-14, in the Sugar Bowl national title game Jan. 4, 2004, and it was a matter of labor occluding art rather than today’s splashy fashion of art occluding labor. Oklahoma got 154 yards yet was allowed to continue appearing on TV for the whole game. Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Jason White, went 13 for 37 for 102 yards, two interceptions.
Then, the biggest deal: It gained Saban’s LSU half of the national title. Yeah, things were even messier than today.
The country had withstood 135 years of inability to solve college football championships, with many a year featuring split champions and many a year featuring many a champion. In 1919, just for one season, five teams won the various and bestowed national titles: Harvard, Illinois, Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Centre. (As someone privileged to have worked nine years in Kentucky, I choose Centre.)
The run-up to the title-game selection in a system called the Bowl Championship Series had seemed destined for a matchup between Oklahoma (12-0) and Pete Carroll’s Southern California (11-1). Then the season-long, 48-points thrill ride of Oklahoma got stifled, 35-7, in its conference title game against Kansas State, while No. 3 LSU reached 12-1 in its conference title game against Georgia, and USC kept winning after an early triple-overtime loss to Aaron Rodg-ifornia. But the voters and computers who worked together on these things, a situation that caused the birth of the phrase “human polls” to describe the voters, couldn’t let go of fancying Oklahoma, depriving the land of an LSU-USC title match.
USC beat Big Ten champion Michigan, 28-14, in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, a game remembered for quarterback Matt Leinart catching a touchdown pass. Yes, that’s the same dude on TV nowadays.
Saban was 52 then. In the 47 states other than Ohio, Michigan and Louisiana, only the geeks knew anything about him. He hadn’t even yet become the subject of Sandra Bullock’s cooing in “The Blind Side.” He had gone a good 69-38-1 at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU before that 2003 season began on Aug. 30 in Baton Rouge with a 49-7 mauling of Louisiana Monroe. Nobody used “greatest coach ever” terminology. His coordinators weren’t being snared away from him every other year by desperate peasants such as Texas.
In that interview room at the 2004 Sugar Bowl, he said words that sound foreign by now: “I just can’t tell you how pleased I am that our football team could do something that the people of the …” — wait for it — “... state of Louisiana can really, really be proud of.”
It was such a different time in life that somebody asked quarterback Matt Mauck whether he might leave early for the NFL, and Mauck had to plead for question mercy so soon after a game with, “For me it’s about, what, 10, 15 minutes old?” Mauck did leave, and he did throw 27 passes in the NFL (which is 27 more than most people), and he did become a dentist in Colorado.
Yet even by now, any Alabama devotee might spot Sabanese in the LSU coach’s comments from that night — and might even start laughing.
Here: “You know, you really don’t want to know what I’m thinking. Because what I’m thinking is how we are going to get this done next year.”
And here: “I still don’t understand how we got a 30-yard penalty kicking a field goal. That may be the first time in the history of ball, any ball that I’ve seen, that that’s happened. … And I’m going to be very interested to watch the film to see if those were really penalties that should have been called that should have had something to do with changing the outcome of … a national championship game.”
And over here: “I was really proud of our players to deal with what I call the ‘clutter’ because we could not go out of the hotel [in New Orleans] without having two- or three-thousand people in the street.”
Saban historians who trace Saban etymology might note how “clutter” evolved steadily into “rat poison.”
Then there was this: “My little girl was riding in the back seat after we lost to [Mississippi in 2001] and listening to the talk-radio shows. She was only 11 then. And she said, ‘Daddy, are we going to have to move again?’ So I’ve seen it both ways, okay?”
He would coach there a fifth and final season, going 9-3 and closing with a harrowing 30-25 loss on a preposterous, last-play, 56-yard bomb to an absurdly open Iowa receiver in a bowl game, after which Saban said, “The last 14 or 20 seconds of this game somewhat tarnish the things that this team has accomplished in its four years.” (Those were some bad seconds.) He would go to the Dolphins and then to Tuscaloosa, and now he has won five more national titles and finished runner-up twice, and lost 17 games in the past 13 seasons, and even the two of those to Ole Miss didn’t portend any doom of relocation.
Here he was again Sunday morning, back in South Florida, on the video conference in a square adjacent to the square of Ohio State Coach Ryan Day, with Saban saying, “Our team has shown a lot of maturity and perseverance throughout the season.” Dislodging him from such a square or from the daises that preceded it has proved damned near impossible.