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The play that won Alabama a national championship
2:39 | College Football
The play that won Alabama a national championship
Tuesday January 12th, 2016

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2007 to rescue the Alabama football program from a stunning stretch of mediocrity. The Crimson Tide had recently endured the scandal of Mike DuBose, the quick exit of Dennis Franchione, the quicker exit of Mike Price and the underwhelming tenure of Mike Shula. As the losses piled up, Bama’s struggles somehow made the accomplishments of legendary coach Paul (Bear) Bryant loom even larger.

With each year that passed, Bryant’s dizzying résumé of success seemed to get farther out of reach, an unattainable ideal that practically taunted the Tide through their down years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Bryant won six national titles, 13 SEC championships and 13 national coach of the year honors. Prior to Saban’s arrival, those were distant memories at Alabama, as the Crimson Tide fought NCAA sanctions, got passed in the SEC hierarchy and made national headlines mostly for its futility.

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A generation separates Saban from Bryant, but one of the gutsiest calls in college football history now links them even more closely as the coaches who have carved the deepest niches in Alabama’s football lore. Second-ranked Bama’s 45–40 national title triumph over No. 1 Clemson on Monday night puts Saban squarely in lockstep with Bryant. This marks Saban’s fourth national championship as the Crimson Tide coach and the fifth in his career. (He won the 2003 national title at LSU.)

None of Saban’s other championships can be pinpointed back to a single decision like the fourth-quarter onside kick that turned Monday’s superb game. That kick—masterfully called, deftly executed—gave Bama just enough momentum to outlast the Herculean effort of Tigers sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. Saban’s savvy call led to the Tide’s fourth national title in the last seven years, a stunning run of dominance in the modern era that begs a question that once would have been considered sacrilege: Is Saban the best coach in college football history?

“I think this is the most impressive run of the modern era,” former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said on Monday night. “I think it all goes back to Saban. He’s the most complete football coach in the nation today, and maybe ever.”

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Of Saban’s four national titles in Tuscaloosa, this featured the most competitive championship game. With 10:34 remaining in the fourth quarter and Alabama having just tied the score at 24, Saban called for an unconventional onside kick that will be immortalized as one of the gutsiest gambles in the sport’s history. Crimson Tide junior kicker Adam Griffith popped up a chip shot that traveled about 14 yards and caught Clemson completely off guard. Bama redshirt freshman defensive back Marlon Humphrey—the son of Tide legend Bobby Humphrey—ran under it to give his team possession. The play so stunned the Tigers that Humphrey would have had enough time to signal for a fair catch.

“It was a surprise, we weren’t ready for it,” said Tigers redshirt freshman receiver Trevion Thompson, the closest Clemson player to the ball.

The kick worked so well that even the perpetually stoic Saban smiled in devilish delight. And the decision may offer a key insight into Saban’s evolution as a coach, as it was a tacit admission that Alabama may not have been able to stop the Tigers’ devastating spread attack. The coach known for creative defensive schemes was smart enough to realize that he wasn’t smart enough to stop Watson on Monday night. “We were tired on defense and weren’t doing a great job of getting them stopped,” Saban said, “and I felt like if we didn’t do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game that we wouldn’t have a chance to win.”

Instead, Saban’s decision helped deliver the Crimson Tide’s historic victory. Two plays later, they took a 31–24 lead on a 51-yard touchdown pass from fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Coker to 6' 6", 242-pound junior tight end O.J. Howard. (Dusting off the criminally underutilized Howard might have been Bama’s best offensive wrinkle of the night—he had just 394 receiving yards during the season, but caught five passes against Clemson for 208 yards and two touchdowns.)

WATCH: Alabama runs surprise onside kick then scores touchdown

On a night when Heisman Trophy–winning junior Derrick Henry played well but looked mortal at times and Heisman finalist Watson appeared on the cusp of a generational, Vince Young–like performance, Saban stole the show from the sideline. His gutsy decision hog-tied the momentum that had up to that point been ping-ponging back and forth all night. The Crimson Tide wrestled control of the game after his call and sealed their triumph with two late touchdowns. Senior running back Kenyan Drake’s 95-yard kickoff return for a score with about eight minutes left put the game out of reach, and Henry iced the title in the waning minutes with a one-yard touchdown run.

It can’t be overstated what a savvy, unconventional and historic call Saban made by opting for an onside kick in the fourth quarter of a tie game. In college football perhaps more than in any other sport, coaches are mythologized, revered and deified for their success. Saban, after all, already has his ownstatue on the Alabama campus. This was the type of decision that will be discussed on bar stools, tee boxes and rib stands from Montgomery to Hoover for generations. “That call changed the momentum of the game and flipped the scoreboard,” Tide assistant head coach Mario Cristobal said. “In coach we trust. There’s a reason he called it.”

Simon Bruty/SI

There were other memorable performances—Henry’s 158 rushing yards, Coker’s 335 passing yards and a strong showing from the marauding Bama defensive line. Watson was the best player on the field, and seems sure to enter the 2016 season as the Heisman Trophy favorite and a top NFL draft prospect. But recollections of this game will always come back to Griffith’s kick and Humphrey’s recovery, which may well have been Saban’s karmic special teams payback for the infamous Kick Six in the 2013 Iron Bowl, which cost Alabama a shot at the national title. This victory will be remembered as a special delivery, one that will somehow endear Saban even more to the Crimson Tide faithful.

“It was calculated on the fact that I thought we could execute it, and the way they lined up, it was available to us,” Saban said. “And it was something that I knew we would use in the game if we needed to.”

The win raises the question of whether Saban’s dominance in the modern era, complete with a deeper SEC, a conference title game and two College Football Playoff games, is more impressive than Bryant’s was several decades ago. Comparing runs like Alabama’s string of titles under Saban (2009, ’11, ’12 and ’15) to its stretch under Bryant is tricky. Bryant won three in five years from 1961 to ’65, and back-to-back titles in ’78 and ’79. His 14 overall SEC titles—he won one at Kentucky—may never be topped.

“I think it’s hard to compare,” says former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer. “I don’t think there’s any way you can judge [which is more impressive]. The conference is more competitive top-to-bottom than days gone by, which results in a more difficult regular-season schedule. But [Bryant] certainly had a dominant period where Alabama dominated the conference in a manner no other school did.” '

Saban ducked a question about Bryant after the game, telling a story about losing to Nebraska while he was at Michigan State and Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne telling him, “You’re not as bad as you think.” Saban said that taught him to focus on the next play and the next challenge—not on intangible things like his place among legends. “I’ve never really thought too much about all that,” Saban said.

The debate can rage on about which run is better. However, considering the parity in modern football—a result of NCAA scholarship limits and the influx of money making things so much more competitive—there is a strong argument to be made that Saban is riding one of the best streaks in the history of the sport.

“I don’t think anyone understands what that is, four national championships in seven years,” Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said after the game. “Four national championships in seven years. It’s a world of parity. Kids come and go. Kids transfer, it’s a different world. For him to do that, it speaks volumes of his coaching ability. Nobody realizes how much mental effort and execution and ideas this guy puts into it. He lives, sleeps and breathes football.”

At the very least, Bryant finally appears have an equal. The years of futility at Alabama are now a distant memory, as Saban’s run over the last seven years will be one that the next generation—in Tuscaloosa and beyond—will attempt to emulate.

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