Time enough at last. (AP)
By Holly Anderson
Here follows an account of the reign of Nick Saban from the years 2015-25, commonly referred to by better historians as the Wilding Tuscaloosa era.
The year is 2015. The season, midwinter. Flush with six national titles, four of them consecutive, five at Alabama, even the agile football mind of Nick Saban atrophies with boredom. Staring listlessly at a commitment list that's a unanimous pick for tops in the nation, a list that will bolster a roster that's already a consensus national title favorite, in the predawn dim of National Signing Day, the crafter of college football's most unassailable modern dynasty crumples a piece of copy paper into a wad the size of a golfball with the density of sandstone. It's time at last, time to turn on the cheat codes, Saban's last defense against the dulling of his edge. He needs to be tested again.
But the codes are not for his benefit. They're for yours.
And from now on, everything's gonna be different. Well -- almost everything.
Shocking the message board pundit class from coast to coast, Alabama pulls all recruiting offers to blond-, brown- and black-haired prospects, adhering to Nick Saban's sudden but unwavering dedication to signing only redheaded players in this year's freshman class. The Ginger Avengers, a freckle-faced set of defensive line triplets from western Kansas, see little meaningful action but become fan favorites at Bryant-Denny in late-game mop-up duty. Stocked with players who've never seen a collegiate season pass without winning another national title ring, the Tide take a 13-0 team into playoff season, defeating Notre Dame for the fourth consecutive time in the finals by a score of 28-17.
Energized by the challenge of developing elite redheaded athletes who can't be in the sun for more than 15 minutes without sustaining horrific sunburns, and despite having a marked distaste for hippies, Saban now tests himself by signing only incoming freshmen with already-established ponytails. His half-hair-based squad encounters several stumbles throughout the season, including losses to Georgia and Florida, but goes undefeated in the West and evens the series with Florida in the SEC Championship Game. 'Bama slugs through the playoffs and knocks off Notre Dame in the national title game, 31-14.
He feels alive. For the first time in three years, he feels alive. The AL-Hair All-Stars are unstoppable. Playing time on this year's squad is based solely on facial hair length. Sections of all potential starters' beards are plucked during pregame warmups and painstakingly measured with calipers. Bewildered by now to the point of unquestioning obedience, the selection committee slots a 10-4 Tide squad into the easiest playoff path, which ends with a 35-12 defeat of Notre Dame.
The early departure of all three Ginger Avengers for the first and second rounds of the NFL draft leave Saban feeling quite unexpectedly melancholy. Hair-derived methods of recruiting are abandoned. He watches all home games from the press box, saying nothing, calmly stroking a placid white cat. The Tide's defensive line takes the field down three players all year, a "missing men" honor for the triplets. No one questions this. An unusually yielding schedule enables an undefeated season and postseason run. The Crimson Tide defeat the Fighting Irish in the national title game, 41-10.
The ease with which the remaining 'Bama Beards cruised to victory the previous year brings the bleak hunger again, and with the pangs come another self-imposed cheat code. This year's staff recruits only players from Maine. Many suspect Grizz O'Dowd, the blue-chip quarterback import, may actually be a tame bear. No one openly questions this, as a nine-game regular season followed by a sixteen-team playoff will tax even the hardiest purely human physiques. (Plus, it's a Bear, who's to say it's not the Bear in some way?) Saban starts the Mainers en masse in every nonconference game, for seasoning, and by the postseason a fourth-down package featuring O'Dowd leads Sunday SportsCenter on the regular. 'Bama wallops Notre Dame for the national championship, 46-21.
Still, something is missing. Maybe it's not the team Saban needs to hinder to create new challenges for himself. Maybe it's him. O'Dowd has really caught on with the younger fans. The onset of his twilight years do make a man consider his legacy. Saban begins to learn the art of balloon-making, practicing on planes, and on bus rides when his cell signal fades. First, a bear. He perfects the balloon bear. He makes dozens of them, roaming both sidelines and end zones during games and handing them out to boisterous children in the front rows of Tuscaloosa, Knoxville, Athens and Oxford. Saint Nick, they call him, for the first time in his career, without a scintilla of sarcasm. Almost entirely without his notice, another undefeated season comes and goes. This year's title game victory over the Fighting Irish is the closest it's ever been, a 28-20 cannon battle.
Further, he thinks. Only by throwing myself further into distractions can I ignore the beast of ennui within. Inspired by a coffee table book at his lake house, a book he's never noticed before, Saban begins to absorb the practice of bonsai cultivation in the spring. Visitors to Bryant-Denny Stadium for the first home game the following fall take note of furrows of dirt dug behind each sideline, furrows with immaculately-spaced seedlings, for all the world like a sparse, Far Eastern answer to the hedges at Sanford. Saban calls no plays in 2021, only curious in passing to see what this will bring. The Process feeds itself, and The Process feeds the machine. A 7-2 regular season and victory in the SEC Championship Game barely allows the Tide entry into the sixteen-team playoff field. No matter. 'Bama storms to victory, and after each game an opposing coach is personally gifted with an immaculately kept bonsai tree from what Tide partisans have already begun to call Saban Gardens. Notre Dame fans storm the team buses in the aftermath of the Fighting Irish's 34-29 title game loss and burn the tree, certain it must be a thing of witchcraft. Saban watches from a distance, seemingly impassive.
His exploration into Japanese horticulture broadens to include religious studies of cultures throughout Asia. With one hand, Saban signs offer letters willy-nilly; with the other, he holds his place in ancient Tibetan manuscripts. By fall camp he can levitate himself nearly a foot off the ground, and takes the field for the neutral-field season opener against Georgia Tech striding, quite literally, on thin air. The concentration split required to maintain altitude and gameplan his way to an unprecedented eleventh consecutive national championship brings him to a plateau of personal fulfillment he never thought possible. Alabama 62, Notre Dame 11. His hair has turned completely white. His posture is impeccable. He remembers the tree.
With serenity achieved within, Saban returns his energies outward, focused now on the elimination of all external distractions. All 'Bama home games are moved to Legion Field, which still exists, away from the carnival atmosphere of the Tuscaloosa campus. Late that November, during a hotly-contested Iron Bowl, the raucous movements of the crowd cause the stands to shift, first shivering, then shuddering, then swaying outright beneath the feet of the faithful. Something snaps. A key girder bends in unnatural fashion. The stands are going down, and taking a capacity crowd of more than 70,000 souls with them. Suddenly, silence falls. Motion ceases. All seats and stairways are frozen in space, frozen by the gaze of Saban, focused on the wayward pieces of steel and concrete with a serene expression that belies the effort expended. With agonizing slowness, the stadium rights itself. Saban's feet touch the ground for the first time in more than fourteen months. The game is called off. The score, 28-28. Outwardly, he is a calm lake. Inwardly, a volcano lurches to life. Three days later, he accepts the vacant Dallas Cowboys head coaching position. Without him, the Tide manage only a 17-14 title game victory. The city of South Bend shuts down for three days.
Perhaps he was the distraction now. Perhaps, in removing himself to Dallas, he has removed the biggest elephant from college football's loftiest stage. The Cowboys win the Super Bowl. Alabama's streak of national titles continues, after a fashion, with a 7-6 victory over an Iowa Hawkeyes team coached by an outlandishly expensive Jon Gruden. Saban no longer requires sleep. He paces the dock all night, every night. That's when it hits him.
Saban resigns from Dallas, focusing all his energies on the Crimson Tide and winning football on the physical plane for the first time in a decade. There is a catch. Attendance at home football games is banned. All away games are canceled. Still reeling in the afterglow of the Legion Levitation, his orders sail through without so much as a tweet of protest. Fans observe the action from the Quad, huddled in silence around a hundred hundred muted televisions. All teams scheduled to host the Tide make the pilgrimage to Tuscaloosa, which has become something of a holy city in the American South, without a whimper. In front of a crowd that is no crowd at all, Saturday after Saturday, the Tide obliterate every challenger by margins not seen since first toe met leather. Finally. No distractions. In December, Saban's entire staff, even the atheists, are formally excommunicated by the Catholic church. In January, Notre Dame travels to Tuscaloosa for the first time.
This is my last day at Sports Illustrated. I want to thank you from the bottom of the black pit where my heart should be for reading this far. Look, I made you a feelings collage.
Love you. Roll Tide.