While the confetti is still falling on Alabama like the stars fell on the state in the classic song, we are still measuring the achievement of the man from West Virginia.
The greatness of Nick Saban among current coaches is unquestioned, perhaps even for all time. But how deep and how wide and far has it grown? Deeper than the deepest coal mines where his father once labored? Perhaps wider than the swath once cut by Bear Bryant?
Before Saban is canonized at the expense of his peers, let’s not be too quick to dismiss some other coaches who might be in striking distance of “greatest ever.” And given that Saban is 64, perhaps some of his accomplishments might still be at least equaled. Of course, Saban could also add another notch or two to his national championship belt.
Remember Urban Meyer? A lot of SEC fans may be choosing not to. But Meyer was a few points away last season from a crack at his fourth national championship. If he’d somehow won his fourth, what would we have been saying about Nick Saban?
Remember, in three head-to-head postseason meetings, Meyer is 2-1 against Saban.
In a recent one-on-one interview with Meyer, he professed a profound admiration for Saban. But Meyer stopped short of calling Saban “the greatest.”
“I certainly think he’ll (Saban) go down as one of the greatest in the history of college football,” Meyer said. “I know everybody knows that. But I don’t want to say ‘the best’ — one of the top two or three.”
Don’t think for a minute Meyer is dissing Saban or doesn’t appreciate his genius.
“What he has is consistency in all areas — recruiting, developing players and holding a staff together,” Meyer said. “One of the issues I’ve had over the years is losing assistant coaches. They become head coaches (Tom Herman). He lost a couple this year and one became a head coach (Kirby Smart).
“But to sit here and talk about the job he’s done is senseless. That’s the marquee program again.”
The key reasons: 1. Alabama is a recruiting machine. 2. After landing on campus in Tuscaloosa, players become highly developed. 3. Saban has a quest to always look for ways to change and improve his team.
No. 3 meant Saban putting his cantaloupes on the line with the onside kick against Clemson at the perfect time. Nobody was more impressed with that call than Meyer, who also utilizes those “game-changers/momentum changers.” There is no doubt in his mind that the kick was on Saban’s call sheet, just lying in the weeds waiting to be implemented. The reason it worked so well was it was so un-Saban-like. And many of us wondered if it was a spontaneous call.
“I know him very well and that’s not him,” Meyer said. “Usually defensive coaches are very conservative. I don’t think he’s a spur-of-the-moment guy’ I think he’s got a sheet of paper. And like a lot of us do with these ‘momentum changers’ — when it’s the ideal time. And the look they were getting. One flaw Clemson had was they didn’t cover down on the width of their kickoff receiving team. So I imagine he had something in a piece of paper that says ‘momentum changers.’ ”
What also still feels very “un-Saban” is the hiring of Lane Kiffin, whose rep around the SEC had been pretty much as a juvenile.
“I think what he’s done on offense with Kiffin was impressive,” Meyer said. “He has really adapted. And that’s the key to being a great football coach. Adapting, moving forward and keeping on moving and understanding momentum — which he does.”
Serving as an analyst for ESPN, one thing Meyer got was an up-close look at the players and the teams. As impressive as he found Alabama, Meyer also sees a bright future of Clemson. And he’ll never make the mistake again of disrespecting Dabo Swinney’s program. When he was coaching at Florida and the Gators lost five-star running back C. J. Spiller to Clemson, Meyer was furious with himself and his staff.
“I had never recruited against Clemson and I didn’t know much about them. And to be honest I didn’t properly respect them,” Meyer said. “Then you go there and see what they have — and it’s for real. Dabo awakened a sleeping giant! You haven’t heard the last of Clemson.”
Swinney has since become one of Meyer’s closest coaching friends.
Meyer thinks Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson is a future NFL No. 1 pick and recruited him hard to play for the Buckeyes — but lost out again.
Speaking of the NFL, there were stories circulating in Ohio that the Cleveland Browns were after Meyer. Would there ever come a time when he wanted to try pro ball, as did Saban and Steve Spurrier?
“This year I did have some opportunities, but we’re not ready,” Meyer said. “My son (Nate) is a sophomore in high school and I didn’t even really consider it.
“I never want to say never because people hold you to that. But at this point, that’s not something I’m looking forward to doing.”
This was supposed to be Meyer’s chance to go back-to-back against Saban for The Big Trophy, but a 17-14 loss to Michigan State ended Buckeyes hopes and gave the Spartans the unenviable task of taking on the Crimson Tide. And it was a Buckeyes team that had lost some steam from the season before. Maybe there will be another shot in 2016?
“Alabama is going to lose a few players like we did, but every year Coach Saban finishes first or second in recruiting,” Meyer said.
The oddsmakers give Alabama a slight edge over Clemson as the favorite next fall, followed by Ohio State, Baylor and Michigan — all in sort of a cluster. Saban hardly has had time to hold the trophy. There are players to be recruited and coaches to be hired. Being The Greatest comes with a price.