It came down again to a single play, like the screen pass in Baton Rouge. This time speedy freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper became so excited when a Georgia defensive back bit on a run fake that Cooper ran a straight go route instead of a post. A surprised McCarron reared back, then threw a bomb that Cooper caught in stride for a touchdown and a 32--28 victory. Sometimes improvisation trumps process.
In the days leading to the national championship game, Alabama practiced on pristine soccer fields at Barry University in Miami Shores, eight miles south of Sun Life Stadium. Jones, the anchor of the Tide's offensive line, had arrived in a walking cast, but by Friday he was a full participant in practice, resolving Alabama's most significant injury issue. The Tide's punishing ground game would operate with all its components.
Saban, meanwhile, sought two defensive solutions: one for Notre Dame's gifted tight end, Tyler Eifert, and the other for the Irish's redshirt freshman quarterback, Everett Golson. "The tight end is a major matchup problem," said Saban. "You can't cover him with a linebacker or a defensive back. The quarterback can make plays with his feet, and that's always a concern." There was little doubt that the Tide would attempt to confuse Golson with endless presnap alignments, trying to tax his limited experience.
For all his success, Saban has been dogged throughout his career with questions about his future, sometimes answering them with disastrous results. The nadir was his unseemly 2007 departure from the Dolphins for the Tide, just days after saying, "I guess I have to say it: I'm not going to be the Alabama coach."
When asked about it, Saban still wrestles with the thorny issues of loyalty and candor. "I got killed for it back then, and I wish I had handled it better," he said. "But in that situation, if I say I'm considering it—which at the time I wasn't—then I'm disloyal to my current team. If I say I'm not considering it and then I leave, I'm a liar."
He will always be in that position. Alabama is Saban's 13th job. "I've never called anybody for a job," says Saban, the first Alabama coach who could be considered a potential Bear apparent. But for that to happen, he needs to stay for a while.
There is little doubt that Saban loves the college game and that he was frustrated by the parity shackling the NFL. And clearly his style did not mesh with some professional players. "I think he's probably the greatest college football coach in history, but it's hard to get 53 guys on an NFL team to buy into a dictatorship-type personality," says NFL Network analyst Heath Evans, who played for Saban in Miami in 2005. "But that was a while ago, and watching him now, I think his strengths far outweigh his weaknesses. The second time around for Nick, if there is a second time around, I think he'll be much, much better."
Still, he walks a tightrope. So, on the one hand, this: "I think it's human nature to take the challenge of building something and, once you do that, looking for the next challenge." But also this, when asked about trying the NFL again: "Not really. I guess anything can change. But I'm totally happy right here. I had an opportunity to go someplace last year. It wasn't public. And I didn't do it." (During a press conference in Florida, Saban went further: "I don't have any unfinished business in the NFL. It's not even something I want to do.")
It is either the voice of commitment or the voice that's speaking to future recruits or the only words he can say. Or perhaps a little of all three. In this way, most of all, he is a coach for his times.
It was past 1 a.m. when Saban finished the last of a series of television interviews on the trampled turf of the stadium and walked back toward his dressing room. He gripped a stat sheet in his right hand, glancing at it occasionally as he went, alternately wearing and holding a pair of reading glasses.