PHOENIX — As his postgame interview was winding down after Alabama’s pulsating 45-40 victory over Clemson to win the College Football Playoff championship Monday night, Nick Saban put on a Cheshire cat grin, looked into the camera and said, “I’m smiling.”
It was a moment of self-awareness regarding the stereotype of him as a rigid autocrat whose devotion to what he calls “the process” is unwavering. It was his way of saying, “I’m not exactly who you think I am.”
Faced with the toughest challenge he ever has faced in a national championship game from Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, Saban did the same thing. Recognizing that Alabama’s ship was taking on water, he went into scramble mode to save it. He played against type.
After placekicker Adam Griffith tied the game at 24 with a field goal early in the fourth quarter, Saban did what no one expected, least of all Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. He called a play named “pop kick,” where Griffith lofted a soft, arcing kickoff to the right side of the field. Crimson Tide defensive back Marlon Humphrey caught it on the fly 15 yards downfield at the 50-yard line. It was the unexpected call Saban had to make if he wanted to win a fifth national championship (’Bama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant won a record six national titles).
“I made the decision to do it because the score was and we were tired on defense and we weren’t getting them stopped,” Saban said. “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. Getting that onside kick, I think, did change the momentum of the game.”
Two plays later, Tide quarterback Jake Coker hit tight end O.J. Howard for a 51-yard touchdown pass and a 31-24 lead, and after Watson drove the Tigers to a field goal, Saban got an unexpected bonanza when Kenyan Drake returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and a 38-27 lead. The game wasn’t over. Far from it. But the Tide had turned.
“We got ahead, which allowed us to play differently because we weren’t playing great on defense,” Saban said Tuesday. “Deshaun Watson had as big an impact as any single player in the game. To get ahead when you’re playing against a player like that is really, really important.”
Watson continued to make big plays, fighting to the final seconds and leading two more touchdown drives. He destroyed a defense considered one of Saban’s all-time best, passing for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 73 yards. Saban acknowledged it was Watson taking on his ’Bama legions from Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry to all the future first-round draft picks littered throughout the roster.
“We thought we could do a better job than we did against their quarterback,” Saban said. “ is a fantastic player. When you play players like this, the whole team has to win. It’s not just the defense stopping him. It’s the offense doing what they need to do, making the plays on special teams that you need to make.”
And in this case, it was the coach doing his job and having every base covered in case of emergency. In preparing for Clemson, Alabama’s coaches noticed the Tigers’ return formation showed a look that was vulnerable to the “pop kick.” The Tide had practiced it, though Humphrey said he failed to catch it.
Asked if he would have made such a risky call if he were younger and not established as the most successful coach in the college game, Saban said, “It was worth the risk, I felt. But it was calculated on the fact I thought we could execute it, and it was something I knew that we would use in this game if we needed to.”
If you think about it from Saban’s perspective, it wasn’t as big a gamble as it appeared. It was coaching by the best in the business.