GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Step aside, Bear.
There’s a new legend in Tuscaloosa.
At the risk of stirring up the everlasting wrath of the Houndstooth Nation, Nick Saban locked up the title as the greatest coach in college football history with his fourth national title in seven years Monday night.
And, yes, that includes Bear Bryant.
If there were any doubts about Saban’s genius — and how could there be? —he pulled off one of the gutsiest calls you’ll ever see with another championship hanging in the balance.
Alabama, which was manhandled much of the second half by top-ranked Clemson, had just tied it at 24-all on Adam Griffith’s field goal with 10:34 remaining in an instant classic of a contest.
The crowd of more than 75,000 settled back into its seats, eagerly anticipating what the response would be from Deshaun Watson and the Tigers.
Saban wouldn’t give them the chance.
Instead, he called for Griffith to pooch the kickoff toward the Clemson bench, the ball traveling no more than 15 yards. Marlon Humphrey, a freshman defensive back from suburban Birmingham, ran up under it without breaking stride, with no one from the orange-clad Tigers around.
Humphrey couldn’t take it any farther.
It didn’t matter.
“If we wouldn’t have gotten that,” Saban said, unable to resist one of his customary pokes at the media, “y’all would be killing me.”
Two plays after Alabama recovered the onside kick, Coker launched a pass down the middle of the field. O.J. Howard hauled it in — again with no one around— for a 51-yard touchdown that put Alabama ahead to stay. The Tide went on to a 45-40 victory.
With that, Saban’s legacy was assured.
The best ever.
He is tied with Frank Leahy for the second-most coaching titles as determined by The Associated Press. Throw in a fifth that Saban won at LSU — a BCS crown that is every bit as a legitimate, even though it was shared with AP champ Southern Cal — and he’s in hallowed territory.
“I mean, that’s an incredible accomplishment,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s really hard to win one.”
Bryant is the only coach with five AP titles. He won them all at Alabama over a 19-season span, showing an impressive ability to adapt to the changing times by winning the first three in the 1960s with all-white teams while his state was embroiled in the civil rights movement, the last two after switching to the wishbone offense and recruiting a large number of African-American players.
Saban has piled up five titles in the last 13 seasons, at two different schools, even while spending two ill-fated years with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. When also considering the stricter scholarship limits, longer schedules and much more competitive landscape in today’s college game, Saban’s achievement clearly stands supreme.
A couple of days ago, Saban refused to put himself in the same league as Bryant. He rightfully acknowledged the Bear’s enormous role in making Alabama what it is today, establishing the sort of tradition and image that, in some respects, made things a bit easier for those that came afterward.
Then again, every coach who followed the Bear, with the notable exception of Gene Stallings, was overwhelmed by Bryant’s legacy. Ray Perkins. Bill Curry. Mike DuBose. Dennis Franchione. Mike Price (who didn’t even make it to his first game). Mike Shula.
He took over a program in tatters in 2007, spent a year rebuilding it, and quickly restored the Tide to not just national prominence, but national dominance.
A perfect regular season in 2008, only to lose to eventual national champion Florida in the Southeastern Conference title game. A national title in 2009. Back-to-back crowns in 2011 and ‘12. Another title run snuffed out by Auburn’s improbable “Kick Six” touchdown in the 2013 Iron Bowl. A loss to eventual national champion Ohio State in the first playoff semifinals a year ago.
And, now, a fourth title with the Tide.
Just don’t expect him to spend any time reflecting on where he’s been. Not long after he gets back to T-Town, it will be time to start thinking about next season.
He’s already got meetings scheduled for Wednesday.
“As long as you do this, it’s always about your next play, it’s always about the next game,” Saban said. His legacy? “I’ve never really ever thought too much about all that.”
We’ll give props to Leahy, who won his four AP titles over a seven-year span — but actually only coached five of those years, spending the 1944 and ‘45 seasons in the Navy during World War II.
But those were different times, with Notre Dame and a handful of schools totally ruling the landscape. The Fighting Irish were rarely challenged during their dominating run, going four straight seasons without losing a game.
Again, the nod goes to Saban.
You don’t have to call him Bear.
Just call him The Greatest.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberryap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry . AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org