Lang’s World: Move over Bear, there’s a new GOAT in town

When I was a kid, my grandfather was the biggest Alabama fan that I knew. He was prone to yelling “Roooollll Tide! Roll!” at random times throughout the day. When he added a screened-in porch on the back of his farmhouse, he called it The Alabama Room and filled it with Crimson Tide detritus. When he got older and needed a cane to help him navigate, he got one painted with crimson and white stripes, which he loved.

He also had a yellowed newspaper photo of Bear Bryant that he’d clipped out, which he taped to the door of his refrigerator. I don’t know how long that picture lived on that fridge, but Bryant coached his last game in 1982, and that picture remained displayed on the refrigerator at least into the ‘90s.

At the time I didn’t think much about it—Bryant had been the coach of Alabama, my grandfather’s favorite team, for nearly three decades. He’d won six National Championships in that time and made Alabama football into a household name. In a college football world with ever-rotating rosters, in a sport where rosters are transient by design, Bryant figured out a way to create a perennial contender.

Looking back on it, it seems kind of weird to have a photo of a coach on your refrigerator. Head coaches don’t make plays. Heck, most head coaches don’t even call plays. But I suppose if you are looking for a constant to explain how Alabama football became what it became, Bear Bryant was as close as you could come to a north star for that program.

I thought about my grandfather’s refrigerator last night as Alabama was putting the finishing touches on their 52-24 demolition of Ohio State in the College Football Playoff championship game. With the win last night, Alabama coach Nick Saban passed Bear Bryant by winning his seventh collegiate national championship, the most of any coach, ever. And I could almost imagine my now-departed grandfather replacing the picture of Bryant with one of Saban.

Nick Saban

If Bear Bryant created the blueprint, Nick Saban took those plans, smiled at them, then built an incredible mixed-use development right on top of Bryant’s nice little building. If Bryant built The Lourve, Saban created the pyramid on top that everyone remembers.

What is left for Nick Saban to say? What is left for Nick Saban to prove? Without much fanfare, without his players constantly flexing and woofing, with the glum attitude of a suburban husband played by William H. Macy, Nick Saban has turned Alabama into the greatest college football factory of all-time.

Consider: Two weeks ago was college football awards week. By which I mean, all those weird college football awards named after players from a hundred years ago were presented to players at each position group. This is one time of year we hear names like “Doak” and “Biletnikoff,” while kids from across the country who are usually overlooked get their roses. Most of these awards don’t get that much attention—the Heisman still gets the feature focus—but still, it’s fun to see linemen and linebackers honored for their good seasons, even if they aren’t always on the very best teams.

But this year, it seemed to go a little differently. Here are some of this season’s award winners…

  • Davey O’Brien Award (best quarterback): Mac Jones, Alabama
  • Outland Trophy (best interior lineman): Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
  • Biletnikoff Award (outstanding receiver): DeVonta Smith, Alabama
  • Rimington Trophy (best center): Landon Dickerson, Alabama
  • Doak Walker Award (best running back): Najee Harris, Alabama
  • Maxwell Award (best all-around player): DeVonta Smith, Alabama
  • Walter Camp Award (player of the year): DeVonta Smith, Alabama
  • Heisman Trophy (player of the year): DeVonta Smith, Alabama

Looking at that list, you might wonder how anyone could have thought Alabama would lose to Ohio State on Monday night in Miami at the College Football Playoff championship game. (Hey, I took the Alabama moneyline and am smiling wide today.)

What’s wild about that list of players is that at the start of the season, DeVonta Smith wasn’t even regarded as Alabama’s best receiver. And then Jalen Waddle got hurt, and Smith went and won every award, then put up 215 yards and three TDs in a half in the Championship game against supposedly the other best team in college football. Heck, on Monday night Saban put two guys out there each playing on one leg and managed to get production out of them.

Nick Saban turned 70 last year. How much longer will he want to keep this up? My guess is at least for another five years. He’s figured out how to replace coordinators and keep everyone on his staff on the same page. Even crazier? Saban has the best recruiting class in the history of recruiting rankings

Coming in next season.

Perhaps it’s odd to lionize a coach, to value the contributions of management over the actual workers. But if anyone has proven their value, it must be Nick Saban. He doesn’t make it entertaining or fun, but Saban wins games and titles.

As a fan, that’s really all you can ask for. And if you want to get your face taped on appliances all over the South, I can’t think of any better way.

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