How on Bear’s green earth did Alabama – Alabama! – become the “Downton Abbey” of the College Football Playoff national championship game? How did Nick Saban’s empire of entrenched order and strategic repression wind up providing all the pregame human imperfection leading to next Monday in Tampa? Isn’t life absurd?
Already since last year, which wasn’t so long ago, the Alabama-Clemson rematch has been changing by the day. It has gone from a possibility to a reality to, given Clemson’s 31-0 mauling of Ohio State in the semifinals, a reality with real heft, and then a referendum, given the stunning announcement Monday that Lane Kiffin would depart right away as offensive coordinator.
Referendum: Just how great is Saban?
We know “great” is a bygone conclusion – he has five national championships already – but if he can beat a team that just gave Urban Meyer his first shutout in 15 coaching seasons, and if he can do so with an offensive coordinator (Steve Sarkisian) who hasn’t coordinated in eight years, just after bidding farewell to his other offensive coordinator in an unprecedented turn of timing, then he moves further up the greatness-o-meter.
Think of it: A victory Monday would mean Saban will have won a national championship one year with a defensive coordinator (Kirby Smart) who had accepted a new head-coaching job (at Georgia), then won a national championship the next year after the offensive coordinator (Kiffin) had accepted a new head-coaching job (at Florida Atlantic), then coached the national semifinal, then departed on alleged mutual agreement seven days ahead of the final.
It’s almost like he’s just seeing how great he can be even though, of course, he’s not.
Last January’s title game against a debutant Clemson proved complicated enough. Clemson outgained Alabama, 550-473. It out-first-downed Alabama, 31-18. It made Alabama’s respiration compromised enough that the Crimson Tide sorely needed that onside kick with 10 minutes left, and Kenyan Drake’s 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with 7:31 left. This may stun you, but some Alabama fans don’t fancy themselves as requiring trickery to enjoy their postseasons.
After that game, tucked in a long news conference with plenty of mirth and outright adoration for his team, Saban did get one funny look when he mentioned having tried to intensify pregame practices with the saying, “Hard practice, easy game; easy practice, hard game.” He concluded that passage with, “So they got 40 points,” and, given how he might like excellence almost as much as winning, seemed a tad bummed.
Now his merely 14-0 team faces a grown-up beast of a Clemson, and this man who has waged a Tuscaloosan battle against human frailty and complacency, and has won it with remarkable frequency, comes to a title game as a vortex of gossip. There are so many unknowns that may become unknowables, given Saban’s capacity for staving off drama. It could help to have some good strategy for taking questions come Saturday at a media day that, even in advance, has gone unmoored from customary tedium to reach something in the vicinity of enticement.
Somehow, through a 14-0 season, Saban will have two offensive coordinators from the unforeseen Los Angeles-Tuscaloosa pipeline, and two coordinators who share the distinction of having been fired by former Southern California athletic director Pat Haden: Kiffin at a private Los Angeles airport after a loss in late September 2013, and Sarkisian by email in a mid-October 2015 after some alcohol-related incidents and a missed practice. He has had Kiffin, who in just 41 years on Earth has wreaked commotion in four American football towns, and now he will have Steve Sarkisian, 42, whose 31-page lawsuit against Southern California, which went to arbitration last spring, claimed the university didn’t help enough with his “problem with alcohol.”
When both those coaches treaded the turbulent coaching waters, Saban threw them sweet floating devices. Since September, Sarkisian has been around as a $35,000-a-year offensive analyst, with AL.com reporting that he specialized in third downs. Now he’ll have two more downs to cover while the guy who covered all for three years and a 40-3 record sits elsewhere, perhaps Boca Raton, site of Florida Atlantic, founded in 1961 and situated at 777 Glades Avenue, an address indicating a fondness for touchdowns.
Kiffin will not be milling around on the sideline or helping out, Saban said Tuesday on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” radio show with an exquisitely worded, “That’s not something we’re interested in pursuing.” How and why Kiffin came to lose his job seven days before he was going to leave his job might remain a mystery to all but so few.
If it had to do with the noise generated by his pregame interviews, as in Pete Thamel’s outstanding story in Sports Illustrated going house-hunting with Kiffin in Boca Raton, that would be weak. Even as Kiffin committed some candor in the interview in his capacity as FAU head coach, having been unable to speak publicly in his concurrent capacity as Alabama assistant, he still expressed gratefulness toward Saban.
Even as he launched into a ludicrous bit about taking a psychologist’s personality test – “It means I’m imaginative, intuitive about ideas, visionary, enjoys the unusual and learns by experimenting” – and then said, “Doesn’t that explain me and everything that’s not in the staff room at Alabama,” he still indicated merely that Saban and the staff room simply had different personality types (“practical thinker, likes guidelines, cautious with new ideas, predictable and learns by doing.”)
If it had to do with the blase offense from the semifinal against Washington, or not running the fearsome Bo Scarbrough enough, and the pull of two jobs at once, the needs of the high-level players, then that still means . . .
That still means that if Saban wins this after all this, he’s really pretty good.