PASADENA, California — Regardless of the outcome of Monday’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl between No. 4 Alabama and No. 1 Michigan, Nick Saban’s legacy as the greatest college football coach of all time is not in question.
He cemented that with his seventh national championship in 2020, which was his sixth at Alabama. No other coach in college football history has more than the six former Alabama coach Bear Bryant recorded.
“I don’t know what it is,” Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe said of the 72-year-old Saban. “I think some there’s some secret formula that he built up to allow him to be the person that he is to this day. I don’t know what that secret formula is, but he’s something different, and he’s separated himself from other coaches, for sure.”
With Saban just two wins away from possibly securing a once-unthinkable eighth national title, he reflected on some of what the secret sauce to his success may be.
“I think that initially, I was probably counting on some of the things that I learned from former mentors, whether it was George Perles, Bill Belichick, whatever, in terms of how they built success in their programs and (we) tried to emulate that as much as we could,” Saban said. “But it’s always been our philosophy to try to create value for players in terms of their personal development, developing careers off the field, developing a career on the field, being the best that they could be at whatever they choose to do.
“That’s always been the philosophy. It’s always been what we tried to build on. It’s worked fairly well for us through the years. We’re going to continue to have that philosophy so that players can be more successful in life because they were involved in the program.”
Success in life and success on the football playing field have been the goals, and Saban believes they go hand in hand. With that in mind, here is a snapshot look back at Saban’s seven previous national championship teams:
2003 — Saban earned the first of his national titles while head coach at another school in LSU, but it did not come without controversy. After Saban’s Tigers beat Oklahoma 21-14 in the Sugar Bowl to finish the season 13-1 they were declared national champs via the Bowl Championship Series parameters. But Associated Press voters did not agree with the BCS ,computations and voted Southern California champions — so it was considered a split national championship. Matt Mauck, the quarterback, threw for 28 touchdowns — the combined total of 21 of them to future NFL wide recievers Devery Henderson and Michael Clayton, who also totaled more than 1,800 receiving yards between them.
2009 — Saban’s first title as coach of the Crimson Tide was capped by a 37-21 win over Texas in what was then called the BCS National Championship Game, capping a perfect 14-0 season. Running back Mark Ingram became the first Alabama player to win the Heisman Trophy after piling up nearly 2,000 total years from scrimmage (1,658 rushing, 334 receiving) and 20 total TDs (17 rushing, three receiving).
2011 — In his fifth season at Alabama, Saban claimed his third crown as coach, defeating fellow SEC power LSU, 21-0, in the BCS National Championship Game. That avenged the 12-1 squad’s only loss of the season, which came during the SEC regular season when then-No. 1 LSU beat the Tide in overtime, 9-6. A.J McCarron was the careful quarterback, completing 67 percent of his passes (219 of 328) while throwing for 16 touchdowns, and running back Trent Richardson was dynamite with 1,679 rushing yards and 358 more receiving for 2,017 total yards from scrimmage while accounting for 24 total TDs (21 rushing, three receiving). But the defense, led by the trio of Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron and Courtney Upshaw, also was dominant.
2012 — Back-to-back titles were claimed as the Tide went 13-1, losing only to Texas A&M, 29-24, late in the season before going on to rout Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game, 42-14. A thrilling 32-28 win over Georgia, then ranked No. 3 in the nation, in the SEC Championship clinched the appearance in the national title game. McCarron again was effecient at quarterback, completing 67 percent of his passes while throwing for 30 touchdowns and only three interceptions. The running back tandem of Eddie Lacy (1,322 yards rushing and 19 total TDs) and T.J. Yeldon (1,108 yards, 13 total TDs) proved devastating, as did the linebacker play of C.J. Mosely (107 total tackles, four sacks, two interceptions).
2015 — The 14-1 Tide secured their first championship in the College Football Playoff era by beating Michigan State 38-0 in the semifinal and No. 1 Clemson, 45-40, in the title game as running back Derrick Henry led the nation both in rushing yards (2,219) and rushing touchdowns (28) en route to becoming the second Alabama player to win the Heisman Trophy. Junior DB Eddie Jackson led the defense with six interceptions.
2017 — After losing a national title game rematch to Clemson in 2016, 13-1 Bama bounced back to win its second championship of the CFP era, defeating No. 1 Clemson 24-6 in the semifinal before winning an all-SEC showdown with Georgia, 26-23 in overtime, to claim Title No. 6 for Saban, tying him with Bryant for the most all-time. The thriller vs. Georgia marked Saban’s first time squaring off against his long-time former assistant coach and defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart. Future NFL star Jalen Hurts was the dual-threat star at quarterback, passing for 2,081 yards and 17 TDs while throwing just one interception and also running for 855 yards and another eight scores.
2020 — In a football season initially threatened to be snuffed out by the COVID-19 pandemic, Saban coached masterfully as the Crimson Tide won all 13 games they played, including going 10-0 in the challenging SEC. In their two CFP games, the Tide outscored Notre Dame and Ohio State by the combined score of 83-38. Quarterback Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards and 41 TDs against just four interceptions, with his main target being Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith (1,856 receiving yards and 24 total TDs). Running back Najee Harris also received Heisman consideration after totaling 1,891 yards from scrimmage (1,466 rushing, 425 receiving) and 30 total TDs.
Saban said he would love to add this team to the championship list. After losing to Texas, then and now the No. 3-ranked team in the nation, in the second game of the season and then struggling to a 17-3 win over South Florida when Milroe got benched, few believed this Saban-led squad would be on the cusp of possibly achieving such a lofty goal. Now it is lterally at their fingertips.
“This team has been fun because the relationships on the team are really good,” Saban said. “The leadership on the team is really good. The buy-in that the players have has been really good. I think that you’re always trying to develop guys putting the team forward. Everybody can have more success if we all play together.
“People buying into the principles and values that help them do that, having positive energy about trying to do that, being able to be responsible to do your job at a high level and a high standard is something that we sometimes as fans can take for granted … But it really is pretty special when you have a group that does that, and this group certainly did. That made it a lot of fun to be around them, and the relationships on the team made it even more inspiring.”