One way to measure Nick Saban's greatness
But first, to set it up, an entirely Oklahoma story, too
Were you to ask for the greatest college football highlight of my life, there’s first the one I wish I could claim, occurring Nov. 26, 1976, in Lincoln, Neb., the day Sooner Magic was born.
That was the day Dean Blevins threw the ball to Steve Rhodes, who pitched it to a sprinting Elvis Peacock, who took it to the 2.
The old hook and lateral.
Peacock scored on the next play and the Sooners beat the Huskers 20-17.
But I can’t choose it.
I didn’t see it live.
I was 8 years old and I’d watched almost the whole game with my best neighborhood friends, Chris Bright and Cody Barnett, but moments before OU mounted its game-winning drive, we’d given up on it.
When Blevins threw to Rhodes, who tossed to Peacock, we were playing football ourselves in Cody’s front yard. And when we came back in, we were gobsmacked by what had just happened.
Happily, of course.
Perhaps because no other Sooner moment seen live ever surpassed the one I missed live, my greatest college football highlight did not arrive in childhood when everything’s bigger than life.
Nope, my greatest college football highlight instead came Nov. 30, 2013, in Auburn, Ala., when Auburn’s Chris Davis fielded Alabama’s Adam Griffith’s 57-yard field goal attempt, returning it 109 yards to victory, time expiring along the way.
And that, for a then-40-something sportswriter, who’s not supposed to be emotionally invested in the games, is the power of Nick Saban, the best college football coach anyone of us has ever seen or even read about.
Better than Knute Rockne.
Better than Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Better than Bud Wilkinson.
Better than Bear Bryant.
Part of me believes Eddie Robinson and Bill Snyder should have a category of their own, a built-it-from-scratch category. Yet, ultimately, better than them, too.
Also better than Joe Paterno, Barry Switzer, Bobby Bowden, Tom Osborne and Woody Hayes.
Hayes, of course, was eliminated before this exercise began and the contenders conjured, because coaches can’t be punching cameramen and opposing players and expect to stay on anybody’s list.
In 2013, Saban’s Alabama program, if you can believe it, was more dominant than it was since.
There’s the old expression that rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel, but it should have been updated in deference to Saban’s Crimson Tide, for whom rooting has been like rooting for Wal-Mart.
In 2013, Alabama had won three of the last four national championships, all of them when getting to the title game required being judged one of the nation’s best two teams rather than one of four.
That day at Auburn, the Tide entered No. 1, unbeaten and it was dang near a foregone conclusion it would claim a fourth championship in five years. Yet, somehow, the game was tied with a second to play when Saban sent out his kicker.
It’s possible the greatest college football coach anybody’s ever seen suffered a lapse in judgment or even forgot something.
He knew a kick that came up short could be returned, but did he forget that a field goal unit has nothing in common with the punt team defensively? Like, the kicker and holder might been the fastest Alabama players on the field.
Whatever, watching Davis take off with the ball, tiptoe down the left sideline and not trip over a teammate whose feet were way to close to his own near the end of the return may have been the most exciting sports moment I’d witnessed, period, since Francisco Cabrera knocked home Sid Bream in Game 7 of the ’92 National League Championship Series.
I loved, loved, loved the Braves.
In 2013, I could not have been more tired of Alabama’s success.
The Tide had made college football feel monotonous and boring and couldn’t lose enough to suit me, precisely because it hardly ever did.
I was giddy watching Davis’ return.
I smiled and laughed and shook my head, though nobody else was in the room.
Sports can give you so much and still, that kind of feeling, the kind of feeling the legendary Jack Buck described when Kirk Gibson’s home run ended Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, shouting, “I don’t believe what I just saw,” well, those moments are priceless.
The cherry on top, what made it so magical, was who it happened to.
It was like watching Dusty Rhodes pin Ric Flair in the middle of the ring at Starrcade for the NWA title, only it was real.
Oklahoma Columnist, by Clay Horning is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Georgia Tech could beat Georgia that way next season and it wouldn’t be the same. Michigan State could do it to Michigan and, comparatively, it’s a yawn. Ohio could even beat Ohio State that way, which would be bonkers and nuts, but it wouldn’t be what Auburn did that one particular Saturday.
Not even close.
Again, the power of Saban.
In an age of parity and terrific teams from all over, his success was impossible and claustrophobic.
Who’ll ever do that again?
You know, other than Patty Gasso.