Protector Of His Realm, Alabama's Nick Saban Reaches A Crossroads

Amid the protracted crawl toward the 2019 college football season, we learned that Nick Saban is a watcher of "Game of Thrones." This is not exactly surprising, given that Saban has long been lauded as an unrelenting despot who is entirely capable of transforming adolescent dragons into professional ravagers of worlds. But it is the kind of charming detail that used to leak out about Saban once every couple of years or so -- he hoards Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies for breakfast, he is a relentless early morning Weather Channel consumer  -- just to remind us that he was not a relentless workaday automaton. 

Yet something about this off-season feels entirely different; it feels as if we’re suddenly in the midst of the Nick Saban Humanization Tour. A few months ago, Saban underwent hip replacement surgery. He is now 67 years old, which, crazily enough, is two years younger than Bear Bryant was when he retired as the coach at Alabama and then died 37 days later.

In the last football game Saban’s team played, the Crimson Tide got throttled by 28 points, something that hadn’t happened in the 12 years since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. And last week, the top quarterback recruit in the country committed to Clemson, the very school that defeated Alabama by four touchdowns in the national championship game. 

 "I want to play with the best players, I want to win a national championship and I want to play on the biggest stage against the best people," that quarterback, D.J. Uiagalelei, told ESPN. "That's my thing is I want to play with the best people.” 

That’s the kind of thing Alabama recruits used to blurt out all the time. But now it applies to Clemson, which has beaten Alabama in two of the past three national championship games. And it applies to coach Dabo Swinney, age 49, who’s been engaged in an off-season tour of his own after landing one of the largest contracts in the history of the sport. Dabo is now showing up randomly at more sporting events than Marlins Man; he also seems to be perpetually enjoying himself, which serves as a stark contrast to Saban’s decade-long humdrum reign on the Iron (Bowl) Throne. (Author’s Note: Sorry).

And as a reflection of that newfound twist, one South Carolina newspaper, in ranking the top coaches in both the SEC and ACC, put Swinney at No. 1 and Saban at No. 2. 

This, of course, is a precarious stand to take. Remember 2013, when Alabama lost the Sugar Bowl to Oklahoma and we declared the death of a dynasty? And let us not forget that while Clemson won titles in 2016 and 2018, Alabama won titles in 2015 and 2017. Let us not ignore the fact that Alabama had the No. 1 recruiting class in 2019, while Clemson barely squeezed into the top 10. 

Let us acknowledge that Saban, bionic hip and all, is in far better physical shape than Bear Bryant probably was at 50; let us remember that Saban’s team will return a generational talent at quarterback this season in Tua Tagovailoa, and let us recall that Alabama has lost a total of five games in the past five seasons.

If anyone could keep at this for another decade, it is Saban. If anyone could find a way to outmaneuver a pair of younger rivals, Swinney and Georgia’s Kirby Smart, it is Saban, who slowed down his recruiting pace for roughly six hours to recover from that hip surgery.

But it feels as if we’re at a watershed. Saban is now the third-oldest coach in the entire FBS, and even the local newspapers, on the occasion of Saban’s ceremonial appearance at a celebrity golf event last week, are starting to speculate about whether he’s aging out of the job.

 “I know it’s a fictional-type show,” Saban said of "Game of Thrones", “but you sort of get attached to the characters and some of the perseverance that they go through and some of the things that they do, because they are actually competing with all the sort of wars and things that go on.”

It was framed as a way to teach a lesson to his players, but it felt as if could have been directed inward. This is the most fragile moment of the Alabama dynasty to date, and without the benefit of a writing staff, how it goes from here is entirely dependent on whether Saban can persevere. 

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Protector of his realm, Alabama's Nick Saban reaches a crossroads
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