Flexibility and a willingness to change are traits generally associated with youth.
There lies the true greatness of Nick Saban.
At 67 — an age when retirement plans are formed, a comfortable routine firmly established — the Alabama coach has undergone a remarkable transformation this season, one that has taken the Crimson Tide to the cusp of another national title.
Step aside, Defensive Genius.
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Make room for Mr. Offense.
It’s hard to overstate the astonishment that comes from watching a Saban-coached team scampering up and down the field like it just came into possession of Steve Spurrier’s “Fun ‘n’ Gun” playbook, seemingly as content to win a high-scoring shootout as it is a defensive standoff.
Alabama has surrendered more than 20 points on six occasions, including its come-from-behind victory over Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game (35-28) and the Orange Bowl track meet with Oklahoma in the playoff semifinals (45-34).
Not to worry. Blessed with the most dynamic quarterback of his coaching career, Saban adapted to today’s high-octane offensive world with the ease of a chameleon switching colors. After winning so many games with a stifling defense complemented by a punishing ground game and just enough passes, the Tide (14-0) has been pumping out point totals more suited to the basketball court.
Alabama hung 65 points on Arkansas, 62 on Ole Miss. Five other times, the Tide raced into the 50s, going into Monday night’s championship showdown against perennial opponent Clemson with an eye-popping average of 47.7 points a gane.
Saban knew he had something special in Tua Tagovailoa, especially after he came off the bench to rally Alabama to a memorable overtime victory over Georgia in last year’s national title game.
The coach wasn’t about to waste a talent of that magnitude.
“I think Coach Saban has helped us a lot by allowing us to do what we want to on the offensive side and not worrying too much about it,” Tagovailoa said Saturday. “Just letting us kind of do what we want.”
It seems like a lifetime ago that Saban won the first of five national titles as Alabama’s coach with Greg McElroy as his quarterback, a guy whose primary job was to hand off to Mark Ingram, avoid any silly mistakes and put the game largely in the hands of a monstrous defense that featured four first-round NFL draft picks-to-be among its starting 11.
McElroy threw 17 touchdown passes during Alabama’s perfect season in 2009.
Tagovailoa surpassed that total by the sixth week of 2018. He comes into the title game with 41 TDs.
Even Tagovailoa seems a bit surprised by Saban’s embrace of a wide-open, spread-style offense.
“I came in just wanting to do whatever they were doing and whatever was going to help the team become successful,” the sophomore QB said. “I would have never been able to tell that they were going to change the offense up a little bit and run it the way we are.”
Remember, too, it was only a year ago that Saban infamously chewed out then-offensive coordinator Brian Daboll on the sideline during the Sugar Bowl semifinal against Clemson. With the Tide comfortably ahead 24-6 early in the fourth quarter — and the Tigers doing nothing offensively — Saban wanted his team to run the ball, and the clock.
Instead, Daboll called a couple of passing plays, neither of which was successful. After Alabama was forced to punt, Saban tore into his coordinator for the whole world to see.
Make no mistake, the D in Saban’s DNA will always stand for defense.
Even when relegated to a supporting role, his team still ranks among the national leaders in most major defensive categories.
“I do probably spend more time with the defense than other parts of our team,” Saban said during media day. “I do try to help coach the secondary. I think now when you’re playing five and six defensive backs, sometimes the secondary coach needs a little help, so I kind of always classify myself as his (graduate assistant) in terms of maybe taking guys at a certain time in practice and trying to help their development.”
But, of course, he’s always watching that other side of the line, too.
Back in the late 1980s, while serving as secondary coach for the NFL’s Houston Oilers, Saban went against that team’s run-and-shoot offense in practice. It was perhaps his first exposure to where the game was going offensively.
“It probably was the start, the advent of maybe the spread in general,” Saban said. “But it’s developed so much through the years that there’s not even a lot of similarities left in how you have to defend, what you have to do, and the kind of patterns that people run, what they do from it, the multiples that they have. The rules have changed relative to RPOs (run-pass options), blocking downfield on passes behind the line of scrimmage. I think those things have really made a huge impact on how people play offense, so it’s created a lot of adjustments and adaptability on defense.”
Adjustments and adaptability.
Those traits are right up Saban’s alley.
“I’m always looking ahead,” he said. “I’m always sort of focused on the next challenge. Don’t really look back much. Always have the goal to try to get the team that we have now, the players that we have now, to play and be the best people they can be, the students they can be, the players they can be, to try to help them be successful.”
In the end, that’s what makes Nick Saban the greatest coach ever to strut a college sideline.
That’s what makes him timeless.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry