It was right around this time four months ago that I was putting the finishing touches on my book ‘The Unlikeliest Champion.’ For those of you who know nothing about the book (or likely about me), it is about the UConn men’s basketball team and their National Championship last March, and as I finished it up this past fall, I was looking for one final quote to really sum up the entire season as a whole. To give such an unexpected championship some broader, “big picture” perspective.
That quote eventually came to me from a guy named Leo Papile. Papile is a legendary figure on the Boston hoops scene, an AAU coach who has sent more guys to college than the G.I. Bill, and someone who has forgotten more basketball in the last week than most “analysts” on TV have learned in a lifetime. He’s also one of UConn head coach Jim Calhoun’s oldest friends, going back over 30 years, way before the TV cameras, National Championships and Hall of Fame speeches Calhoun has become famous for now.
When I asked Papile what the 2011 championship meant to Calhoun’s legacy, he said something so elegant, it practically brought tears to my eyes.
This quote is straight from my book (available on Amazon.com by the way!):
“Through the years Jimmy’s best teams would out-work you, out-tough you, out-compete you,” Leo Papile, Calhoun’s friend, dating back 30 years to their days in Boston said. “That’s exactly what that team was all about. It was his perfect team. This was Jimmy’s masterpiece.”
His “masterpiece.” How beautiful, huh?
And as I watched last night’s BCS National Championship, I couldn’t help but think back to that quote.Because really, reflecting on Alabama’s 21-0 win, it wasn’t just about the victory itself. It wasn’t just about the Tide dominating one of the best teams we’ve seen in recent college football history. It wasn’t about sucking the life out of LSU one tackle for loss at a time. It wasn’t about Jeremy Shelley’s field goals or A.J. McCarron’s emergence. It wasn’t even about one of the best defenses of all-time finally getting their proper due.
Nope, Monday night was bigger than that. It wasn’t just about a championship, but about a team and coach achieving something that is as close to perfection on the football field as we've ever seen.
In every sense of the word, Monday night's BCS National Championship Game was Nick Saban’s masterpiece.
Granted, it didn’t come by accident, or come out of nowhere. We’ve known the 2011 Alabama defense was going to be really good since before the 2010 season even ended. Just looking at the depth chart this past summer led plenty of college football nerds like myself to elicit “oohs” and “ahhs” and say stuff to our buddies like, “Wait, that guy still has eligibility? Oh my.” The names were as familiar to us as most NFL Draft scouts: Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Josh Chapman. New names like Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams were sure to impress.
From the beginning there was no doubt this Crimson Tide defense would be good, and by the end of the end Penn State game in Week 2, it was clear that they’d be one of the best units in the country. But it wasn't until the Tide showed up in Gainesville on the first Saturday in October, it was clear that we could use the word “great” with them too.
That’s because as easy as it is to forget now, at the time Florida was considered to be a real threat to Alabama. The Gators were 4-0, ranked in the Top 15 nationally, and had just beaten up Tennessee a few weeks before. Entering that Alabama game, there really was a belief that Florida might beat the Tide. If they didn’t, they’d certainty keep things close.
And to the Gators credit, they did keep it close…for at least one possession anyway. That’s because after John Brantley hit Andre DeBose with a 65-yard touchdown bomb for Florida to go up 7-0, the next 59 minutes were simply a coronation of the Crimson Tide’s greatness. Alabama held Florida to just 157 yards the rest of the night, and gave up an almost unfathomable .5 yards per carry, winning 38-10. To put it in a different perspective, they outscored Florida- the No. 12 team in the country at the time- 38-3 after the first play of the game. Think about that for a second.
From there, the rest of the season provided a tough challenge for college football writers like myself: How to find unique ways to describe this defense without being overly hyperbolic. After all, there are only so many ways you can say “Alabama completely dominated the opponent,” and after a while adjectives like “physically imposing,” and “overwhelming” became boring too. That tends to happen when you’re giving up less than 10 points and 200 yards of total offense every Saturday.
So really, we had no choice but to get creative in our description of one of the best defenses of our lifetime. Was it too much of a stretch to say that “Alabama put more people in the hospital than the Ebola virus?” An exaggeration to say that the defense “gave us all nightmares?” If it was, I’m sorry, but as I said before, after awhile we all just ran out of ways to describe this team.
Of course, it’s one thing to say those things, but in reality, it all would’ve been for nothing if Alabama didn’t win on Monday night. Even though the Crimson Tide were the best defense I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes, what would it mean if they'd lost to LSU not just once, but twice?
That was the reality entering Monday night’s game for Alabama: There was a chance for immortality, and a chance to be completely forgotten. But there was little chance that they’d be remembered somewhere in the middle.
Still, it did feel like entering this game that a few too many people had forgotten just how good Alabama was during the regular season. As I mentioned in my column on Monday, all the discussion entering this game was on LSU; where they fit in with the “all-time” great teams, what it would be like to win a third title in New Orleans, things like that. For Alabama, every story line centered around abstract things that were out of their control; whether they deserved a second chance at LSU, why a rematch was good or bad, how a team that couldn’t even win its own conference (or division for that matter) could get a shot at a National Championship. Nobody- I mean NO-body- was talking about the Tide in football terms.
Well, it’s safe to say that they’re talking about the Tide now.
To put it as simply as I can, Monday night was one of the most dominating performances in major college football history. End…of…discussion.
First there are the stats, which really do nothing but make your jaw hit the floor. LSU entered the game averaging 38 points a contest. They scored zero Monday. LSU averaged 215 yards rushing this season. They had 93 yards of total offense Monday night, and just 39 on the ground. Want a quick way to know just how dominating Alabama was on Monday night? LSU got nearly 20 percent of their offensive output on one single 18-yard pass from Jordan Jefferson to Odell Beckham in the third quarter. Twenty percent! On one play! Alabama wasn’t just dominating Monday night. They were some word that has yet to be invented in the English language.
And really, it all comes back to Saban.
Now, if you’re asking me to put his career into some kind of big picture perspective, I’m probably not your guy. I don’t know where he ranks amongst the greatest of all-time, but I do know that he’s the greatest of my lifetime. The guy has three titles in nine years, a number which is even more incredible when you consider that he took two years off to go coach in the NFL. His graduating seniors just won 48 games in four years, and did it in the toughest division, in the toughest conference in college football. And just wait until the NFL Draft this spring. There is going to be more crimson in New York in early April than there was on Bourbon Street last night.
But above all, I can’t help but go back to what I said earlier: Monday night was Nick Saban’s masterpiece, the game that will be etched onto his coaching tombstone.
Saban always talks about “The Process,” and well, last night was "The Process" coming to life.
Monday night was about ‘The Process’ of using November to get over the first loss to LSU and “The Process” of using December to make sure it never happened again. It was “The Process” of being prepared for every single imaginable wrinkle that LSU could throw at them. It was “The Process” of stopping the speed option, “The Process” of stopping the run up the middle, “The Process” of making Jordan Jefferson’s night a living hell, and “The Process” of confusing LSU’s defensive backs and making their defensive line moot.
Alabama’s win was as meticulous as meticulous gets.
But really, to solely talk about Alabama’s dominance, would be to take away from the visual appeal of it all. In that regard it literally was a masterpiece.
Monday night wasn’t just about Alabama dominating, but of them dominating in the most Nick Saban-ish way possible. Alabama attacked from all angles. They kept LSU off-balance from the first snap to the last. They were relentless. They were ruthless. They were simply overwhelming.
Again, this was LSU, the No. 1 team in the country, the team that won earlier this season in Tuscaloosa, Morgantown and in Dallas against Oregon. They beat Georgia in Atlanta and Florida, Auburn and Arkansas in Baton Rouge. And from the first snap to the last they had absolutely no idea what was coming from Alabama. None.
In the end, it will go down as the feather in the cap of one of the greatest defenses ever. It was also the defining game of Nick Saban’s career. Obviously Saban still has plenty of good years left in him, and significantly more wins than losses. With the way he’s got things rolling, there’s no reason to think he doesn’t have another title or two in him as well. Who knows.
But no matter what happens from here on out, Saban will never have another night quite like he had Monday.
Against LSU, Nick Saban and his defense achieved near perfection.
Monday night was Nick Saban’s masterpiece.
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And finally, as mentioned above... Aaron has written his first book! It's called The Unlikeliest Champion, it's about the 2011 UConn Huskies National Championship team. It is available for order in Kindle or paperback at both www.uconnbook.com and Amazon.com. Get your order in today!)