The Great Saban Meets the Next Saban

  • Alabama head coach Nick Saban speaks during a press conference ahead of the NCAA college football national championship in Atlanta, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. Georgia and Alabama will be playing for the championship on Monday, Jan. 8. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • Georgia head coach Kirby Smart speaks during media day, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, in Atlanta. Georgia and Alabama will be playing for the NCAA football national championship on Monday, Jan. 8. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2017, file photo, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart yells at one of his players during the second half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina, in Athens, Ga. Nick Saban vs. Kirby Smart is only the latest in a line of high-stakes coaching matchups between mentors and mentees over the history of college football. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

  • FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2018, file photo, Alabama head coach Nick Sabanlooks on before the Sugar Bowl semifinal playoff game for the NCAA college football national championship, in New Orleans. Nick Saban vs. Kirby Smart is only the latest in a line of high-stakes coaching matchups between mentors and mentees over the history of college football. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Monday, January 08, 2018

There wasn’t much interaction. Kirby Smart didn’t make eye contact with his former boss on the shared dais on Sunday morning, though that might have been because the table was cut in half and the towering College Football Playoff trophy divided them.

Smart, once Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator and now the only opponent standing between the great man and championship No. 6, laughed when Saban mentioned their former noontime basketball games in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (They were mostly on the same team.) The comedic highlight, such as it was, came when Smart mentioned his Georgia Bulldogs’ plans for the night before a title game.

“I’m just doing whatever he did,” Smart said. “We’re trying to go watch a movie tonight, and they’re trying to go watch a movie at the same place. We had to offset (time of arrival) by 10 minutes.”

As it happened, Alabama saw the same film (12 Strong, about a Special Forces unit in Afghanistan) on New Year’s Eve, the day before the Crimson Tide beat Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.

“I’m not sure of the name of it,” Smart said, “but I’ve been told it has a lot of purpose.”

Saban, deadpan: “Yeah, it’s a good movie. I don’t know what we’re watching. Don’t ask.”

If there were no public displays of affection — really, did you expect any? — neither was there discomfort at the teacher sharing a podium with his star pupil. Saban knows Smart better than anyone. Saban had to know when Smart left ’Bama that this moment might arrive. It took two years.

Smart, lauding Saban and Alabama: “They’re a landmark of college football. ... Lost in the shuffle is how well they’ve been able to compete at a high level for 10, 12 years.”

(Maybe not lost. Alabama’s four titles over eight years have gotten a fair amount of publicity. But the sentiment was nice.)

Saban, on Smart: “I told him when he was leaving, ‘Be your own man. Be yourself. Do it the way you think it should be done.’ ”

And: “Terry (meaning Mrs. Saban) was there when his babies were born.”

And: “I don’t yell at my assistants much at all.”

Somewhere Lane Kiffin was rising to object, but Saban then noted that the star pupil really had been the star pupil: “I don’t really recall getting upset at Kirby. I’m sure he can remember a few times that I got on him unjustifiably, and maybe a few times when it was justified.”

Then: “Kirby did as good a job as anyone has ever done for us.”

The entirety of college football — and the SEC in particular — has been the better part of a decade trying to find the next Saban. The closest anyone has come was Georgia’s hire of the man who stood next to King Crimson on the sideline for those four national championships over eight years. Smart has worked well and fast to graft the ’Bama way onto a program that had gotten stuck on being good but never good enough. But you knew that already.

This title tilt will match Smart’s first really good team against yet another in the unbroken line Saban’s mighty assemblages. Conventional wisdom holds that Alabama never loses to a team like itself, that it takes something different — a spread offense, a dual-threat quarterback — to stem the Tide. Georgia is not that team. But these Bulldogs might be better at playing ’Bama ball than this ’Bama team is, which could make for a galling night for the man who taught Smart much of what he knows.

Then again, maybe not. Both men are pros. Both understand that winning is never a birthright. Alabama did lose this game a year ago, losing to a coach who played for the Tide. Said Saban: “It isn’t personal when we have to compete against each other. I’m sure he wants a win for his players, and we certainly want to win for our players. It’s not a personal thing.”

The belief here is that Georgia is as good as Alabama on defense and slightly — slightly, I said — better-rounded on offense. Jalen Hurts is most dangerous when he’s scrambling, but so was Baker Mayfield and he wound up getting sacked five times. The Bulldogs are one of the few teams that can approximate the Tide’s combination of size and speed. ’Bama has the edge in depth, but over 60 minutes, depth might not matter.

If not, these two coaches could see each other again next January. Smart’s recruiting has risen to ’Bama-like heights, and he has proved in this sun-kissed season he knows what to do with talent. Georgia’s going places. Alabama never goes away. This could be the first of many mammoth meetings.

Saban is 11-0 against former assistants, but he’s 0-0 against the man he concedes was the pick of those assistants. As fulsome as he was in his praise of his former lieutenant, it was instructive that, when the press briefing was done, Saban didn’t wait for Smart so the two could slap one another on the shoulder and walk offstage together. He ducked his head and left. The two men moved mountains together, but only one of them can lift this trophy.