By Steve Silverman
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Nick Saban is beloved in Alabama, but that is not the case in the rest of the 49 states. He is seen as a win-at-all-costs leader who will sacrifice anyone and anything to get the next win.
Saban’s detractors view the Crimson Tide coach as someone who is so obsessed with winning championships that if he had to strike a deal with the devil to get them, he would.
But that bitter view really has very little to do with the truth. Saban is a coach who understands how the game is played. He is able to recruit the best athletes and football players to come to Alabama. His coaching staff is filled with teachers who know how to get through to the best players and inspire their best efforts.
And when it comes down to it, Saban will make the right coaching move for the good of the team.
He certainly was on top of his game in Monday night’s national championship as the Crimson Tide took on the Georgia Bulldogs and came away with a 26-23 overtime victory.
Sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts struggled badly in the first half, and Alabama went into the locker room trailing 13-0 at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
It looked like Georgia had solved Alabama and that the Bulldogs would bring home their first national championship since 1980.
Saban went into the locker room and made a big move. He pulled Hurts in favor of freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the hope that the youngster from Miami would give the Tide offense a lift and help get them back in the game.
Saban was hopeful, but he was taking a big gamble. Tagovailoa had only played in mop-up duty in one-sided games this year.
But to come in during the national championship game and see his first truly competitive action seemed like a major long shot. The pressure alone could have gotten to Tagovailoa, not to mention the Dawg defense, led by All-American linebacker and future first-round draft pick Roquan Smith.
Tagovailoa had a big arm and could clearly throw the ball longer and deeper than Hurts. However, that had been the case all year, so why was Saban going with the freshman quarterback at such a big moment?
He did not like the way his team had played on the offensive side of the ball while being blanked for 30 minutes, and he knew that it was unlikely anything would change if he didn’t do something drastic.
“I just thought we had to throw the ball, and I felt he could do it better, and he did,” Saban said of his second-half starter. “He did a good job, made some plays in the passing game. Just a great win. I’m so happy for Alabama fans. Great for our players. Unbelievable.”
This is where Saban differs from most of the better coaches in the sport. How many times do you hear a coach utter some kind of regret after a game because he did not pull an established player when a change was needed?
They will comfort themselves by uttering the old cliché “You dance with the one that brung ya” and try to take comfort in “staying the course.”
Sometimes change is needed, and the genius comes in making the right call in those two situations.
Tagovailoa triggered the offense in the third quarter and helped the Crimson Tide regain their confidence. However, it was in the fourth quarter that Alabama hit high gear and started functioning at near-peak efficiency.
Tagovailoa hit star wideout Calvin Ridley with the tying TD pass in the fourth quarter.
In overtime, it looked like the moment might be too big for Tagovailoa when he took a 16-yard sack on first down. However, he quickly put that play behind him, baited the Georgia secondary by looking to his right and then arched a long pass for DeVonta Smith down the left sideline.
The pass was perfect, and Smith caught it in stride as he reached the end zone for the game-winning 41-yard touchdown.
Is it possible that Hurts could have brought Alabama back in the second half? Under the theory that all things are possible, he certainly could have, but based on the way he was playing, it was not going to happen.
Saban made the right move under the most pressure-filled circumstances, and he earned his sixth national championship.
The rest of the world may view Saban as a bully in Alabama coaching gear, but he is one of the smartest leaders college football has ever known, and he has the hardware to prove it.
Alabama and Georgia put on a brilliant show for college football fans, a classic game that will give the sport a new standard to shoot for in the years to come.
Please follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy