Nick Saban found himself in the unfamiliar position of walking through empty halls and past vacant offices at Alabama for much of the summer. His staff and players were forced to isolate in their homes, and Saban was doing his best to adapt to this new reality.
The 69-year-old coach who grew up in the hills of West Virginia was learning how to email, text and videoconference — whatever it took to stay connected.
He had a program to hold together, one determined to return to the College Football Playoff after falling short the season before but also one dealing with a multitude of disruptions. A pandemic was infecting millions and threatening the possibility of playing football in the fall. All the while, protests over the treatment of Black men and women by police were taking place across the country.
Saban tried to set those concerns aside as he spoke to ESPN one afternoon in June about a much different period in his life, 30 years earlier, when he was getting his start as a head coach at Toledo. There was some anxiety striking out on his own for the first time, he said, but he was confident and “thoroughly convinced we were trying to do it the right way.”
Then he paused.
“I probably had more conviction then than I do even now,” he said. “Because now things have changed so dramatically. With what we’ve gone through the last few months, you’re dealing with so much uncertainty. There was some uncertainty the first time you did it, but nothing like today.”
There was doubt in Saban’s voice. His career had been defined by following a strict process — one with schedules and benchmarks that hadn’t changed significantly in decades — and now that road map was transformed into something he didn’t recognize.
The 2020 season would put the sport’s most successful coach and the dynasty he’d built to the test in a way that no season had before. If players and coaches didn’t commit and stick together, they’d be torn apart.
So they wore masks, kept their distance and followed strict safety protocols. Players, coaches and football staff would submit to more than 18,000 COVID-19 tests since June.
And when they felt the need to speak up about the troubled world outside their walls, they did so as one, walking through campus and standing in the schoolhouse door where George Wallace had once preached hatred and segregation, and saying loudly and clearly that “All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.”
Then they went out and played the game they loved, weathering delays and disruptions and their coach being sent home not once but twice because of COVID-19 tests. They marched through the regular season undefeated, survived the loss of their most talented player, won an SEC championship and pummeled Notre Dame to advance in the College Football Playoff. They celebrated when their star receiver won the Heisman Trophy and regrouped the next morning to say that the job wasn’t finished.
That sweet sigh of relief didn’t come until late Monday night in South Florida when Alabama beat Ohio State 52-24 to reclaim the national championship and cap off a season that history won’t soon forget.
Saban won his record seventh championship, moving him past Paul “Bear” Bryant and into first place all time. But this one, maybe more than any that had come before, was special.
This was a team Saban loved. The way they all navigated a season fraught with uncertainty made him prouder than at any point during his Hall of Fame career.
For years, Mac Jones toiled in obscurity, brazenly talking smack to Saban while he carved up the defense in practice as scout team quarterback.
Jones was the goofy backup fans adored, the skinny kid from Kentucky whom teammates nicknamed “The Joker” because of his high-pitched, open-mouthed laugh. He once coached an intramural flag football team on campus, but most assumed that one day he would tire of waiting his turn and leave.
He was perpetually stuck, first behind Jalen Hurts and then Tua Tagovailoa. Just when it looked like maybe he would get his turn late last season, a superstar freshman named Bryce Young showed up early and threatened to cut the line.
It wasn’t until Jones was named the starter on Sept. 21 that people began to take him seriously. He went out and threw for 249 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions during a win at Missouri. In dominating No. 13 Texas A&M the following week, Jones went over 400 yards passing and threw four touchdowns.
He wasn’t Jalen or Tua. He was something else.
Jones doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he is accurate and decisive and unafraid to heave the ball downfield. His sudden star turn was reminiscent of LSU‘s Joe Burrow a year earlier as Jones led Alabama to a Power 5-best 48.2 points per game during the regular season. Through 10 games, Jones would throw 27 touchdowns and three interceptions, all while completing 76.4% of his passes.
Not that he didn’t have help, of course. His offensive line was massive and experienced, anchored by Rimington Trophy-winning center Landon Dickerson and Outland Trophy-winning tackle Alex Leatherwood. The running game was led by Doak Walker Award winner Najee Harris, who came back for his senior year and set the Alabama record for career rushing yards.
The receiver corps was loaded, too. DeVonta Smith had returned for his senior season as well, and like Jones, he emerged from the shadow of other superstars at his position.
Smith, despite catching the game-winning pass against Georgia in the 2018 CFP National Championship Game as a freshman, wasn’t among the most talked-about receivers at Alabama. That would have been Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle. Waddle, who was a year behind Smith, was viewed as the most talented playmaker in college football.
But Jeudy and Ruggs were selected in the first round of the NFL draft last April, and then Waddle suffered a combination high ankle sprain and fracture against Tennessee in October. Smith, a featherweight with strong hands, was thrust into the spotlight and shined. He caught four touchdowns the next game against Mississippi State and then had a pair of touchdowns in each of the following games against Auburn and Kentucky. Returning to his home state of Louisiana, he caught three touchdowns against LSU, including a jaw-dropping one-handed grab that signaled the start of his Heisman candidacy.
When Smith scored on an 84-yard punt return against Arkansas a week later, he’d all but assured himself a spot as a Heisman finalist. With Harris finishing fifth in the voting and Jones third, Alabama became the first team with three players in the top five of the Heisman vote since Army in 1946. Smith became the first wide receiver to win the award in nearly three decades.
“He’s probably done as much this year for our team as any player that we’ve ever had,” said Saban, who is not typically one for comparisons.
If Jones provided the comedic relief in the huddle, it was Smith who underscored it with a workmanlike attitude. A man of few words, Smith won the Heisman and immediately went home and fell asleep. The next day, he said he was glad that it was over.
“Now that’s in the past,” Smith said, “and now it’s on to Ohio State.”
There would be no Heisman jinx for Smith. He’d do what he’d always done after a seminal moment in his career, whether it was catching the championship-winning pass as a freshman or becoming a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist as a junior: He went out and got better, hauling in a CFP Championship Game record 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns before exiting early against Ohio State.
It would have been easy for this team to fall apart. The run-up to the start of the season was a harrowing time in which a number of the sport’s stars decided to simply opt out. It was as if half of the potential first-round picks had gotten a head start on preparing for the 2021 draft.
Alabama somehow didn’t lose a single starter. In fact, Harris and Jones were front and center in the #WeWantToPlay movement on social media, pressing college football officials to move forward with the season.
But once the season got going, there was no more jarring a potential distraction than what occurred on Oct. 14 when head athletic trainer Jeff Allen had to inform Saban that the coach had tested positive for COVID-19. Immediately, Saban had to leave the building and isolate at home.
“He may never quit coaching. This whole experience only reinforces that.”Alabama head athletic trainer Jeff Allen on Nick Saban
When the news broke, it was as if college football as a whole had been sent into a state of panic. In a few days, Alabama would be hosting No. 4 Georgia in a matchup with playoff implications.
But within the football offices, the mood was far more subdued. Saban had prepared his coaches and players for his potential absence months earlier, and when he addressed them on video that day, he joked, “You know that if I’m not there with you guys that it must be bad.”
According to one person in the program, there was an initial shock, and then “it was business as usual.”
Saban remained a constant presence, albeit virtually, viewing practice from home and phoning in his comments to analyst Charlie Strong. Saban then retested negative once, then twice and finally a third time. His initial test was determined to have been a false positive, and he was cleared the morning of the Georgia game to return to the team.
When Saban walked into the defensive meeting room hours before kickoff, linebacker Dylan Moses said everyone’s confidence “went through the roof.” And it showed. Saban’s steady hand was needed at halftime as Alabama trailed Georgia 24-20. The defense adjusted and shut out the Bulldogs in the second half, winning the game by three scores.
If they hadn’t gone through all that, who knows how they would have handled it a month later when Saban was sidelined again by COVID the week of the Iron Bowl — this time with mild symptoms, indicating it wasn’t a false positive.
Alabama had no trouble beating in-state rival Auburn 42-13 with Saban watching from home.
Saban said he was proud of his players for the job they’d done, staying focused and stepping up in his absence. He laughed as he told reporters how he’d yelled at the TV a couple of times during the game.
But, as ESPN’s Chris Low later reported, Saban did so with a heavy heart because he’d been reminded of the last game he’d missed: 47 years ago when he was a graduate assistant at Kent State and his father had died suddenly of a heart attack.
“Man,” Saban said, “that was hard, and this was, too.”
Saban said not being there made him realize how much he missed interacting with players.
Allen, the last remaining member of Saban’s original staff at Alabama, said he took it as a sign for the rest of college football.
“He may never quit coaching,” he said. “This whole experience only reinforces that.”
Three weeks later, Saban stood on a podium in Atlanta to accept the SEC championship trophy. It was a scene that had played out eight times before, and yet it felt different.
The game itself was dramatic. Alabama let a big first-half lead slip away and battled back in the fourth quarter to hold on and beat Florida, locking up the No. 1 seed in the playoff.
But it wasn’t relief that Saban was feeling as he looked down on the celebration afterward. He wasn’t thinking of fixing his troubled defense or jumping ahead to the difficult task of replacing Dickerson, who had suffered a season-ending knee injury during the game.
The coach who had so often been driven to move on to the next thing, who rarely stopped to savor even for a moment the act of winning, paused and reflected on the season as a whole.
He didn’t shed a tear, but Saban’s voice cracked as he said how proud he was of his players. It was their unity, he said, that had brought them this far.
He held his hand out and gave them a thumbs-up, as if to say thank you for sticking together through such a trying season.
“I’m proud as hell of all of you,” he said.
Out of all the times he’d done this, he said, this one felt the best.
“This is the absolute best,” he said, “because I absolutely love this team.”
Jones grinned as he looked on. Jordan Battle put a hand over his heart. And then the two, along with the rest of the team, responded by sweetly pantomiming, “Aww.”
For a program that’s often been described as the unfeeling and unrelenting Death Star of college football, such a show of emotion was jarring. Battle admitted he was caught off guard and touched that his typically critical head coach would express his feelings in such a way.
Jones said later that Saban had used the “L-word” a few times this season.
“So he must really like us,” he said.
Like the first team he ever coached, the 1990 Toledo Rockets, the 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide will hold a special place in Saban’s heart.
One put its faith in a coach who had never done the job before and won a share of the MAC title.
The other trusted a coach to lead them through a season no one could have ever prepared for and won it all.