It was a plot straight from 1980s Hollywood: true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, sporting long blond locks, led his team to victory in the college national championship game. In doing so, his Clemson Tigers felled the higher-rated reigning champs, the Alabama Crimson Tide, coached by one Nick Saban. This victory not only gave the team the championship, a 15-0 season, and its second defeat of Alabama in the championship in four years, it also took down that coach, a man many love to hate.
Deviating from the script, it’s not that Saban is an actual supervillain. Sure, he doesn’t express much emotion, he never seems particularly happy about his victories, he has a habit of quitting his job at odd times that leave the teams and fans in a lurch, but he’s never attempted to seize the Eastern seaboard or even bailed on a trust fall. Mostly, he just runs super efficient programs with a penchant for winning lots of games, excluding his brief foray into the NFL.
Yet Saban and the Crimson Tide went down in the championship game and, this time, to the aforementioned freshman quarterback. It didn’t help that Saban made some questionable calls, notably the failed fake field goal. For his detractors, it did help that it was Alabama’s biggest loss under Saban and that Clemson simply trounced him.
The would-be supervillain with a penchant for winning went down, and went down hard. He went down to a team led by a 19-year-old Johnny Utah. Saban, a man Sports Illustrated once named one of “The Most Disliked People in Sports” mostly because of that penchant for winning, left the field a loser after emerging victorious just last year. The New England Patriots of college ball didn’t even put up a fight––they simply got schooled from beginning to end.
Saban took the blame for the loss. In a post-game interview, he referenced the failed fake field goal, saying, “We thought we had a really, really good fake, and somebody didn’t block a guy they were supposed to block, and so it didn’t work. So it was a bad call. It’s always that way.”
Okay, so he didn’t really take the blame, though he did refrain from calling out the player who missed the block by name. He also refrained from giving Clemson any credit for the schooling, despite the Tigers doing so throughout the game on plays not resulting from the blown fake. There was a pick-six by Clemson’s defense in the first half, 482 yards of offense with Lawrence providing 347 yards through the air, and another pick of Crimson Tide quarterback and Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa.
Clemson did this while Alabama put up only 16 points just a year after Tagovailoa, the then-freshman Saban put in last year, eked out an overtime victory with a 41 yard game-winning pass in the last championship game. This year, Clemson delivered a thumping with their freshman.
There’s also the fact that it was a thumping from a team coached by Alabama native and University of Alabama alum Dabo Swinney. For those who relished in seeing Saban fall, it was the perfect climax to the film. The hometown boy came back and defeated the carpetbagger from West Virginia coaching his former team. Swinney even danced to “Sweet Home Alabama” after the victory.
But real life isn’t a movie, even when the blond freshman and his coach defeat the number one team in the championships and move to a 15-0 season. While Saban isn’t a supervillain––or even a villain despite the Sports Illustrated mention of him alongside true supervillain Roger Goodell––if history has taught us anything, it’s that he will be back and he will have his vengeance.
Savor the moment, celebrate Swinney and Lawrence’s victory, look forward to more wins from the Tigers, but know that while Saban doesn’t necessarily smile when he succeeds, he’s not really frowning after a loss. He’s plotting, and the next championship game is only a year away.