In the crazy, kooky, ever-cosmic world that is college athletics, you’d have to figure there was some type of connection or link looming underneath the surface of the BCS title game set for Jan. 7 at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium.
Yeah, yeah, you got the obvious: No. 1 vs. No. 2, two powerhouses with football traditions to match any other, All-Americans aplenty on both sides. Basically, just what you’d expect – and want – with the likes of Notre Dame and Alabama.
The somewhat hidden gem to this matchup, though, is a West Virginia kid’s further infiltration into the ultimate hierarchy of greatness in the game’s coaching annals.
No, Nick Saban isn’t exactly new to big games or big things, but, still, he’s on the cusp of breaking down any barriers between himself and a true legacy – a true legacy with an Irish slant.
From 1946 through 1949, Frank Leahy won three national titles while running the post-war gridiron machine at Notre Dame. No coach has pulled the 3-for-4 championship effort ever since in a four-year span.
Saban has the opportunity to do just that if he can direct his Crimson Tide past the Manti Te’o-led Irish.
It seems unlikely that anyone would question Saban’s greatness as a college coach at this point. Having earned BCS crowns last season and in 2009 at ’Bama, and previously in 2003 with Louisiana State, that’d be hard to argue against. However, getting into the Mount Rushmore-like realm of Leahy is something else altogether.
The guy posted a career record of 107-13-9 in 13 seasons as a head coach. He had seven – count ’em, 7 – undefeated teams, four national champs and four Heisman winners. For good measure, he recruited a fifth – Paul Hornung – but wasn’t around to coach him due to retiring. Plus, he was a disciple of Knute Rockne, having won a couple national titles as a player under the legendary Irish coach.
Saban will not match that kind of near-perfection. Not in this day and age, and not with 55 losses already on his 209-game head-coaching ledger. He only has the one undefeated team (2009) and has coached just one Heisman winner (Mark Ingram in 2009) and is 61 years old. Leahy already had left the sidelines 16 years prior to that age. Saban is from the Bill Belichick coaching tree, but “Hoodie” wasn’t exactly at genius level yet when he was teaching his protégé while struggling in Cleveland.
But there is that run, that neon-bright announcement of domination over a four-year stretch that just screams for recognition and appreciation to the umpteenth degree, not to mention a connection to Leahy … if Saban can pull it off.
Leahy … Saban. It’s an interesting comparison because the similarities are striking. Strict disciplinarians, the latter is every bit the former in believing that practice makes perfect. Hard-nosed, run-first offenses are their standard, as is shut-down, overpowering defenses. Heck, Leahy perfected the shady departure from one coaching gig to another long before Saban and his ilk started getting hammered for their “backdoor exit” strategies.
Any Boston College alums still breathing probably shake their heads in dismay at the mere thought of Leahy using a public forum to state he had clearance from his contract with the Eagles when, indeed, he hadn’t. That stroke of genius actually paved the way for a disgust-induced granting of that clearance.
Their differences may be just as striking. Saban didn’t even get started in his head-coaching career until the age of 39. Leahy was just about wrapping up his Hall of Fame career by then. Leahy had a Notre Dame-playing pedigree. Saban toiled his football wares at Kent State.
Leahy was great from the get-go, posting a 20-2 mark his first two seasons as a head coach – at BC. That short stay included an 11-0 mark in his second, and final season, with the Eagles in 1940. He then went 87-11-9 at Notre Dame from 1941 through 1953, missing the 1944 and ’45 seasons to serve in the Navy. Saban started 9-2 at Toledo in 1990, and then jumped to the pro ranks to be an assistant. He later returned to take the reins at Michigan State, and proved to be a good coach.
His greatness didn’t start to show until he got settled in at LSU, and it really didn’t firm itself until he arrived at Alabama in 2007 following a brief, two-year run with the Miami Dolphins. His record is 62-13 with the Tide, although he’s actually 67-13 on the field – ’Bama had to surrender five wins from his first season due to prior infractions under former coach Mike Shula’s watch.
It’s highly doubtful that Saban will ever refer to his players in loving, fatherly fashion as Leahy did in calling them his “lads.”
But that won’t matter come Jan. 7 if Saban and the Tide prevail. His legacy will be cemented then, and the line between him and the game’s all-time coaching greats, headed by the likes of Leahy and Rockne, will be forever blurred.
Not bad for a kid from Fairmont, W.Va., creating his own echoes.