Defeats have been so rare for Nick Saban that people forget how he tends to react to them.
The general assumption is that he seethes and roars and erupts like he so often does on the sideline when things don’t go his way during the course of a game.
But in reality he’s often a picture of calm.
So there he was Monday evening sitting on the dais inside a small auditorium at Levi’s Stadium, wearing a stoic expression following the most lopsided defeat of his tenure at Alabama. The Crimson Tide had just been demolished by Clemson in a 44-16 rout that denied Saban an opportunity to claim his record seventh national title and pass Bear Bryant in the process.
As Saban processed the loss, he never once raised his voice or bristled except for one moment when a reporter failed to followed procedure in the question-asking phase of the news conference.
Instead, the 67-year-old king of Alabama football seemed to slip into a zen-like trance as he tried to explain what went wrong.
“I just have a feeling that I didn’t do a very good job for our team, with our team, giving them the best opportunity to be successful,” Saban said. “I always feel that way, even sometimes when we win, I think there’s things we could do better or that I could have done better. But particularly in this case, never really ever got comfortable with what we needed to do to win this game.”
Saban will spend the coming days and months lamenting an opportunity lost on the biggest of stages. But it will have negligible impact on his legacy as one of the sport’s all-time greats.
“I don’t think he needs any more wins to validate Coach Saban,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Saturday. “I really don’t. I think he’s as good as there’s been, if not the best, in college football history. He’s the guy. What he’s done is special. He hasn’t done it just at one place. So I don’t need to toot his horn. He knows who he is, and everybody else knows who he is.”
He’s a man who has always seemed most at peace when he has a challenge in front of him. And so now the test begins. As he conducts the autopsy on the loss to Clemson and begins formulating the plan to address his team’s weaknesses, he and his staff will have plenty to ponder. There will be discussions about a defense that surrendered 482 yards and looked particularly vulnerable in the secondary. There will be conversations about a special teams unit that compromised Alabama’s strategy because of erratic placekicking, setting up what Saban admitted was “a bad call” on that botched fake field goal in the third quarter. There will even be talk about an offense that at times looked susceptible to pressure tactics.
“I think you learn a lot from experiences like this,” Saban said. “We certainly didn’t play very well tonight, and we had some issues.”
If Saban was in shock, he didn’t show it. Instead, he wore a look of resignation as he met with the media and suffered through an excruciating exercise that entailed telling the world how one of the worst evenings of his professional life transpired.
Asked what he was thinking when he realized any chance at victory had slipped from his team’s grasp during that disastrous second half, Saban almost sighed.
“There was nothing going through my head except what can I do to help our team play better the next play, and we just kept not being able to finish things the way we wanted to,” he said. “I feel like it’s my responsibility that those things didn’t happen properly.”
Now, it’s his mission to make sure they do. As Saban left the locker room after changing into a suit, he had a determined expression etched on his face. Inside, he may have even been smiling. After all, he has to find a way to get Alabama back on top. It’s the kind of pursuit Saban relishes most, and he was granted it on a night when he lost out on the chance at a record seventh national title.
Rainer Sabin is an Alabama beat writer for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin