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Maisel: Saban surpasses Bryant without benefit of perfection

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Nick Saban: The best ever? (1:19)

SEC Network's Paul Finebaum compares the legacies of Nick Saban and Bear Bryant. (1:19)

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On the night that Alabama coach Nick Saban joined Bear Bryant as the only coaches in the history of college football to win five national championships, the Crimson Tide allowed 40 points and 550 yards to Clemson.

On the night that Saban joined Frank Leahy of Notre Dame as the only coaches to win four national championships in a seven-year span, Alabama's offensive line -- judged the best in the nation -- gave up five sacks.

On the night that Saban made a compelling case that he has dislodged Bryant and Leahy and John McKay and Whomever You Care To Name as the best coach in the history of pompoms and shoulder pads, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry gained 30 yards on 16 second-half rushes.

"We didn't always play pretty in this game," Saban said Monday night after Alabama defeated Clemson 45-40 to win the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. "It probably wasn't one of our best games when it just comes to flat execution. But when it comes to competing and making plays when we needed to make them, it was probably as good as it gets."

Coaches may coach and players may play, as the old saying goes, but Alabama won this game because of Saban -- because of how he used the entire team. The position of tight end under Saban has been where talent goes to avoid the spotlight. Not that you can hide there, but El Chapo was third on the depth chart. Tide tight ends block and dream of being the quarterback's third option.

Against Clemson, 6-foot-6, 242-pound junior O.J. Howard, who caught 33 passes for 394 yards this season, made five catches for 208 yards, including touchdowns of 53 and 51 yards. Throw in the 63-yard catch-and-run by Howard that set up the Tide's final touchdown, and Howard is the reason quarterback Jake Coker's performance will look prettier in the history books (16 of 25, 335 yards) than it appeared in real time.

"He was well-rested," Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said, "because for 14 games we didn't really use him."

Alabama won because it converted one Clemson turnover into seven points and never turned the ball over itself.

Alabama won because it exploited its advantage on special teams. Clemson came into the Valley of the Sun with a 14-0 record despite finishing last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in kickoff coverage. Not only did Tide senior Kenyon Drake take a fourth-quarter kick 95 yards for a score, the third allowed by the Tigers this season, but Alabama turned the momentum of the game by recovering an onside kick, also in the fourth quarter.

There are a few important things to consider regarding special teams. Saban is the same coach who lost to LSU in 2011 because two Tide kickers missed four field goals. He is also the same coach victimized by the Kick Six at Auburn in 2013. What had been a weakness has become a strength.

And let's go over that point again from two paragraphs ago. All that Alabama had at stake was a national championship, and Saban not only called an onside kick in the fourth quarter, but his players executed the "Pop Kick" perfectly. Adam Griffith popped the ball down the right sideline, wide of Clemson safety Jayron Kearse, and Alabama corner Marlon Humphrey caught it in midstride at the 50.

The Tide made the play look as if it were just another practice. Actually, not this week's practice.

"It works almost every time, except that I usually drop the ball," Humphrey said. "Actually we practiced it this past Thursday. We hadn't practiced it a lot. I actually dropped it. I definitely did not think there was any chance he would call it."

Who does that? Who calls an onside kick at that point in a game?

"That just shows how good he is," Kiffin said, "because you don't do that. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of coaches don't do that because if you don't get it, you get killed by you guys. ... Not one of you guys would have written, 'Why did you kick it deep?' if we lost the game. But if he doesn't get that, every one of you would have written about it."

Kiffin has been a head coach, fired in controversy from USC, hired by Saban in 2014 to run the offense.

"He's going to do what he thinks is the best to win," Kiffin said, "whether that's signing players, whether that's hiring coaches other people don't think he should, whether that's an onside kick. He's going to do whatever he wants to win. That's why he's the best."

To coin a phrase, Saban brought his own guts. He didn't see it as such.

"I had confidence in the players. I trusted them, that they would go out and execute it and do it," he said. "I mean, if we didn't get it, they'd have got the ball on the 45- or 50-yard line, so it's not really like it would have been the end of the world. But it was worth the risk, I felt."

He impressed even his toughest critic.

"Because it worked, I thought it was brilliant," said Saban's wife, Terry, doubling over with laughter. "Nick always says, 'The outhouse or the White House.'"

Ah, yes, the White House. In Barack Obama's eight years, he will have welcomed Saban and the Crimson Tide four times, and the rest of college football four times. Alabama athletic director Bill Battle put it simply.

"It shows you how good a coach Nick Saban is," Battle said on the field after the game. "That's unprecedented in this modern era, in this competitive environment."

So let's go there. Battle played for Bryant. He got fired as Tennessee head coach because going 58-16-2 (.776) against everybody else didn't make up for going 1-6 (.143) against Bryant. Four decades later, he is surfing the Saban wave.

"I think Coach Bryant is the greatest of his era," Battle said. "I think Coach Saban is the greatest of his era. I think they'd both be proud of each other. And if they had to play each other, I don't know who I'd bet on."

There is no cult of personality surrounding Saban the way there was in Bryant's final years, when he swaddled his competitive core in a warmer, grandfatherly appearance. Among Alabama fans, Bryant is remembered as much for the South Central Bell ad in which he pined for his late mother -- "Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine." -- as for the brutality of his early coaching days at Texas A&M.

Saban is a grandfather now, too. His success during his nine seasons at Alabama has sanded down his sharpest edges. That may be confidence, or it could be perspective. He has given no indication that he is slowing down, and he has repeated ad nauseam that he is no longer interested in the NFL.

Strength coach Scott Cochran has been with Saban going back to his days at LSU. Cochran turned down the chance to go to Georgia with his close friend Kirby Smart in part because of what he sees in his boss.

"At the end of the day, this thing's not over," Cochran said, "this thing" being Alabama's success. "There's hints of Coach being really good right now. There are hints of him being in his prime."

Such as?

"The energy. The attention to detail. I don't know how he has the energy. How does he do it? I really don't know, because I've never seen the man yawn. I've even faked a yawn in front of him. You know how you can get somebody to yawn? Nothing! Nothing!"

Saban was asked about his legacy Monday night, and he tried to answer the question because he wanted to be nice. You could see the joy in his countenance, more so than in past years, perhaps because he has so enjoyed coaching this team. He has said so over and over in the last weeks of this season. He told a story he has told many times, about losing his first game at Michigan State in 1995, 50-10 to Nebraska, the defending national champion.

When he shook hands with Tom Osborne after the game, Osborne told him, "You're not as bad as you think."

"So I learned a lesson that day," Saban said, "and you know, as long as you do this, it's always about your next play. It's always about the next game."

One thing is for sure, the next national championship will tie Saban with Bryant. In Bear's era, you could win a national championship before the bowls. You could win it before integration, before you had to play eight SEC games and the championship game, before scholarship limits prevented the Alabamas of the world from signing good players to keep from playing against them. You could win it before television money allowed every SEC school to enter the college football arms race.

On the night that Alabama won the College Football Playoff while losing the battle of the statistics, Saban's five national championships add up to more than Bryant's six.