SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- No college football program has a clearer identity than Alabama. Under Nick Saban's guidance, the Crimson Tide are the ruthless machine of college football, methodically crushing the spirit of opponents without doing much that appears unconventional.
Saban, however, tries to fight against the narratives about himself, and never has that been truer than before, during and after Monday night's 45-40 College Football Playoff National Championship win over Clemson. It's been a week in which Saban has tried to emphasize that, no, he does not hate the media, and, no, despite the image that has been created, he is capable of humor and the occasional smile.
The same is true on the field. Saban favors certain old-school philosophies, but his approach has evolved. More than anything, Saban is a pragmatic coach interested only in getting the job done, and getting it done right. He could try to keep winning in the exact same way that he won in 2003 at LSU or 2009 at Alabama and risk losing the dynasty that he has built by insisting that what worked in the past will work again in the present, or he can continue to subtly push the Tide in new directions, maintaining the overarching identity of the program while finding new ways to put the puzzle together.
In the past, Saban has decried the spread revolution and the use of up-tempo offense. But if it's all legal and can create needed matchup problems, he's also more than willing to do it. It happened Monday, as Alabama didn't mind trying to match Clemson's fast tempo, in the hope of creating favorable matchups and wearing down an attacking defense. And while the offense was built around Derrick Henry's running in the first half, the game was won on an onside kick, an explosive kick return and big plays by tight end O.J. Howard, who hadn't scored a touchdown in more than two years.
There is no one specific Alabama offense anymore. Alabama is whatever it needs to be for success the next day, a product of Saban's philosophy of always looking forward instead of trying to hold onto the past.
"That's a credit to him of not being stubborn and saying, 'I'm going to win the old school way and show everybody I can be in the I-formation and huddle and play slow,'" offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. "That doesn't really work anymore. So instead of being stubborn, you see him changing and evolving, and I think he's done the same thing on defense. You see smaller, faster players playing this game."
While Kiffin has been credited with modernizing Alabama's approach on offense, he deflects any such compliments, saying that he merely handles the specifics of the broad directions Saban gives him.
Saban is a man of routine, with, he says, 6:15 a.m. wake-up calls every day -- even the morning after winning the national title -- and his two Oatmeal Creme Pies for breakfast. He believes in The Process, of minimizing distractions and focusing on the small details along the way rather just thinking about results.
Winning a fifth national title overall and fourth in seven years has led to numerous questions about his place in college football, how he looks back on his accomplishments and just how long he may continue to work at this pace when there isn't much left to achieve. But for Saban, there always is something new to do, some new challenge to solve.
"I know you all think I'm a little bit crazy, so I'll just go ahead and be crazy," Saban said. "I think that sometimes success can put a distorted perspective on things for you to some degree. I look back to 1998 when we were 4-5 at Michigan State, and we were going to Ohio State to play the No. 1 team in the country. If somebody would have told me then that this would have happened, I would have said, 'I think you're crazy.'
"But you remember those times, and you remember all the lessons that you learned in terms of developing a process that works for young people to have a chance to be successful, a team dynamic that gives you a chance to be successful, and right now as long as I'm going to continue to do this, I'm going to keep things in perspective and look forward and not backward."
At heart, Saban may be a program builder rather than a maintainer, but winning four national titles in seven years requires more than just maintenance. It's easier to win with a roster of five-star recruits, but successfully getting them to Tuscaloosa and figuring out the best ways to maximize their contributions is a never-ending work in progress.
What's next? Figuring out why his defense gave up more than 500 yards to Clemson, nearly succumbing to what would have been considered a legendary performance by quarterback Deshaun Watson. There's also finding a fourth starting quarterback in four years; replacing Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry at running back; re-shuffling the defensive front after what is sure to be a wave of departures to the NFL; and moving on without longtime right-hand man and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, the new head coach at Georgia.
Alabama players return to class on Wednesday, and there will be NFL decisions to be made and new recruits to sign and new starters to develop. The Process doesn't stop, even for a program that has accomplished so much that the rest of the college football world is sick of it and ready for something new.
"I talk about perspective sometimes, and look, I don't want to minimize anything that was accomplished by this team," Saban said at a press conference on Tuesday with Howard and safety Eddie Jackson. "But just to put this in perspective -- and these guys will kick me for saying this -- if this was the first game of the season instead of last, what would we be talking about now? You guys would be asking me about how did you give up 40 points and how did you get 400 yards passing and all that kind of stuff."
When asked about where he stands in history after the game Monday, Saban didn't answer the question and said, "I really haven't thought about it." Instead, he spoke of a low professional moment, his first game as the head coach at Michigan State 20 years ago, against a Nebraska team that happened to be one of the greatest in the history of the sport. Tom Osborne's Cornhuskers beat Saban's Spartans 50-10, and a distraught Saban said that he was comforted by Osborne's reassurance that "you're not as bad as you think."
"I learned a lesson that day, and you know, as long as you do this, it's always about your next play," Saban said. "It's always about the next game. So I've never really ever thought too much about all that. I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for all the players who have played for us, came to our school, bought into our program, did the things that they needed to do to have a chance to experience a championship, whether it was at LSU or the four at Alabama."
The day that Saban begins publically reflecting on the meaning of all he accomplished personally will be the day he's no longer coaching football. There have been five already, but there are more championships to be won and more talented players to be shepherded through his program. At 64, he says that he isn't planning on stepping away anytime soon. There is still a job to be done.
It's a program that continues to evolve. The next time Alabama loses, and the next time that loss is treated like the beginning of the end -- like every other Alabama loss -- Saban has proven that he'll be as prepared as anyone to fix what's wrong and adapt to survive. There would be no dynasty otherwise.