I will admit, I thought the kick was good. I was in a room with five other adults, and we all thought the damned thing was good, and continued to think so for multiple seconds. Part of that was the camera angle, the view from the end zone, the lack of depth perception inherent to watching field-goal attempts on a flat-screen television, but mostly we thought the kick was good because of the man who chose to kick it.
That's how thoroughly Nick Saban's compulsive bent has wormed its way into our psyche: We just presumed that he had gamed this situation to the millimeter, that the kicker he trotted out to attempt a 57-yarder routinely made clutch practice-ending kicks from 77 yards with a Mastodon album playing on Klipsch speakers four feet away and a student manager blowing an airhorn in his face. This is a man who once formulated an extensive contingency plan just in case his team ever faced a lightning delay; surely, he had this scenario covered in some laminated binder filed in an underground vault under the letter K.
So I thought the kick was good, and that's pretty much all I was thinking, and then when it turned out it didn't have the distance and it landed in the arms of Auburn's Chris Davis, I wasn't really thinking anything at all, because I was too busy screaming. I was in a living room with five full-grown adults and two children, and the adults were all screaming, and the kids were sitting there placidly, staring at the television screen and grinning and relishing the moment when the adults became children.
I imagine you had a similar experience Saturday night, if you happened to be in front of a television set for the climax of the Auburn-Alabama game. I cannot think of a single play in any sporting event I've ever watched that so completely traversed the spectrum of emotion from one pole to the other. It defied logic, and it defied common sense, and all this talk about whether it was the greatest finish of any game ever tends to ignore the context of what made it so surprising in the first place, which is that it happened to a man who might be the greatest coach in the history of the sport precisely because he has a contingency plan for every situation. Cal-Stanford was a break in the fabric of reality that will never be replicated, and Boston College-Miami was a Catholic prayer, and Boise State-Oklahoma was a Disney fairytale. But Alabama-Auburn was actually more surprising than all of the above, because it happened to the one man who seemed to have succeeded in wrangling spontaneity, tying its hands, and locking it in a basement with no food or water.
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Discipline, Nick Saban said afterward, in the midst a seven-minute postgame press conference that appeared to shave several years off his life and occasionally threatened empathy. Then he said the word again, as if he could retroactively will it into being. It turns out this field-goal return was something the Crimson Tide had worked on in practice, and this was something they should have known how to defuse, and this was something that should have been short-circuited by fanning out and cutting off the angles and making the tackle of Chris Davis that nobody ever made. "It just looked," Saban said, "like we didn't have anybody out on the right side."
So Davis ran, and he kept running, and people were suddenly second-guessing a coach who seemed impervious to such base emotions. It's all nit-picking, of course: Anybody who has watched Alabama run the football over the past four seasons can't logically criticize a decision to go for it on fourth-and-one to put the game away, instead of relying on the leg of a shaky kicker; anybody who presumed that Saban should have foreseen the game ending in a way that had never happened before is overlooking the fact that, a) Saban had apparently foreseen it, and b) At some point, Saban must cede control to the teenagers and young adults who actually play the game. At some point, like the rest of us, he is trafficking on faith.
"I don't ever like to say I don't have confidence in our players," he said at that postgame press conference, but we all know there are times when he doesn't, and I'm sure this is the most bothersome aspect of his coaching career, because no coach in the history of the sport has ever fought with more zeal to minimize the randomness of college football than Nick Saban has.
Alabama has lost two games in the past two years, and both games hinged on undefendable quarterback scrambles that ended in touchdowns, and one game has now ended with the most unforeseeable finish in the modern history of sports. And I suppose that's the moral here: College football was born as a spontaneous exercise on the grassy courtyards of the Ivy League, invented by students looking to blow off steam by barking each other's shins and throwing punches. Even now, 150 years later, as the game is commanded and controlled and governed by men three times the age of the participants, it is still untamable. Eventually, the adults give way to the children, and all we can do is watch.