PASADENA, Calif. — Hold off on the houndstooth hat. Put the genius label on another coach.
But pay Nick Saban his $200,000 bonus so he can buy a whole truckload of his favorite Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies.
Alabama is, after all, the new BCS national champion. How the Crimson Tide accomplished that really doesn’t matter.
If this title game was judged by pollsters the way the regular-season standings are, Texas might have won. There’s nothing better than the heartwarming story of a freshman quarterback, suddenly thrown into service, who endures a miserable half before finally rallying his team to within one good drive of winning the game.
But the score is all that counts in the end, and the decidedly low-tech scoreboard at the Rose Bowl showed Alabama winning 37-21 when the final seconds ticked off. Bear Bryant would have gladly accepted this win, and even the normally dour Saban couldn’t help but crack what looked suspiciously like a smile when the No. 1 team in the nation prevailed.
To be sure, Saban had a lot to smile about. The Tide finished the season undefeated, he had his second Bowl Championship Series title, and in just three years he did exactly what he was expected to do when Alabama lured him back to the college ranks with a contract that now pays him $4.7 million a year.
Yes, it should have been easier. Most of the 40,000 or so Tide fans jammed into one half of the Rose Bowl were probably saying that to each other as they nervously watched Texas rally behind the suddenly hot arm of a true freshman who had attempted only 26 passes all season.
With Colt McCoy gone, it should have been a cakewalk. With a 24-6 halftime lead and Texas in disarray, it should have been a sure thing.
But Saban — who attempted a fake punt that went awry on Alabama’s first possession — turned conservative, which probably seemed like the right thing to do since the Tide had Mark Ingram running through holes in the Texas defense. The plan was simple enough, hand the ball off to the Heisman winner, then get handed the BCS trophy.
Texas wasn’t going to come back. Not behind Garrett Gilbert, who completed more passes to guys in red in the first half than to his own teammates.
Just to cover his bases, though, Saban warned his team at halftime not to start celebrating too soon.
"Our message at halftime was we got to play for 60 minutes," Saban said. "Championship teams and teams that get to this point are going to be able to come back."
Not since Bryant prowled the sidelines had a game meant so much to such a storied program.
That ‘Bama was back under Saban already seemed plenty clear. But there are good years and there are national championship years, and this was a game the Tide couldn’t afford to give away.
They tried anyway, with Ingram seeing only limited third-quarter action after cramping up. Gilbert began connecting deep, and suddenly Texas had the ball, trailing only 24-21 before linebacker Eryk Anders forced a fumble with a blindside sack to set off a wild Tide celebration.
This was what Alabama boosters expected all along when they emptied their wallets for Saban, who won a BCS title at Louisiana State before departing for the tougher climes of the NFL. Fans were so starved for a winner that more than 90,000 of them jammed into Bryant-Denny stadium in Tuscaloosa for the first spring game under their new coach.
They got one who always seems to have his game face on, a coach so driven that he ran down the sideline in the waning moments of the second quarter to scream at Marcell Dareus for getting a penalty for throwing the ball after his TD score on an interception.
"It was like we’d won the game at halftime," Saban said. "But you can’t accept being average. You’re playing a team in the national championship game that knows how to win."
The Alabama players know better than to argue with Saban. And, despite the game being a lot closer than it should have been, there’s no arguing that he might have taken the first step toward creating a dynasty of his own.
"Third year and we’re already national champions?" senior lineman Terrence Cody said. "That’s hard to believe. He turned the program around when it was going downhill. I think this shows he was the right coach."
Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.