This June marks the 20th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s second, and what most would contend was the most meaningful, of his departures from the NBA. I still remember the end of Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls vividly: I was attending basketball camp when I watched the poetic climax of his time with the organization on the lobby TV of the Graham-Greenlee dorms.
I imagine I will have similarly vivid memory of watching Nick Saban match Jordan with his sixth championship. The circumstances of Saban’s sixth and Jordan’s sixth have similarities, at least, which begin with the trajectory of their respective excellence.
Jordan won his first championship in a five-game NBA Finals that felt like a passing-of-the-torch. Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers dominated the 1980s with five Larry O’Brien Trophies but Jordan’s performance in the 1991 Finals signaled that a new era arrived.
Nick Saban had a national championship before the 2009 season, but Alabama’s first run to the title under Saban had a different feel than that 2003 LSU team. With Mack Brown and Texas functioning in the similar role as those 1991 Lakers, a changing of the guard began in college football.
The 2011 season’s shutout of LSU was Nick Saban shrugging at Les Miles a la Jordan and the Portland Trailblazers, and blowing out Notre Dame the next season marked Alabama slamming the door on a team championed as the best bet to end the dynasty, much like the 1993 Phoenix Suns.
Kick-Six and Ohio State’s semifinal win in 2014 paralleled Jordan’s retirement. With MJ swinging bats in the bush leagues, a new NBA took shape built around superstar centers Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal.
Alabama finishing out of the title picture for two straight seasons — a mind-blowing proposition just a few years later — suggested a new era of college football was beginning. Out with the old of Nick Saban, in with the age of Gus Malzahn, Jimbo Fisher, Kevin Sumlin, Urban Meyer.
The Crimson Tide’s three seasons since parallel The Return. Jordan rejoined the NBA in 1995 and it was as if he never missed a step. His first two, full campaigns after nearly two years produced regular seasons of 72 and 69 wins, as a well as a couple of no-doubt-about-it championships.
The 1997 Bulls got a test from the Utah Jazz, with Steve Kerr knocking down a 3-pointer to close out a hard-fought series. But much like Clemson challenging Nick Saban’s 2015 Crimson Tide in the national championship, there was a sense Alabama would always find a way to win.
But 20 years after Jordan’s last championship run saw the legend lead his team past legitimate challenges, Nick Saban won number six with adversity. The ’98 Bulls went to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals and squeaked out a tough win over the Indiana Pacers; the ’17 Alabama Crimson Tide suffered a late-season loss by double digits to rival Auburn, casting doubt on their Playoff worthiness.
The championship round put Michael Jordan and Nick Saban, two of the greatest in their respective fields, against the wall. Popular opinion of the 1998 Finals suggests had the Bulls lost Game 6, they’d lose the series — and Jordan had never lost an NBA Finals.
Likewise, Nick Saban’s never lost to an assistant coach. Senpai’s always flexed his muscles against his pupils, just as Jordan reigned supreme with one heir apparent after another coming for his crown.
Georgia and Kirby Smart appeared better prepared to finally end that streak. The Bulldogs simply outplayed the Crimson Tide in the first half of Monday’s championship. Even in last season’s loss to Clemson, it’s difficult to claim the Tigers clearly outplayed the Tide; rather, Alabama ran out of time in an evenly matched game of back-and-forth.
Saban’s decision to pull Jalen Hurts, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and a two-time national championship participant, initially struck me as the decision of a legend who had finally been bypassed. It happens to all the greats.
Before Michael Jordan, there was Magic. Before Nick Saban, there was Bear Bryant. The torch gets passed eventually.
College football’s remains in Tuscaloosa just a little longer, however. Perhaps Nick Saban will follow Jordan’s lead of 20 years ago and walk away on top — and unlike MJ, actually mean it. Winning on the final play of the championship game after entrusting the freshman Tua Tagovailoa would be quite the walk-off for a legendary career.
And, as the career of Michael Jordan, with two lackluster seasons in Washington suggests, or Bear Bryant bowing out after a season of 8-4, leaving at the mountaintop is exceedingly difficult.
But Nick Saban won’t retire now, or any time this offseason, barring extenuating circumstances. Not with the collection of freshmen talent that shined Monday. Along with Tagovailoa, Najee Harris rushed for 64 yards on just six carries, and was a game-changer in the second half. DeVonta Smith, who caught the game-winning 41-yard strike, is another first-year player.
Alabama has no Jerry Reinsdorf threatening to blow things up. Nick Saban will be back later this year to make a run at No. 7 — a benchmark Bear Bryant never hit. And neither did Michael Jordan.