PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — In a sport long defined by its coaching giants, Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh are among the few larger-than-life figures still standing.
Saban has won six national championships at Alabama, establishing the most successful program of the 21st century. Harbaugh has completely revitalized his alma mater, reaching three straight College Football Playoffs at Michigan with style and controversy.
They’ll face off on opposite sidelines for only the second time Monday in the Rose Bowl. The Crimson Tide (12-1) take on the Wolverines (13-0) in a tantalizing CFP semifinal pitting the two winningest schools in major college football.
In no small part because of the coaching matchup, this 110th edition of the Granddaddy of Them All is also one of the most anticipated games in the 10-year history of the playoff, with the winner headed to Houston next week to face Washington or Texas for a title.
Yet to varying degrees, Saban and Harbaugh both reflect the truism that the price of incredible success is an inability to enjoy it, at least while it’s happening.
While both coaches have been gracious throughout their public appearances in Southern California, the magnitude of this showdown clearly weighs on their shoulders.
“I don’t reminisce much about what’s happened in the past,” Saban said Sunday before posing stiffly with the Rose Bowl trophy and an equally formal Harbaugh. “I’m kind of looking forward to today, and the next day.”
After a perfect regular season in which he got to attend only half of the games because of a pair of three-game suspensions, Harbaugh has been his usual exuberant self at the Rose Bowl, whether riding in a horse-drawn carriage at Disneyland or giving a humorous scouting report on Jesus (“He would have been a five-star player, no doubt about it. He would have been a Hall of Fame coach.”).
But the archetypal Michigan Man also spoke solemnly about the motivation he’ll impart to his players. While Harbaugh has achieved his goal to restore the Wolverines as a powerhouse, they have yet to win a CFP game (0-2).
“What it means is that your players know what it’s like to be a champion,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the special feeling. Their parents know what it’s like to have a son or a brother or a grandson who’s a champion. … It’s for all them, and all that we’re associated with.”
Saban has known Harbaugh’s family since the 1970s, when Saban was an up-and-coming defensive assistant who got tips from Michigan secondary coach Jack Harbaugh, Jim’s dad.
They coached against each other in the 2020 Citrus Bowl, with Alabama beating Michigan 35-16 to cap the only season in a seven-year stretch in which the Tide weren’t in the playoff. Harbaugh’s ballyhooed rebuilding of the Wolverines appeared to be a failure at that point — but after the abbreviated 2020 season, Michigan has soared to a 38-3 record in the past three years.
“There were just some really dark days that we had to get through,” said Michigan offensive lineman Trevor Keegan, who was there. “After the season, coach Harbaugh sent us a long email saying we’re going to change this program together. And our first team meeting, it was either you get on the train and we’re moving, or you’re getting off. Ever since then, we’ve been working our tails off to get where we are and have the success that we’ve had.”
Alabama hasn’t gone more than three seasons between national championships in Saban’s 17-year tenure, but the Tide need to win this one to keep the streak alive. Saban is also back at the venerable stadium where he won his first national title for Alabama, beating Texas in 2010.
Most observers agree Saban did one of the most impressive coaching jobs of his career this year. After getting two new coordinators in the offseason, Saban revitalized a team that stumbled in September and led it to 11 consecutive wins and an SEC title.
“We had some really good rat poison early,” Saban said, referring to his preferred name for outside noise. “It was almost like Wheaties, because everybody criticized us and said we weren’t any good, and we were done, and Coach Saban is past his prime and all that. It was like eating Wheaties, ‘Breakfast of Champions.’ That helped us.”
Behind the excitement is the quiet possibility that this could be the last game at his school for whichever famed coach loses.
Saban is 72, and retirement rumors have circulated throughout college football’s back channels in recent months. Saban has shrugged it off publicly with humor.
“Yeah, I’ve heard them before,” Saban said. “I think when you get my age, everybody is waiting for you to — you know.”
And with NCAA investigators circling Harbaugh and the Wolverines, few will be surprised if the 60-year-old Harbaugh elects to return to the NFL. If Michigan wins a national title as punctuation, it would make even more sense.
The Tide are in the CFP for the eighth time in 10 years, while Michigan has its third consecutive berth.
Alabama got here by surviving the Iron Bowl on Jalen Milroe’s miraculous touchdown pass to Isaiah Bond on fourth-and-31 before upsetting two-time defending national champion Georgia, which had won 29 straight, in the SEC title game.
Michigan steamrolled into the playoff with its first No. 1 ranking since 1997, beating Ohio State in The Game and blanking Iowa in the Big Ten title game.
Milroe has grown into the Tide’s starting job since getting benched for a week in September, and Michigan must protect against both his arm and his legs. Milroe has a knack for big plays — none bigger than his 31-yard TD pass on fourth down to beat Auburn last month.
Leading rusher Jase McClellan is expected back after he missed the SEC title game, while Milroe can throw to big-play receivers Isaiah Bond and Jermaine Burton.
J.J. McCarthy is a polished passer who put up 2,630 yards and 19 TDs against four interceptions with a wealth of talented targets, including 500-yard receivers Roman Wilson, tight end Colston Loveland and Cornelius Johnson. Blake Corum is a standout rusher with 1,028 yards and 24 TDs.
LONG TIME COMING
Michigan is making its 21st Rose Bowl Game appearance, more than any school except USC — but its first since 2007, reflecting the program’s struggles before Harbaugh.
Alabama hasn’t played in a Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena since 1946. Saban’s Tide won the 2021 Rose Bowl, which was played in Texas because of COVID-19 safety concerns.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football