Even Terry Saban couldn’t believe Nick Saban went for that fourth down. “That’s the dumbest call I’ve seen you make since you’ve been a head coach,” Nick Saban recalled his wife telling him after the 2001 SEC Championship game.
Saban told the story of this particular decision in January 2012 as his Alabama team prepared to face LSU for the national title in New Orleans. That it remained Saban’s dumbest call as a head coach 10 years and one month later is a testament to just how foolish Saban thought it was to go for it on fourth down and an inch — “I mean, an inch,” Saban said during that 2012 interview, holding his thumb and index finger an inch apart to illustrate how little his LSU offense needed — from his own 23-yard line down a touchdown with 4:54 remaining in the second quarter. Tennessee led Saban’s Tigers 14-7, and failure on that play could give the Volunteers a chance to run away with a game practically everyone already assumed they’d win.
“I can’t imagine Nick Saban going for it,” CBS play-by-play announcer Verne Lundquist said just before Saban’s team went for it. LSU quarterback Rohan Davey, already nursing a rib injury suffered during the first quarter, settled in under center Ben Wilkerson. The Tigers lined up with two tight ends, three receivers and no backs. The idea? Star tailback LaBrandon Toefield — who might have gotten the ball otherwise — was hurt, but even in a weakened state, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Davey should have theoretically been able to lean forward to gain that inch. But Davey bobbled the snap. By the time he picked it up, Tennessee defensive end Demetrin Veal had his left arm wrapped around Davey’s chest and his right arm wrapped around Davey’s head. Veal ripped Davey backward, dumping him for a 1-yard loss. On the sideline, Saban briefly protested that officials should have called a face mask. But his heart wasn’t in it. There was no face-mask foul. Saban had just gone for it on fourth down from his own 23 and come up short. “For the next five minutes of the game,” Saban said, “I was like in la-la land, like, ‘Why did you do that? That’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done.’”
So why is the dumbest call of Saban’s career also one of the most important?