COLUMN: Nick Saban’s Tide shows greatness, plays villain

By Ryan Arena

In the 1980s, professional wrestling icon Ric Flair would travel from city to city to defend his NWA Championship against the top wrestlers in regional promotions scattered throughout the United States. Flair might head to, say, Little Rock, Arkansas, and take on the baddest man there. For 95 percent of the match, he’d absorb such a beating, the hometown fans were left with no doubt their local hero was the better man.

But at the last second, against all odds, Flair would escape with the victory — maybe even cheating to attain it! — leaving an arena of fans who just knew they were about to see their man achieve glory deflated, disappointed, and ultimately hungry to see the rematch, where the dastardly Flair would “see his luck run out.” To pro wrestling fans, Ric Flair was the ultimate villain.

And to college football fans, Alabama is the ultimate villain.

Flair was in the house Monday night to see the Crimson Tide earn the National Championship in a thriller against Georgia. He spoke to the Georgia players before the game to hype them up, but he may well have recognized and appreciated what Bama pulled off that night, because in so many ways it was straight out of his playbook.

A local hero playing host to a frenzied crowd? Check — Georgia was playing a virtual home game in Atlanta. That hero dominating most of the night’s action, leaving the opponent battered, bruised and seemingly cornered with no way out? Yep, that too.

And the villain snatching that much-awaited victory away at the last possible second, right as the hero stands at the very edge of coronation.

Man, CHECK that and CHECK it good.

I haven’t seen a more violent, cruel turn toward a team than what Georgia absorbed in the final minutes on Monday. Even after Alabama rallied from a 20-7 deficit to tie the game, a shanked field goal and a  drive-busting sack in overtime had to give every Georgia player, coach, booster and fan a sigh of relief. They thought they’d blown it. But it’s just a tease. Now, stop this second and very long …

TOUCHDOWN BAMA.

They thought they’d won it, then lost it, then won it again. That was, before the Big Red Elephant’s tusk shot through the graveyard’s ground to wrap your foot, the beast reanimated from the dead. Yet again.

You might excuse many college football fans if they say they had little desire to see another Jason Voorhies-like rebirth, another Tide sequel titled “Champions!” It had been a long, rigorous one-season drought for Nick Saban and his team, but that scrappy No. 4 seed finally took home the glory! With the same ending again and again, you’d almost expect interest to wane.

But one man watching from the crowd certainly knows better — Flair always has. So many have no desire to see Alabama win that they ACTIVELY WATCH to see them LOSE. People will pay to see a hero, but even more may pay to see a great villain get his comeuppance. Ratings jumped eight percent this season, the SEC-only matchup drawing the highest viewership in the admittedly short history of playoff-era championship games.

Flair retired with 16 world championship reigns, the most ever in his profession. Saban “only” has six of those, but that mark ties Bear Bryant for the highest mark ever.

And as Saban proved Monday, he has his own ‘Flair’ for the dramatic … and for the villainry that comes with it.

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