Scottsdale, Ariz. -- Nick Saban was operating on very little sleep Tuesday morning when he and two players, O.J. Howard and Eddie Jackson, met with the media, but no one was complaining.
"It was a short night but it was a fun night," said Saban. "It was one we'll always remember."
It was also a night that Alabama and SEC fans will savor for a long time. The 45-40 win over No. 1 Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship gave Alabama its fourth national championship in seven years. It also gave the SEC its eighth national title in the past ten years. After a two year absence, the SEC is again back on top of the college football world.
The win also put Saban, who just completed his ninth season at Alabama, in rarified coaching air. With five national championships (1 at LSU, 4 at Alabama), Saban and Alabama legend Paul "Bear" Bryant are the only two coaches in FBS history to win more than four national titles.
As Saban wrapped up his obligations in the Arizona desert and prepared for the trip home to Tuscaloosa, this much he knew: this championship, perhaps more than any of his previous four, was a result of "The Process."
The Process is simply Saban's core belief that the willingness to prepare in a methodical, daily basis is the key to success. Saban believes those who focus on the result and not the consistent preparation that is necessary to achieve the result are doomed to be disappointed.
"It's about committing yourself to being the best you can be on that particular day," said Saban. "Improvement is a steady march and you have to be committed to it."
Saban's strong belief in The Process is also the thing he falls back upon when things don't go well. On Sept. 19, things went poorly when Alabama hosted Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide committed five turnovers and looked like a disorganized football team for most of the game. Alabama fought back, but lost 43-37.
Many in the national media saw the game as a changing of the guard. It marked, they wrote, the end of Saban's dynasty at Alabama. The game had passed him by.
After the loss Saban regrouped his players and his staff. They came up with a plan to make changes on the offense, making running back Derrick Henry the focus.
Saban challenged his players and his coaches to rededicate themselves to the process of getting better.
"We were at a pivotal moment, there is no doubt about that," said Saban. "I just asked the guys 'How are you going to react to a loss?' Our margin for error was gone."
From that moment on, Alabama was a completely different football team, putting together a run of 12 straight wins to the national championship. The Crimson Tide was really only challenged twice in the run.
Trailing 14-13 to Tennessee with only 5:25 left, Alabama drove the ball 71 yards on eight plays to win the game 19-14. Alabama would run the table, beating Florida 29-15 in the SEC championship game and Michigan State 38-0 in the first round of the playoffs. During that stretch, running back Derrick Henry became the Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Jake Coker found his confidence and Calvin Ridley became a big-time player, setting the school's freshman receiving record. The Alabama offense, which replaced nine starters for the 2015 season, trusted Saban and The Process and grew up.
The only other game Alabama won by less than double digits was Monday night. In Clemson, with sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, Alabama had a different kind of opponent. Watson, who finished with 405 yards passing and another 73 running, was the best quarterback Alabama had seen since facing Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel in 2012 and 2013.
The score was tied 24-24 with 10:24 left. The next big move would likely determine who would win the national championship.
Again, Saban trusted The Process. And so did his players.
During preparations for Clemson, Saban and his staff had picked up what they felt was a gap in the Tigers' kickoff return team.
"We put in onside kicks and surprise stuff for every game. We don't always use it but we have it in case we need it," said Saban.
With 10 minutes left and a tired defense, Saban took what he called 'a calculated risk' and called the onside kick. Kicker Adam Griffith executed it perfectly and Marlon Humphrey grabbed the free ball at the 50-yard line.
"I think it's a calculated risk when you do something like that, but it's a calculated risk based on your ability to execute relative to what the other team is sort of giving you," said Saban. "We actually needed to change the momentum of the game a little bit."
Two plays later, Alabama would score on a 51-yard pass from Coker to Howard. It would begin a pretty wild finish, but the successful onside kick re-energized the Alabama team and the Crimson Tide would never trail again.
Now, Alabama has another national championship, the 16th in its storied history.
There is no better individual example of Saban's process than O.J. Howard. The highly-recruited tight end from Prattville, Ala., was exhibit A of the player who lights up the recruiting boards but had yet to translate his physical talent into tangible results on the field. As a freshman in 2013, Howard caught 14 passes for 269 yards. As a sophomore, he caught 17 passes for 260 yards. Monday night, Howard had five catches for 208 yards, including big plays of 53 (TD), 51 (TD), and 63 yards.
"We should have used O.J. more, but the best thing is that through it all he never complained," said Saban. "He just went to practice every day and did the things he could do to make himself better. And when his opportunity came, he took advantage of it."
In short, Howard believed in The Process. He now has a national championship ring and a big decision to make. After Monday night's performance some NFL general managers are going to want his services.
"It just feels great," said Howard, who was named the game's most outstanding offensive player. "I wouldn't be able to do all this without my teammates. It's just a bond that we have. We are all like brothers in that locker room."
That's why, on a bleary-eyed Tuesday morning, Nick Saban was able to smile. This team, the one that was written off in September, has proven to be the ultimate validation that Saban's Process still works. And that is why Saban has said for weeks that this will always be one of his favorite teams.
"What you saw in our locker room last night were a bunch of happy guys who enjoy being around each other," said Saban. "(I am) very proud of our team, the way they competed in the game, the way they made plays when they needed to make them, the way they overcame adversity all year long to get to this point and create an opportunity for themselves that they were able to take advantage of.
"Nobody was complaining that they didn't play enough or didn't touch the ball enough. I have never been prouder of a team than I am of this one."