Poor Nick Saban. No sooner does he win the national championship (with his Alabama Crimson Tide defeating the Clemson Tigers 45-40 in last Monday’s college football the title game) than he’s given yet another hurdle to clear. Now everyone wants to know if he’s better than Alabama’s other great coach, the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant.
In a lot of ways the comparison is apt. Both men coached their greatest years at Alabama, which boasts the nation’s all-time leading football program. (According to Tex Noel, executive director of the Intercollegiate Football Researchers Association: “Over the last 95 years, Alabama has had the most successful program in the country measured by a combination of victories, strength of competition and bowl appearances.”)
In 38 seasons (from 1945-1982), 25 of them at Alabama, Bryant won six national championships, and had a won-loss of .780 percent; in 18 years, nine in Tuscaloosa, Saban has won five national titles, one at LSU, and has a W-L of .765 percent.
Both have credentials, though, which go beyond the raw numbers. Great coaches can quickly turn around bad football programs. Bryant did it four times. In 1944, the Maryland Terps were 1-7-1; the following year in his first head coaching job, Bryant took them to a 6-2-1 record.
In 1945, the Kentucky team finished 2-8; under Bryant in 1946, the Wildcats were 7-3. In 1950, many thought Kentucky’s 11-1 team to be the best in the country. Moving on to Texas A&M in 1954, Bryant had the Aggies contending for the national title in his third year with a 9-0-1 mark.
In 1958, Mama called – as Bryant put it – and he returned to his alma mater, Alabama. He took a 2-7-1 team to 5-4-1. Three years later, the Tide went 11-0 and he won his first national title.
Saban, too, engineered the dramatic turnaround of four college programs. In 1990, he took a Toledo team to 9-2 that had been 6-5 the previous season. In 1995, he inherited a Michigan State team that had lost all 11 contests in 1994 and rebooted it to 6-5-1. LSU in 1998 and 1999 had won 9 and lost 15. Saban took over in 2000 and won 8 of 12; three years later, the Bayou Bengals were the national champs. In 2007, he took an Alabama program that had become mired in mediocrity and built a powerhouse that has won four national titles in the past seven years.
Still, comparing Bryant’s accomplishments to Saban’s is difficult. We’re talking about men who coached in vastly different eras – eras with different rules and different methods for selecting champions.
It has been argued that Saban’s Tide has thrived in an era of tougher competition; this past season, Alabama had to play 15 games to win the national championship while Bryant’s teams never had to play more than 12 games, and in many seasons 10, 11, or fewer.
Bart Starr, who played college football at Alabama (and won five NFL championships) rejects that argument. He told me in a 2009 interview that “It’s not true that a fewer number of games in either the regular season or postseason makes it easier to win a championship. The fewer the number of games, the less margin for error, and in a shorter season, if you lose a game early you don’t have as much time to recover.”
In fact, Saban has won four championships (2003 at LSU, and 2011, 2012 and 2015 at Alabama) when his teams lost a game early in the season and still had time to bounce back. Bryant coached six teams that only lost one game but found themselves eliminated from the national title chase. Competition for the top spot was so tough when Bryant coached that two of his teams went undefeated but still didn’t take home the national crown.
Saban won all his Alabama rings in head-to-head matches with unbeaten teams that were ranked No. 1 or No. 2. Bryant won his championships in “popularity” polls. At least one of them was controversial. In 1973, the Crimson Tide, unbeaten during the regular season, played the also unbeaten fighting Irish of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl and lost by a missed extra point, 24-23. But Bama had already been named the champion before the game by the UPI. (The Irish were named No. 1 by the AP, which voted after the bowl games.)
Alabama fans would call that a trade-off for one of several other seasons when voters snubbed the Tide, most notably 1966, when the Tide (which had won consecutive titles in 1964 and 1965) finished 11-0 and came in third in both the UPI and AP voting, behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, which tied each other in the regular season and finished 9-0-1.
Bryant’s best run was the 11 seasons from 1971 to 1981 when his teams were 116-15-1 for a .882 winning percentage. Saban’s best years were from 2003 to 2004 at LSU (after which he coached 2 years in the NFL) and then at Alabama from 2007 through this past season. His record over those 11 years: 127-22, .852 percent.
There’s a very good argument, though, that Saban’s teams at their peak were more dominating than Bryant’s. From the Southeastern Conference championship game against Urban Meyer and Florida at the end of the 2009 season (won by Bama 32-13) through the 2012 season-ending championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame (Bama, 42-14), Saban’s Tide beat six teams with a combined record of 70-2 by a cumulative score of 211-83.
That isn’t postseason play better than Bryant at his peak – it’s postseason play better than any college coach ever to step on a football field.
But if the award for peak performance goes to Saban, then Bryant must take top honors for excellence over the long haul. Half of Bryant’s coaching career, from 1945 to 1963, came during the years of old-fashioned two-platoon or limited substitution football. He posted a .727 W-L percentage.
That’s when players had to put in time on both sides of the ball, playing offense and defense. Rosters and coaching staffs were about half as large as they would later become, and in Bryant’s own words, “head coaches coached football players instead of assistant coaches.”
The second half of Bryant’s career, the 19 seasons from 1964 through his retirement after the 1982 season, unlimited substitution changed the game drastically, and the Bear was even greater with a winning percentage of .829.
In fact, Bear Bryant is the only college coach ever to excel in both eras. It’s an achievement that Saban will never have a chance to replicate because college football isn’t going back to the time of one-platoon football.
If you pressed me to choose between the two, I’d say it like this: Nick Saban has reached higher peaks than Bear Bryant at his best. Saban is the better coach. Bryant’s accomplishments, though, were more extensive and over a longer period. The Bear is the greater coach.
Allen Barra is a graduate of Mountain Brook High School and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He writes for the Wall Street Journal, Daily Beast.com, and American History magazine. Among his books are “The Last Coach, A Life of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant,” “Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee,” “Rickwood Field: A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark,” and “Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.”