“[Saban's] got a nice little gig going, a little bit like Calipari. He tells guys, ‘Hey, three years from now, you’re going to be a first-round pick and go.’ If he wants to be the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they’ve always won there at Alabama.” –Steve Spurrier
With Alabama’s rout of Notre Dame, Nick Saban achieved something Bear Bryant never did–he beat the Fighting Irish, and for a national championship, no less. True to his MO, Saban’s post-game demeanor was that of a man walking back to the office after a good working lunch.
Saban may well be on his way to owning more national titles than any other coach in college football, including the six generally attributed to Bryant. Aside from sharing their best-known employer, Bryant and Saban have a handful of similarities. Bryant had the same unshakable focus of Saban: Texas coach Darrell Royal once said “the difference between me and Bear Bryant was that I was a guy who coached football and then moved on. [...] Coach Bryant was a man on a quest, a quest for immortality.” They are the only coaches to win SEC championships at two different schools.
Both Bryant and Saban will be remembered as taskmasters, with Bryant’s infamy owed to his reign, later regretted, over a Texas A&M squad in Junction, Texas, and Saban’s arising from a stream of demands and tirades that seem to peak when his team is destroying opponents, and an obsession over issues of discipline bordering on compulsive.
Both built teams by out-recruiting the competition and pushing rules on player eligibility. Biographer Keith Dunnavant writes that Bryant “was probably responsible for the implementation of more new regulations than any coach who ever lived, because he was determined to use every loophole to his advantage.” He signed players as athletes in every college sport besides football, “taught” courses in football that were de facto live practices for his team, and bought players expensive team gear to add class and distinction to the program. Saban has taken on efficient (or ruthless, depending on your perspective) methods for culling weak links from his squads, hedging his bets by intentionally oversigning recruits, and running a marketing enterprise that pitches Alabama football in a way that puts Apple to shame.
On the field Bryant and Saban are known for efficient, well-drilled squads. Conversely, neither are remembered as chalkboard innovators: Bryant gave credit to the trends he adopted and adapted, and while Saban is the most vocal proponent of his route-reading pass defenses, Bill Belichick is owed at least half the credit for developing the technique. On offense, Saban’s approach is more related to Bryant’s pro-style squads than it is to today’s hottest systems.
Finally, both Bryan and Saban came to latent Alabama powerhouses that were distanced from their national title days, but not so distanced as to be forgotten or rendered moot. If there is a football-focused caveat to Saban’s career, it is this last similarity. His greatest successes came at LSU and Alabama during an era when membership in the no-holds-barred SEC is almost a requisite for winning a national title. No other conference has the money, fan-base, or creative “intangibles” of the SEC, and no other conference has been close for over a decade.
This commonality is an introduction to where Bryant and Saban diverge. Most recent out-of-conference challengers–Southern Cal, Ohio State, Miami, and Florida State–to the SEC ended up relying on their own cocktail of NCAA infractions to help leverage their legitimate attributes, though they eventually proved to be amateurs compared to the big-business SEC. I say this knowing that violations, whether of institution policy, NCAA fiat, or public law, happen at every school at every level of play. The SEC has just insulated itself from the consequences far better than other conferences by both practice and by its tremendous importance to the revenue side of collegiate athletics.
Alabama was coming off historic failures when Bryant arrived, and the SEC football monopoly simply did not exist in his day. He won his games in an era far more formidable than Saban’s: Paterno, Osborne, Hayes, Switzer, Bowden, and Holtz were all in their prime at one point during Bryant’s career. Meanwhile, Saban’s challengers are a ragged lot: the best pure coaches work at non-traditional powers, while his nearest rivals in major conferences are prone to self-destruction. At the same time, Alabama is (and has recently been) without doubt the alpha of the SEC pack. Look no further than hapless Mike Shula, who not too long ago earned a 10-2 season with the Crimson Tide.
Bryant also wisely avoided the NFL pitfall that has soured fans in both Baton Rouge and Miami. Strangely enough, Bryant’s opportunity also came from the Miami Dolphins; his stated reason for turning down the Dolphins was that he would never leave Alabama just for a bigger paycheck. This speaks to what might be a persona deficit that could hamper Saban’s status as historical icon: it’s rare for a man described as aloof, taciturn, and mercenary to hold sway over the imaginations of football fans and historians. Personality is partly why we “know” Bryant better than Bernie Bierman, Barry Switzer better than Bud Wilkinson, and Jimmy Johnson better than Dennis Erickson.
There is one comparison to still be made between Bryan and Saban, and that’s their adaptation to changes in the game itself. Bryant eventually had to adopt the Wishbone to successfully close out his years. Saban, meanwhile seems to have a chink in his armor: the spread-option coaches among his competitors–Urban Meyer in particular–have managed to needle soft spots in the Alabama coach’s vaunted system. Today’s concepts threaten to strip him of the strict sidelines-control he values; if they become a long-term component of the game, it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts. (Saban also may suffer comparatively by virtue of the fact that Belichick has adopted and mastered shifts in the game with great success in the NFL.)
All said, the jury is out on Saban’s final spot in history. Every coach is one calamitous decision or revelation away from public failure and humiliation, though if anyone is relatively safe from this, it seems to be Saban. The quote that began this entry reflects this reality, and while Spurrier’s words were more psychological warfare than anything, they also have a measure of truth when it comes to assessing Saban’s legacy up to this point. Saban has had good stints with Toledo and Michigan State, and his success at mighty LSU reached its apex with an asterisked split-championship many think rightfully belongs with Pete Carroll and the Trojans. Given that the NFL is full of coaches just like Saban (and is adopting the same spread tactics he’s publicly lamented), it seems unlikely he’ll find redemption there, or a way to burnish his legacy the way Johnson and Switzer did.
There’s no doubt Saban is a tremendous coach, and perhaps the best in the NCAA right now. But for him to be considered an all-timer, he has to personally surpass the mythos of Alabama and all it represents, and that likely means putting Bear Bryant’s achievements numerically and unequivocally in the rearview mirror. Anything less and he may be remembered as the football equivalent of a jockey fortunate enough to have ridden Secretariat.