By Jimmy Wigfield
For decades, there has been a nearly unanimous hosanna among Alabama fans that Paul “Bear” Bryant remains the greatest coach in the history of college football.
That point is more than debatable. If you certify by the numbers, Eddie Robinson, Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden long ago surpassed the milestone of 323 career victories Bryant established in 1982. If you gauge such immortality by national championships, the Bear is well ahead.
But with all due respect to Bryant and his legacy, there is no longer any doubt about a more significant title: the best coach in Alabama history.
That is Nick Saban.
Let’s compare: Both inherited a sickly program at UA — Bryant in 1958, Saban in 2007 — but Saban got the Crimson Tide turned around quicker. It took Bryant four years to win his first SEC and national championship (1961); it took Saban three seasons (2009).
Saban has won three national championships in six seasons at Alabama and four overall in 10 seasons; it took Bryant 21 years to win as many.
Bryant lost three bowl games that cost him a national championship: the 1972 Orange Bowl, the 1973 Sugar Bowl and the 1975 Orange Bowl. Saban is 3-0 in BCS national championship games.
Even more telling, Bryant was fortunate to be coaching when winning in the SEC was much easier and when he could recruit and sign players without limitation. Saban has excelled in an SEC that is only slightly less punishing than running barefoot through a field of razor blades — even Vanderbilt is good — and where he can’t sign every player in sight, although he seems to evaluate nearly all of them.
Bryant coached his coaches and lorded over practices mainly from atop his tower. Saban coaches everybody and prefers his directives to come from ground level instead of from a steel pulpit in the sky.
However, Bryant showed he could adapt: He won with the passing game, he won with the wishbone. Saban simply recruits for his system.
Former Alabama quarterback Scott Hunter, who started for Bryant from 1968-70 and continues to maintain close contacts to the program, wouldn’t step across the line to proclaim Saban better than Bryant but stirred up a lot of chalk.
“Coach Bryant on his best day was as good a coach as there ever was,” Hunter said. Of Saban, he added: “This guy is a great coach. His focus is phenomenal.
“I don’t say that coach Bryant was necessarily a better coach than coach Saban. On a one-game basis between coach Bryant and coach Saban, it’s a toss-up. If it’s a body of work, I don’t think you can say he is better than coach Bryant, not yet.”
Hunter said Saban’s focus on the minutiae of football separates him from all other coaches, even Bryant.
“Coach Bryant was an extrovert who loved to go to California and play golf with Bob Hope,” Hunter said. “All Nick does when he’s not coaching or recruiting is go on vacation and ride his jet ski for a couple of hours, go eat lunch in the basement of his lake house and watch football film. It’s football 365 days a year with him. Nothing changes.”
While Hunter likened Saban to “the Internet-age version of coach Bryant,” Saban actually personifies the odd dichotomy that in an era of spread offenses, his teams win with defense and an old-fashioned running game. He recruits to it and has proven he has no peer in evaluating and securing talent, which he develops into NFL-caliber players. In turn, Saban’s reputation of putting players in the pros feeds his program as a never-ending spring.
“Recruiting, he never takes off,” Hunter said. “He’s a recruiting machine. At Alabama, they start with 600 prospects, which is amazing that they pare it down to what they sign. A lot of schools don’t even start with 200 or 250 prospects.”
Saban misses no details in recruiting or preparation and seems to find more joy in his process of winning rings than counting and admiring them. Hunter recounted one such example just days after the Crimson Tide beat Texas to win the 2009 national championship.
“About 10 days after they beat Texas in Pasadena, the staff came down for a back-slapper at the Red Elephant Club,” Hunter said. “I went to the bar to get a glass of wine and felt this presence behind me. I turned around and it was him. I started to make some small talk and he interrupted and said, ‘Didn’t you go to Vigor?’ I told him I did. He said, ‘Have you been over there where those kids and coaches can see you? I need you over there and I need you to be seen because we have three prospects over there.’ And with that he turned and was gone. I had my marching orders. That win over Texas was only 10 days before, but to him it just as well have been 10 years ago.”
Strategically, Hunter said, Bryant didn’t revel in the X’s and O’s as much as Saban, but both share a superior mastery of managing a game.
“Coach Bryant knew how to win,” Hunter said. “He knew how to coach a game, how to use personnel, how to make adjustments. He wouldn’t keep a back in a game on a hot day after he had just broken a 35-yard run and then run him again on the next play. He wouldn’t kick into the wind at the end of a quarter. Players were in position. Coach Saban is the same way.”
Saban won’t coach nearly four decades as Bryant did, but unless something changes he will probably win more national championships — the ultimate standard by which an Alabama head coach is judged.
(Contact Editor Jimmy Wigfield firstname.lastname@example.org)