Perhaps it’s like calling a playwright better than Shakespeare or rating a symphonic composer superior to Beethoven. But by any measure, other than sentiment, Nick Saban deserves consideration as Alabama’s most successful football coach over Paul “Bear” Bryant, particularly if the Crimson Tide defeat Clemson in Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game.
Now hold on, Bryant supporters. No need to grab your pitchforks.
Yes, the Bear is a coaching icon, a legendary sideline presence whose growling voice and houndstooth fedora were as much a part of college football as polls and bowls, rivalries and controversy. Bryant built winning programs at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M before constructing a victory machine at Alabama. In Tuscaloosa, he won at least a portion of 13 SEC championships, three national Coach of the Year awards and a record six national titles. More on that in a bit.
When Bryant retired in 1982, he had amassed 323 victories, 232 of them at Alabama. The name Bryant-Denny Stadium honors his contributions to Crimson Tide football. That’s tough to beat.
Yet Saban, who took over as Alabama's coach in 2007, has achieved a higher winning percentage than Bryant (.854 to .824) while defeating tougher opposition and succeeding in a far more competitive regular season and postseason environment than the Bear ever faced.
How do the tenures of Saban and Bryant compare?
The SEC West alone provides a season-long obstacle course that seldom challenged Bryant, and the SEC title game, which began in 1992, presents one more hurdle on the path to a national championship. In many seasons, Bryant’s Alabama teams didn’t even meet the other top SEC schools, as in 1961 when the No. 1 Tide played neither No. 4 LSU nor No. 5 Ole Miss, or in 1966 when unbeaten and No. 3 Alabama didn’t play No. 4 Georgia.
Saban is 6–1 in SEC championship games, including two wins at LSU where he shared the 2003 national championship.
Bryant, who also served as Alabama’s athletic director during his time in Tuscaloosa, never could be accused of ambitious scheduling. During the Bear’s six national title seasons, the Tide’s schedule was rated among the nation’s 15 most difficult only twice: 1965 at No. 12 and ’78 at No. 5, according to Sports-Reference.com. Three of Bryant’s champions didn’t play schedules ranked in the top 30.
As for Saban’s champs, Alabama played the nation’s second-toughest schedule in 2009, No. 17 in ’11 and No. 14 in ’12. Its schedule is rated No. 4 heading into Monday's playoff title game.
Sports-Reference.com uses the SRS metric, or Simple Rating System, which combines strength of schedule with average point differential to measure a team’s overall potency. Only one of Bryant’s six national champions led the nation in SRS, the 1978 group that featured quarterback Jeff Rutledge, running back Tony Nathan and Hall of Fame center Dwight Stephenson. All three of Saban’s champs at Tuscaloosa have finished No. 1 in SRS.
The 2015 Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1 in SRS as they head into the title game, leading No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Clemson.
Bryant appears to lead Saban 6–4 in national titles, but the number is misleading. A master at picking which bowl would benefit Alabama most, and, sometimes, whom the Tide would face (the SEC champion’s Sugar Bowl tie-in didn’t begin until 1976), Bryant never had to worry about a College Football Playoff or BCS championship game. To win his first national title in ’61, Bryant's Tide only had to defeat No. 9 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. For his sixth and final national title in ’79, it was Arkansas again in the Sugar Bowl, this time ranked No. 6. The Tide beat Lou Holtz’s Razorbacks 24–9.
Two of Bryant’s championships (1965, ’78) were shared, compared to one for Saban. And two of Bryant’s titles (’64, ’73) were marred by bowl losses, which would exclude a team from national honors under the current system.
The 1964 Alabama squad, led by Joe Namath, lost the first primetime Orange Bowl 21–17 to No. 5 Texas. No. 2 Arkansas, which defeated Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl to finish 11–0, should have been declared the national champion. But in that era, both the AP poll and the coaches poll concluded their voting before the bowl games. The Razorbacks were honored as national champs by the Football Writers Association of America, but most college football histories regard Alabama as the ’64 national champion.
(One year later, Alabama benefited when the AP, for the first time, held its final media poll after the bowls. The No. 4 Tide, which had defeated No. 3 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, backed into the championship after No. 1 Michigan State lost the Rose Bowl and No. 2 Arkansas lost the Cotton Bowl.)
Alabama’s most tainted national title under Bryant came in 1973. The Sugar Bowl matched the No. 1 Tide against No. 3 Notre Dame (No. 2 Oklahoma was on bowl probation) in a battle of unbeatens for the national championship. Bob Thomas’s field goal with four minutes left gave the Irish a 24–23 victory and, seemingly, the national title. Alabama dropped to No. 4 in the final AP poll.
However, the coaches poll, which had concluded before the bowls for the final time, already had named the Tide No. 1. To this day, Alabama considers itself the 1973 co-national champion even though it lost the big game to Notre Dame.
The Tide’s shared national title with USC in 1978 is also a bit suspect. Both schools finished with one loss and won their bowls games, but the Trojans had defeated Alabama 24–14 in Birmingham in September. Despite the head-to-head result, the AP poll awarded No. 1 to Alabama while the coaches backed USC.
A year later the Bryant won his final national championship, as Alabama finished 12–0 while No. 2 USC went 11-0-1. However, while the Tide were bullying No. 6 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, USC came from behind to defeat AP poll’s No. 1 team, Ohio State, 18–17 in the Rose Bowl, a game many college football fans viewed as the real national championship. The Trojans have an argument, boasting a superior SRS and having completed the nation’s 13th most-difficult schedule while Alabama’s slate ranked No. 62, one of the worst ever for a national champion.
In review, Bryant’s six national championships ended with a win over the No. 9 team in 1961, a loss to the No. 5 team in ’64, a win over the No. 3 team in ’65, a loss to the No. 3 team in ’73, a win over the a No. 1 team in ’78 (Penn State in the Sugar Bowl) and a win over the No. 6 team in ’79.
To win his three national championships at Alabama, Saban’s Tide needed to defeat No. 2 Texas in 2009, No. 1 LSU in ’11 and No. 1 Notre Dame in ’12. At LSU in ’03, Saban’s Tigers beat No. 3 Oklahoma to grab a share of the national title with USC. To claim Saban’s fifth overall championship Monday night, Alabama must beat No. 1 Clemson.
Saban’s shot at a fifth overall championship required Alabama to win the SEC West, defeat No. 19 Florida in the SEC title game and rout No. 3 Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl just for the chance to play No. 1 Clemson.
That’s a mountain Bear Bryant never had to climb.
Saban will never match Bryant’s longevity or, perhaps, his mythical status. But with his abundance of quality wins in a far more competitive landscape, Saban is poised to become Alabama’s most accomplished coach.