Nick Saban won his sixth national championship on January 8, tying Paul W. “Bear” Bryant for the most of any major college football coach. TideSports is looking back at the careers and legacies of both legendary coaches. Our special coverage examines the roots of the coaches, their styles, personalities, accomplishments and more.
The best way to approach greatness is simply to appreciate it.
That doesn’t dispel the natural inclination of the human race to compare, contrast and rank things, even such concepts as “greatness,” or “love,” or “genius.” By their very nature, such things are relative. “Greatness” in athletics can have certain statistical parameters but in any endeavor, the “greatness” of a man or woman must have context. There is a historical component and a contemporary component.
It can be hard enough to determine if something or someone qualifies as “great.” Even when someone is widely accepted as “great” in his or her own way, there are different criteria for different observers. To take that and then try to make comparisons across time is, or should be, too complicated.
That doesn’t stop us, of course. We love to compare, as if every human activity were the high jump and greatness could be determined by a tape measure. Hence, the debate rages as to who the greatest University of Alabama football coach — and, by extension, the greatest football coach of all time (and that’s not just in the eyes of Alabama fans) —might be.
Paul W. “Bear” Bryant? Nick Saban?
Before we proceed, let’s return to the top. It is a remarkable stroke of fortune that for 35 of the past 60 years, the Alabama football program has been led by one of these two men, Bryant from 1958 through 1982 and Saban from 2007 until today. That 60-year span has included 12 national championships, six for Bryant, five for Saban (he has a sixth from his time at LSU; Bryant came close at Kentucky and Texas A&M, but accumulated his total in Tuscaloosa).
Gene Stallings, a Bryant disciple, won the other title in that time span. There is, of course, no way to calculate how many Saban might win in the future, or whether one of his many protégés will come back to Tuscaloosa and win another. That’s another one of the elusive qualities of greatness — there is never really a point where it stops.
Having started the column with a spoiler — there is no way to take a coach from an earlier time in college football (and America) and “rate” him against a current coach — let’s look at one aspect in which both Bryant and Saban excelled: national championships.
Immediately, we find ourselves back in a thicket with at least two kinds of thorns. First, while championships are important, are they the only measure? Do we immediately acknowledge, for instance, that Gene Chizik was a greater Auburn coach than Pat Dye because Chizik won a universally recognized title and Dye did not? Is simply “winning the Natty” more impressive than winning eight SEC titles in a row, which Bryant once did? Do you discount the fact Saban’s teams have been ranked No. 1 in the nation at some point in each of the last nine seasons?
Also, national championships were determined in one way for Bryant and another for Saban. Bryant’s teams were chosen by voting from either sportswriters, or coaches, or both. Saban’s all came in some form of playoff, either the BCS or the current College Football Playoff format. Would all of Bryant’s title teams have won a playoff? At least twice, in 1964 and 1973, Alabama lost in the postseason after being awarded the title. On the other hand, who’s to say that Alabama might not have won a playoff in 1966 or 1977 with great teams that dominated their bowl opponents but didn’t win at the ballot box?
By the same token, would Alabama have won a “poll” taken at the end of the 2017 regular season? Probably not. But it would have won a poll taken at the end of 2016. The point is, even when we are discussing something that seems quantifiable, like “number of national championships won,” we have an apple in one hand and an orange in another.
How would Saban have handled coaching at Alabama during the civil rights era? How would Bryant have handled the overwhelming media demands that Saban navigates on a daily basis? We’ll never know, although it is a fair guess that both would have figured something out and been successful.
So instead of trying to come out with a formula that crowns one or the other and, strangely, relegates one to some sort of “second-best” status, let’s recognize the greatness of both, and their one overriding similarity.
Both believe or believed absolutely in their ability to win. Both have the power — and that word isn’t used lightly, it is a power — to make other people share in that absolute belief. Certainly, past success earns them credibility but it is also an integral part of the personalities of the two men. It’s one thing to believe in yourself, and another thing entirely to win an entire group over to that same belief.
That’s the essence of greatness. Numbers are fascinating and can be revealing. But when the positive human impact is incalculable, numbers can only tell a small part of the story.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.
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