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.
By Drew Taylor
The reverence for Alabama football is overwhelming inside Don’s Barber Shop.
Pictures of Bryant-Denny Stadium and past coaches stretch from one end of the building to the next, from Paul W. “Bear” Bryant to Gene Stallings, Nick Saban and others. By one chair is a painting called “Bama Hold ‘Em” by Larry Pitts, a reimagining of Stallings, Bryant, Saban, Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas playing poker.
The barber shop has operated five days a week on 15th Street since 1977. Barber Kenny Whitley says nearly all of his clientele are Crimson Tide football fans, which is why he does not want to speculate on who — between Saban and Bryant — is the better football coach.
“I don’t want to get anyone mad,” Whitley joked.
It’s a question that is raised between Alabama fans every year, especially since Jan. 9, when Alabama beat Georgia 26-23 in overtime to claim its 17th national championship. With the victory, Saban tied Bryant’s number of national titles with six.
In the weeks since the win, many in the media have made comparisons between Bryant and Saban. Following the win against Georgia, radio personality Paul Finebaum wrote on Twitter:
The debate is over. Nick Saban is the greatest coach in college football history.
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) January 9, 2018
In a recent issue, Sports Illustrated noted the similarities between the two coaches on its front cover, a conceptual image of Saban wearing Bryant’s iconic houndstooth fedora.
Whitley has seen the argument go both ways on a regular basis at the shop, which can make for some tense discussion.
“I’ve had one sit in my chair and say ‘Coach Saban is the best coach,’ and you’ll take another guy on the shoe stand say ‘Now wait a minute,’” Whitley said. “I think they’re both terrific.”
Charles and David Lawrence talk about Alabama football all the time with one another. The twins recently came to Tuscaloosa for the national championship parade and have watched Alabama football since 1956. Despite loving both Bryant and Saban, Charles said it’s hard to make a fair judgment between the two.
“They are both about the people and the players,” said Charles.
David said that in many ways, football is a very different game now than during Bryant’s heyday, but he feels Saban is the better coach.
“He’s done so much here,” David said. “I hope he can keep it up.”
For Kathy Frost, there is a clear-cut winner in the argument.
“I think Bryant was great to his teams and great to the fans, but this is Saban’s time,” she said. “It’s time to let it go. He’s earned it.”
Bob Montgomery, a 1970 graduate from the University of Alabama, would not want to speculate on whether Bryant or Saban was a better coach, but he does see similarities between the two.
“Coach Bryant believed in his players so much, they had to believe in themselves,” Montgomery said. “I think Saban feels that way, too.”
For some, Saban has more relevance. Bonner McLemore, a senior at the University of Alabama, has no context to judge Bryant because he was not alive during his career.
“He seems like an old legend,” McLemore said.
However, McLemore said Saban has made the last four year at the university a lot of fun.
“I guess he proved everyone wrong,” McLemore said. “People were saying Alabama had run out of gas and ended the dynasty, but he continues to amaze people.”
Joe Namath, who played for Bryant from 1962-64, said fans are justified in judging between the two coaches and while he did not have an opinion on the matter, he is happy Saban came to Alabama.
“I’m so thankful he has given all of us so many good feelings and he is another man who is a great teacher,” Namath said. “When he has something to say, you better do yourself justice by listening to him.”
John Underwood, a sports writer who worked with Bryant to write his autobiography, said Bryant was more than a coach, but someone who understood and conveyed the best elements of college football.
“He understood that football was a coach’s game, but he was also a person that people not just admired, but had affection for,” he said.
Although he does not follow college football the same way he once did, Underwood believes Saban himself likely embodies a lot of what made Bryant a respected sports figure.
“He attracted so many people not just because of his stature, but he represented a lot,” Underwood said. “I hope, in his own way, Saban has that same kind of stature.”
Reach Drew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0204.