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.
Spend enough time in a cotton field, rooting around in the soil, and it’s as if you can’t get rid of the dirt. The dust settles in the crevices of your hands, the grime creeps under your fingernails and a film sort of coats your lungs. Paul W. “Bear” Bryant was reared in that dirt as part of a family of sharecroppers in aptly named Moro Bottom, Arkansas.
Nick Saban grew up in a coal mining community in Idamay, West Virginia, the son of a gas station owner. He never spent time in the earth the way those around him must’ve, but as an attendant at his father’s station he saw the black-smeared faces of men who did, bone-weary exhausted after another shift in the mines.
Both men chose to carve roads that assured they’d never have to return to the dirt of their youth, driven to make their path in the world differently. In a way, it drove them to the emerald green fields they patrolled so expertly in their professional lives. Kind of ironic that each, so stridently driven to escape the dirt, found their lives’ calling teaching a game born in the dirt.
When you take the chisel to the granite of the great alpine of college football to carve out the game’s coaching Mount Rushmore, two faces are sure to be sculpted, and both plied their trade at Alabama. The other two spots are up for debate and could just as easily be coaches from another singular school: Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy. But with a combined 12 national titles between them, Bryant and Saban are so secure in their spots in the game’s lore it’s safe to put hammer to chisel. They are the two greatest college football coaches of all time.
This is how two men – strangers to one another, from Idamay and Moro Bottom – found greatness in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, of all places. This is about championships, transformation and legacy. This is the story of Bryant, Saban and Alabama, and how they all came together to create the best college football coaching legacies of all time.
Combined they claim 12 national championships and 21 SEC championships. To put that into context, that’s eight more conference titles than the second-place programs in the league claim (Georgia and Tennessee each have 13 SEC championships). That’s also more national titles than any other school in the country can claim.
Bryant retired as the game’s winningest coach. Saban will never approach Bryant’s 323 collegiate wins, but the rate at which Saban is clicking off national titles is also unmatched. Saban’s five national championships at Alabama in nine years has never been achieved before in the history of college football. In a game set up for parity, it’s unlikely It will ever be ever equaled.
Ivan Maisel is a college football reporter and historian. Growing up in Mobile, Maisel knows the ins and outs of Crimson Tide football and the eras in which Bryant and Saban competed. Prior to Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa in 2007, no active coach in the country was closer than four national championships away from equaling Bryant. Since then, Saban has won five to do just that.
“I’m surprised anybody tied Bryant,” Maisel said. “It was one of those records that I think, I won’t say everyone, but most of us, thought was inviolate. And to see a coach do it and do it in such a short amount of time is really remarkable.”
It’s not just that Saban has done what most consider nearly impossible, it’s that he has done so in such a short span. Bryant won six national titles in 25 seasons at Alabama. Saban won five in his so-far 11 seasons at UA.
In that regard, Saban is probably most similar to John McKay at Southern Cal, who in 16 seasons from 1960-75 won four national titles. To put that into context, Saban is averaging a national title every 2.2 seasons compared to McKay’s one every four seasons.
Bryant and Saban arrived at Alabama with three previous college head coaching jobs on their resumes. Bryant spent one season (1945) at Maryland, eight (1946-53) at Kentucky and four (1955-57) at Texas A&M.
Saban got his first head coaching opportunity at Toledo, where he spent one season (1990), then spent five seasons (1995-99) at Michigan State and five (2000-04) at LSU. During their respective tenures at Alabama, Bryant compiled a 232-46-9 record and Saban has a 132-20 mark. Bryant went 12-10-2 in bowl games while Saban has gone 10-4 (including the College Football Playoff).
Bryant’s Alabama teams spent 29 weeks ranked as the No. 1 team in the country and compiled a record of 26-4 as the top-ranked team. Saban’s UA squads have spent 62 weeks at No. 1 and have posted a 55-7 mark when ranked at the top. As a program, Alabama’s 103 weeks at No. 1 is second behind only Ohio State (105 weeks).
Bryant welcomed the opportunity to learn from other greats. It was in his seminal autobiography “Bear: The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama’s Coach Bryant” that Bryant expressed his most regular phone conversations were with “(Darrell) Royal, McKay, (Bobby) Dodd and (Bud) Wilkinson.” So it’s not a stretch to think he would’ve tried to cozy up to Saban.
“I bet they would’ve been friends,” Maisel said. “McKay was a good friend of his, Darrell Royal was a close friend of his. I don’t think that’s an accident. Those guys respected one another and enjoyed each others’ company and respected what they were able to achieve. They could talk shop and compare notes. The great anecdote about Bryant signing John Mitchell to play began because it was the offseason and he was out drinking with McKay. I don’t know how buddy-buddy Saban is with any other coach, but I think he would’ve gotten along with Bryant and respected him. I think they would’ve gotten along just fine.”
Likewise, Saban spends time with different coaches (Bob Stoops, Gary Patterson, Tom Herman, Jason Garrett) each offseason, always learning, always trying to get better.
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
— Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A’Changin’”
Perhaps it was in their ability to adapt that the men are most similar. Bryant’s adaptation is more pronounced simply because he coached in three distinct eras of college football: two-way players, specialty players and integration.
The anecdote Maisel referenced was a snapshot of a couple of signature moments in Bryant’s career. When he visited with McKay in a hotel that Sunday afternoon in Houston in the winter of 1970, Bryant had already signed his first black player to integrate his program in Wilbur Jackson. Alabama was coming off back-to-back six-win seasons in 1969 and ’70. He was in a way at two crossroads in his career: He wasn’t winning at the rate he had throughout most of the 1960s, and he was tackling the integration of his football team head-on during a time when the subject was highly contentious in the Deep South.
He sat with McKay and learned of a player originally from Mobile who was at East Arizona State, a junior college. Bryant quietly excused himself, found a telephone and called back to Tuscaloosa to get someone to Mobile immediately to recruit Mitchell, an African-American defensive lineman. Mitchell ultimately chose the Crimson Tide and became the first black player to play a down of football for UA. He was the first Alabama starter, the first black captain, the first black UA All-American and eventually became the program’s first black assistant coach.
Mitchell’s first game just so happened to occur the same night when Bryant unveiled his new wishbone offense, the one that took USC by such surprise and allowed Alabama to begin the season with a 17-10 victory over the No. 5-ranked Trojans in Los Angeles.
Bryant made the radical change in his program by sending two of his assistants, Mal Moore and Jimmy Sharpe, to Austin, Texas, to learn the offensive system from Royal at Texas, who had begun running the wishbone in 1968.
It was only one game, but in two distinctly different ways it reshaped the Alabama program and Bryant’s legacy, setting the stage for the dominant 1970s decade that was to come.
Saban, too, dealt with alteration. First it was in what is known as the “Saban Rule,” which the NCAA instituted to restrict college head coaches from doing on-the-road evaluations of high school players during the spring – in short, to combat Saban’s rock-star status and the massive publicity he was generating with every stop to visit a prospect at a high school. To deal with that, Saban became one of the first coaches, if not the first, to talk to recruits via Skype during the spring.
When the game evolved beginning around 2012-13 to incorporate the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, Saban’s big, sometimes lumbering defense was caught flat-footed. So he changed his philosophy in recruiting to incorporate more athletic, sometimes smaller, defensive linemen and quicker linebackers.
The result? Two of his linebackers, C.J. Mosley and Reuben Foster, won the Butkus Award as the best at their position in the country in their respective seasons. While it’s true that Mosley was already on the team before Saban changed his recruiting model, his skill set was perfect for the new-look UA defender. And Alabama won two national championships since then: 2015 and ’17.
“It’s a different thing, but I think our program here is unquestionably the top program in the country and has been, and (Saban) has maintained it and worked hard to keep it,” said Bryant’s son, Paul Bryant Jr. “We had that in the ’60s and ’70s, but it was different with a poll situation rather than a playoff like we have now.
“Our players were more from Alabama then — we had them from all over the country, but primarily from Alabama — and I think they came to win championships. Now, from what I read, I think a lot of them come because they want to play in the NFL. It’s a little bit different dynamic back then.
“They both had a deal built around defense and the kicking game and winning at the line of scrimmage and playing a physical game of football. Everybody talks about the offenses (being different), but I think that’s the similarity.”
Saban was initially against the changes he was seeing in the game, famously asking “Is this what we want football to be?,” but he came to fully embrace them, recruiting dual-threat quarterbacks and bringing in Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator to install hurry-up and spread tendencies in his own offense. Kiffin helped Alabama to three straight SEC championships, three straight SEC Offensive Player of the Year awards, a Heisman Trophy winner and a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Both Bryant and Saban recognized that they had to evolve to keep winning.
“It was more dire with Bryant,” Maisel said. “Saban never got down to going 6-5-1, he never had consecutive six-win seasons. I think it speaks to an understanding that the game is constantly changing and you have to constantly adjust. I think Saban gets more points in that regard because he recognized it more quickly. Bryant in the late ’60s, as he later said, he was distracted and he had kind of taken his eye of the ball. Once he fixed it, it turned around pretty fast. Saban never let it get that bad.”
Bryant might be remembered differently without the decade of the 1970s, which included an astounding eight SEC championships and three national titles. He’d still be a legend, no doubt, but had he accepted an offer from the Miami Dolphins to become head coach in the winter of 1969, his legacy would have changed.
He seriously considered the chance to coach the National Football League team, but when he told Alabama officials of the decision he was weighing, he just couldn’t pull the trigger.
“That night I told (Dolphins owner) Joe Robbie I’d take the job, but that I’d have to get the approval of my people first,” Bryant wrote in his biography. “And when it came down to the nut-cutting, I couldn’t do it.”
“I think it was worth his consideration and I think he gave it an awful lot of thought,” said John Underwood, who co-authored Bryant’s biographical book. “I think something happened with him and Alabama, too, in regards to compensation and all the effort. He made the wise choice, of course. He would not have hesitated to go if he thought that was the best thing all around. I think Miami would’ve benefited greatly.”
Coincidentally, it was with the same Dolphins where Saban’s legacy altered. He departed LSU after five successful seasons that included a national title (2003) and two SEC championships (2001 and ’03). Many felt he had the Tigers on the verge of an historical run in Baton Rouge. During his two seasons in Miami, Saban realized he had made a mistake and that he and his wife, Terry, enjoyed the college game and the influence they could impact on student-athletes.
Saban received overtures from Alabama following its 2006 season, but he wanted to live up to his word and contract with then-Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga. But Mal Moore, UA’s athletics director at the time, wouldn’t take no for an answer. After infamously saying “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach,” Saban relented and boarded a plane bound for Tuscaloosa to start his momentous run.
Bryant used his influence in a positive way at Alabama. The Bryant Scholarship was established in the 1970s and benefits sons and daughters of men who played for Bryant during his 25 years as the UA coach. To date, nearly 1,000 students have been recipients, including Charley and Trey Waldrep, the sons of Kent Waldrep, a running back for TCU who suffered paralysis while being tackled by an Alabama defender in 1974. When his sons reached college age, Moore extended the Bryant Scholarships to them.
“The man behind the legend is the one that is truly near and dear to our hearts and really bonded us with not only the University of Alabama, but the people in Alabama, because they really had an impact on my dad,” Trey Waldrep said.
The total dollar amount of the scholarships donated in Bryant’s name has surpassed the money the legendary coach made in salary as UA’s coach.
Bryant also did untold good for people across the state, and some stories of his largess have emerged.
Richmond Flowers Jr. was a standout athlete at Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery. His father was the state’s attorney general from 1963-67 during the height of the civil rights era. He chose to go to Tennessee to play football and run track despite holding an offer from Bryant. After his playing days were over, Flowers wanted to attend law school but was denied admission at Tennessee. He went to Bryant to ask for a favor, and the coach intervened. Flowers was admitted to the UA law school.
In late November 1968, Bryant showed a sensitive side not everyone got to see. One of his favorite former players, Pat Trammell, phoned to tell his coach that he had cancer. Bryant accompanied him to New York City for treatment. The cancer eventually won and Trammell passed. Bryant described Trammell’s passing as “the saddest day of my life.” The school now honors the late quarterback with an award given annually in his name to the Alabama football player who demonstrates the qualities of integrity, character, importance of academics and inspirational leadership.
Bryant’s legacy remains as strongly intact in Tuscaloosa today as it did 35 years ago when he passed. You’ll spot Bryant Coca-Cola bottles on mantles in homes across the state. The majority of UA’s athletic facilities sit off Bryant Drive. Across the street, you’ll find the Bryant Museum. His name remains royalty.
Saban has his philanthropic ways, too, mainly through his Nick’s Kids charitable arm. Through the charity, the Sabans have built 16 Habitat for Humanity homes. A 17th house is currently being planned. The charity has distributed more than $6 million to state organizations. The couple has also given a $1 million donation to the First Generation Scholarship fund at Alabama.
Saban also exhibits under-the-radar kindnesses. When offensive tackle Aaron Douglas passed from an accidental drug overdose in the spring of 2011, Saban kept the family close to the team. After the Crimson Tide won the national championship in the ensuing season, the coach awarded the family a championship ring to which Aaron would have been entitled had he been around to play.
Saban takes care of his current and former players alike.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Saban made arrangements to get Tony Brown’s father, who has health and mobility issues from a previous stroke, out of the impacted area. Saban helped Levi Wallace get home to Arizona for his father’s funeral. He paid for the funeral of former UA running back Altee Tenpenny.
Both coaches have busts at the Mal Moore Building and statues along the Walk of Champions outside Bryant-Denny Stadium. No building or street is currently named for Saban, but The Tuscaloosa News has learned there have been preliminary talks to address the issue in some capacity at an undetermined date.
The thing about genius is that it’s not intimidated by greatness in others. The reasons are probably better argued by psychologists than journalists, but logic indicates the why is due to the comfort genius enjoys in its security of its place. That is, it recognizes its brilliance and isn’t cowed by others who achieve at a high level. The lion doesn’t concern itself with the opinion of sheep. So those of a certain stature actually feel more at ease in the company of others of the same status.
So last month, when Saban tied Bryant’s record of six national championships, those who knew Bryant say he would’ve been joyed. In fact, Bryant might’ve made the first congratulatory phone call.
Bryant never felt insecure in the presence of the game’s greats. Quite the opposite, actually. He enjoyed close friendships with Southern Cal’s McKay and Texas’ Royal and spoke highly of and frequently to Georgia Tech’s Dodd and Oklahoma’s Wilkinson – all men who were accomplished peers in his day.
In other words, Bryant never shrank in the shadow of greatness in others in his business. He embraced it.
That’s why so many are sure Bryant wouldn’t have been insecure of Saban’s success in Tuscaloosa. He would’ve celebrated it. Those two names, names of men who never met, are forever linked. In a football-crazed city in a football-crazed state, the names Bryant and Saban are unassailable in their breadth. They are allied eternally.
Each man defined his respective era. Each faced threats to his dominion and overcame them, both dealing with changes to the game in different ways while persevering and winning. Bryant navigated the social and athletic adjustments of the integration of Southern football in a tumultuous era not too far removed from water hoses and attack dogs. Saban competed in an age of limited scholarships and its own societal challenges, including the advent of social media giving players their own platforms to voice opinions. Both men were masterful in their use of the media both locally and nationally. Each used the media to forge the Alabama program’s image, albeit in his own way.
Bryant and Saban, so different yet yielding similar results, proving there is more than one route to the same destination.
Saban, a man with a well-established contempt for comparisons, may well need to come to terms with his curriculum vitae being juxtaposed with Bryant’s from now until he decides to place the straw hat on the rack for the final time.
It’s not entirely fair to ask if Saban is encroaching upon Bryant’s legacy, but there are certainly conversations being held about which is greater. That, too, is probably an uneven debate given how they coached during different eras. Saban has expressed his opinion.
“I think Coach Bryant is probably the best coach of all time because of the longevity of his tenure as a coach and the way he changed,” Saban said. “I mean, he won championships running the wishbone. He won them with Joe Namath dropping back throwing when people never, ever did it. I just think that, for his time, he impacted the game and had more success than anybody ever could.”
Likewise, those who knew Bryant say he would been one of Saban’s biggest fans.
“I think ‘Bear’ Bryant, and I mean this sincerely, would’ve been delighted that somebody with not just the smarts but the understanding of what football’s all about and why it’s such a great sport, I think he would be delighted and delighted to say he was delighted,” Underwood said. “Because he didn’t mind expressing his opinion. I don’t have any doubt that Bryant would have applauded. He didn’t believe in records going unbroken forever. He believed that records were to be broken. I mean because he certainly broke a few.”
It’s unlikely anyone, including Saban, will approach the veneration Bryant holds. Bryant played at Alabama, famously played with a broken leg against Tennessee, embraced Alabama’s two great rivalries (Auburn and Tennessee) and spent 25 years as the coach of the Crimson Tide. And he did so at a time in the state’s history when there wasn’t much to be proud of nationally. In that regard, no one will ever touch how beloved he is.
That’s not a slight to Saban, who has brought pride and respect back to a program which had spent the better part of a decade wandering in the wilderness before he began restoring it in 2007. It’s just once that you’ve loved deeply for so long, can you really love that deeply in the same way again?
“It’s a good question,” Maisel said. “I don’t know. Bryant was loved in a way that I’m not sure Saban is loved. People were so emotionally attached to Bryant. I’m not sure, I don’t think the emotional attachment to Saban is quite as strong. But that’s Nick’s personality. He’s an introvert in a lot of ways. And Bryant was a ham. He loved attention. He loved to be around people. Nick’s not that way.
“I think people, I know they’re going to miss him because when his run of success ends, they’re going to expect the next guy to do the same, and we’ve all seen the song and dance in the ’80s and ’90s and this one’s going to be worse – but this amount of success is greater and more concentrated. The withdrawal from that is going to be ugly.”
Given his track record, it’s more likely than not Saban breaks the record he now shares with Bryant before his coaching days are over. That won’t subtract from the Bryant legacy. He’s been gone 35 years, and it’s still going strong.
How will these men be remembered?
The easy answer is as winners. The more complex question that will cause debate, as does any subjective topic, is which will be known as the greatest of all time? Each man when posed the same question had opposite answers.
“For me, it’s more about the relationships with people, treating people the right way and having compassion for other people,” Saban said. “Appreciating the people who have been good friends. I think those are the things that mean the most to me. What the people closest to me say in terms of the kind of person you were and the kind of life you lived. It’s not really about how many games you win, or did you win the most games or did you win the most championships or were you the best coach. It’s really about how the people that know you well really think about what kind of person you were and what did you really contribute to them.”
Bryant expressed a desire to be recalled for what he did best.
“When people ask me what do I want to be remembered for, I have one answer,” Bryant once said. “I want the people to remember me as a winner, ’cause I ain’t never been nothing but a winner.”
Just outside the north end of Bryant-Denny Stadium, a bronzed statue of each man stands. Just behind the casted likenesses is carved the years of national championships. Bryant’s read 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, and 1979. Saban’s latest entry was carved out last month at the latest national championship celebration, a fresh 2017 unveiled. It’s a fitting plaza, memorializing all the legendary names and teams at Alabama.
The two men stand facing the same direction, always looking ahead.
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.