Nick Saban vs. Bear Bryant: Measuring two Alabama football coaching greats against each other
Nick Saban is in the rare position of his legacy at his school and legacy in his sport being identical targets. If he were to rise to the level of unquestioned best coach in Alabama football history, the title of best coach in college football history would likely come with it.
UA’s most recent national championship — Saban’s sixth at UA, the seventh of his career — makes those claims closer to reality.
With Saban having now equaled the late Paul W. "Bear" Bryant's national championship total at Alabama and surpassed it for his career, comparing the two will be a natural occurrence, especially as Saban continues to add more championships.
Here’s a look where the two stand right now:
Both have six national championships at UA, Saban earning the edge with one before his Alabama tenure while at LSU. Both also cleared the hurdle that so many coaches miss: an ability to reinvent themselves to stay on top. Both had to do it on the offensive side of the ball.
After national championships in 1961, 1964 and 1965, Bryant’s teams hit a downturn: 8-2-1 in 1967, 8-3 in 1968, 6-5 in 1969 and 6-5-1 in 1970. Bryant fixed the problem by learning the wishbone from Texas coach Darrell Royal and turning his program around to win three more national championships in 1973, 1978 and 1979.
Saban, reacting to the offensive revolution of modern offensive football, famously asked, “Is this what we want football to be?” It wasn’t long after that he got his answer, and shortly thereafter adapted to the new task. His national championship teams from 2009, 2011 and 2012 are almost unrecognizable to those of 2015, 2017 and especially 2020.
On the conference level, Bryant’s teams won the SEC outright 10 times and finished three more times as co-champions, claiming at least a share of the SEC in 52% of his seasons as UA’s head coach. Saban stands at 50%, having won the SEC seven times 14 seasons.
Records in rivalries
Both coaches achieved excellence against Alabama’s rivals — the two have combined for a 85-26-2 record against Auburn, LSU and Tennessee — and their individual excellence has correlated with the relative power of the rival at the given time.
For example, Bryant’s record against Auburn (19-6, .760) is slightly better than Saban’s (9-5, .642), but there is a case to be made Saban has gone against a better version of the Tigers’ program. Despite most of Bryant’s career coinciding with that of Shug Jordan, half of the Auburn teams Saban’s faced have finished the season ranked in the coaches’ poll, while only 40% of the Auburn teams Bryant faced did that.
The same applies to LSU, where Bryant was 16-4 (.800) compared to Saban’s 11-7 (.733). Only two of the LSU teams Saban has faced finished outside of the top 20 in the coaches poll, whereas Bryant’s win streak over LSU from 1971-1981 was mostly done against unranked LSU teams, only three of the 11 making the final rankings.
The opposite applies to Tennessee. Saban is famously 14-0 against a down Volunteers program, while Bryant went 16-7-2 in an era where Doug Dickey and Bill Battle combined to take the Volunteers to the final rankings nine times in a 10-year stretch from 1965 to 1974.
Bryant’s numbers against UA’s rivalries are harmed by his final season, when the 1982 Crimson Tide had a nine-game streak against Auburn, 11-game streak against LSU and 11-game streak against Tennessee snapped in the same season.
The university of community beyond football experienced impacts from both coaches: Bryant played a pivotal role in integrating the football program, while Saban was a prominent figure in the city of Tuscaloosa’s recovery from the tornadoes of April 27, 2011.
Saban’s players are quick to slap the greatest-of-all-time label on their coach, as both quarterback Mac Jones and linebacker Dylan Moses did after the national championship game that capped the most recent season. Saban views it differently: he doesn’t think his success is possible without Bryant.
“I think coach Bryant is sort of in a class of his own in terms of what he was able to accomplish, what his record is, the longevity that he had and the tradition he established,” Saban said. “If it wasn't for coach Bryant, we would never be able to do what we did. I mean, he's the one that made Alabama and the tradition at Alabama a place where lots of players wanted to come.
"We've been able to build on that with great support. His family has always supported us in a tremendous way that has helped us have the success that we have.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson