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"Bear" Bryant vs. Nick Saban: Alabama's Greatest Coach

Updated on July 29, 2020

Introduction

With the upcoming season of College Football ahead that may or may not happen, there has been time to debate one of the most pondered questions in the game’s history. A head-to-head matchup between two coaching legends of the University of Alabama. This question of comparisons has been thrown around for a while now as Nick Saban has been known as having one of the greatest dynasties in collegiate football. However, his matchup against “Bear” Bryant may prove to shed a differing light on Nick Saban’s legacy. While speaking with certain persons on this subject matter the opinions have been sided in both directions. One submits that “Nick Saban must be better as won all of his championships quicker” while the other opinion dictates that “Coach Bryant left a more lasting legacy on the game and did it at multiple schools.” It seems that there is no clear and definitive answer to this question so we will determine it now, or at least try within reason to determine which coach is better to be considered the all-time great.

Saban at Kent State, C. 1970-1973
Saban at Kent State, C. 1970-1973
Bryant at Alabama, C.1933-1935
Bryant at Alabama, C.1933-1935

Personal Lives: Growing into Football

Paul Bryant was born in Moro Bottom, Cleveland County, Arkansas in 1913. He was the 2nd to youngest child in his family (which had 12 children). Growing up in a small town allowed Bryant lots of freedom and opportunities for activities as a child. Although, as Bryant would’ve put it if he were alive today, he was born to coach football. He had played both offense and defense while he in grade school and into high school. He learned to love the game and sought to coach professionally. His mother did not approve of the decision as she had always wanted Paul to go into the ministry as a preacher. She told her son that “Coaching is a lot like preaching.” He joined the football program at his high school, Fordyce, while he was in 8th grade. He played as an end and eventually grew to be 6’ 4”. He was big for his time and his age which allowed him to be noticed at the college level. Paul even earned his nickname prior to becoming a player or a coach. While he was 13, allegedly Paul agreed to wrestle a bear at a carnival promotion. The story is supposedly true and eventually he gained the nickname “Bear” as a result of the event. From then, his legend was born.

Bryant went on to play football in college at what would become his home later. He played end at the University of Alabama between 1933 and 1935. His career accolades were nothing to write home about but like his childhood he developed himself as a legend amongst what would be one of the greatest teams in Alabama Crimson Tide History. Bryant himself was described (by himself) as “other end” during his tenure with the Crimson Tide. The man he played alongside at Alabama is currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio; Don Hutson was the superstar of the Crimson Tide during his years with the Tide. He even assisted along with Bryant in providing Alabama with its 4th National Championship in 1934. The following season, Bryant was selected for the second time as being a member of the All-SEC third team. He was a cog in the machine but played a valuable role in Alabama’s success during that period. Bryant was drafted in 1936 to play professional football but never did.

Nick Saban was born in Fairmont, WV. Like Bryant, he grew up in a small town where there was very little opportunity to move away to make a name for yourself. Saban played football from an early age and had the luxury of being coached by his father. He played Quarterback in High School and led Monongah High School to a state championship in 1968. Saban played football during a very controversial period in American History as well. The 1960s were dominated by the horrors of the Vietnam War. Saban himself though was too young to serve and took no interest in ever fighting for his country. He instead focused on football and being the best player that he could be. Saban decided in 1970 to continue playing football at Kent State. He was moved from Quarterback to Defensive Back at Kent State. He played from 1970 to 1972 during which Kent State became a topic of national news during the Kent State Shootings in 1970. Saban’s playing career like Bryant’s did not lead to much personal praise as his school was never considered for being a National Champion. Saban was not even drafted to play in the NFL. Yet, Saban had found his calling as he loved football whole heartedly and wanted to be a mentor like his father had been to him and like coach Don James was at Kent State. Saban began his career as a graduate assistant under James in 1973.

Bryant, Unknown Year.
Bryant, Unknown Year.
Saban at University of Toledo, Pictured Bottom Row Center.
Saban at University of Toledo, Pictured Bottom Row Center.

Starting from the Bottom, now they're here.

Bryant had graduated from Alabama in 1936 and had his first coaching position soon after at Union University in Tennessee. He soon left this position as he was offered an assistant position at his alma mater. Under the leadership of head coach Frank Thomas and Bryant the Crimson Tide were one of the best teams in a 4-year span as they won 29, lost 5, and tied 3 times during the period. Bryant had built a reputation for himself although Thomas got the majority of credit. Bryant was being noticed by other colleges within the Southeastern Conference who sought after his youthful knowledge and understanding of football. Vanderbilt hired Bryant in 1940 and even served as an interim head coach that same year for one game. With the advent of World War II, Bryant joined the US Navy and briefly served in North Africa. His ship, the USAT Uruguay was hit by an oil tanker during an exercise in Bermuda. Bryant disobeyed a direct order to abandon ship and he instead stayed aboard to save some of his shipmates.

He returned to the United States in 1945 to continue his coaching career and the next stop was Maryland. Bryant’s stay in Maryland was brief but exceptional. He provided a winning record but left the school after the season due to conflict with the president of the university. He moved to Kentucky. Kentucky proved to be his first extended stay as he coached there for 8 seasons and achieved success as he became SEC Champion in 1950. Bryant was unable to win a National Championship while at Kentucky but brought the school national attention as they had played in the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl. The 1950 Kentucky Wildcats were declared National Champions according to several other College Football Rankings. This claim as their national champions has been disputed by the NCAA but is considered to be Bryant’s first National Championship, nevertheless it is not documented. Upon leaving Kentucky in 1954, Bryant was the school’s most successful coach to date as the Wildcats were not nearly as highly ranked as they had been in 1950 until 1977 when they finished #6 in the nation. Bryant’s success was noticed at Kentucky as well and received an offer to coach at Texas A&M. He rebuilt the Aggies and even gave them a victory over their archrival Texas in 1956. A&M would reach no higher than #6 while at A&M but had rebuilt the Aggies as a considerable foe to Texas. Following his career at A&M, Bryant would return home to Alabama in 1958 and his legend would grow ever more.

Nick Saban bounced around during the beginning of his coaching career. He began at Kent State and withing a decade had worked at Michigan State, Navy, Ohio State, Syracuse and West Virginia. He rose fast, but it always seemed that he was to never be considered for a head coaching position anywhere. In 1990, Toledo gave Nick Saban his first chance as a head coach. Saban, like Bryant, established good teams faster. Saban’s Toledo Rockets started off as being a mediocre middle of the pack team and within his first year of taking charge the Rockets went from 6-5 to 9-2. They were a co-champion of the Mid-American Conference. This only increased Saban’s popularity but in a different area of football. Saban was hired by the NFL franchise the Cleveland Browns as a Defensive Coordinator. This was not Saban’s first taste of the National Football League as he coached briefly as a position coach with the Houston Oilers. However, as Toledo offered him a chance to become a head coach, he took the job in Toledo instead of continuing his NFL career. With the Browns Saban operated under Bill Belichick the eventual coach of the legendary New England Patriots dynasty. Saban learned loads from Belichick who like him was a defensive mind who at that time had won Super Bowls with the New York Giants. However, Saban did not enjoy his brief tenure with Cleveland. He soon returned to the college ranks and became head coach at Michigan State where he had previously worked as an assistant.

Saban was responsible for rebuilding Michigan State who had not had a winning season in 5 years. Furthermore, they had been in trouble with the NCAA for recruiting violations that had occurred under their former coach. Saban had been given his first opportunity on the national stage as he took Michigan State to bowl games in his first three seasons. They were not National Championship worthy, but they had played in several tough games as they upset #1 Ohio State in 1998, defeated Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Notre Dame more than once. All of these teams were conference champions at one point during Saban’s tenure at Michigan State. He again was looked at by a better program. In 1999, Saban left Michigan State to venture to the bayous of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While coaching at LSU, Saban built LSU into a team worthy of praise as within 4 years LSU would become National Champions under Saban. Saban was known for his time at LSU as being one of the greatest in its school’s history. The Tigers were set to defend their title in 2004 but were unsuccessful, Saban was once again on the move to the place that he stated had made him miserable once before. Back in the NFL Saban was now the head coach of the Miami Dolphins and his time with them was just as miserable as his other times in the NFL. The Dolphins were pitiful and Saban was not nearly the coach that had led the LSU Tigers to a National Championship. During his time at LSU and with the Dolphins rumors had been swirling about where he might venture off too following his time with each. The rumors led to Saban even being asked about his move and the school that everyone had their eyes on was Alabama. Saban had repeatedly said to “stop asking” about his future plans despite the fact that is was later reported that he was discussing a deal with the school. His mission was to take Alabama back to the promised land just as “Bear” Bryant had done before him. In 2007, Saban was announced as Alabama’s new head coach which started a hatred from LSU fans that even Saban it seems can never be forgiven by.

Bryant Pictured with several Alabama Players, unknown year.
Bryant Pictured with several Alabama Players, unknown year.
Saban hoisting the 2017 SEC Championship Trophy won at Alabama.
Saban hoisting the 2017 SEC Championship Trophy won at Alabama.

Alabama Arrival

Alabama prior to either Saban or Bryant arriving was known for its success in football. The school currently holds 17 National Championships and 27 SEC titles. It holds rivalries with LSU, the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), Tennessee, and most notably Auburn. The school has had 2 Heisman trophy winners both of which have come under Nick Saban and 74 Consensus All-Americans. The Tide fall behind just USC as the most successful football program in NCAA history. Yet, as of 2019, they have been one of the more successful ones in recent memory.

Bryant returned to his stomping grounds in 1958 to bring Alabama its first National Championship in over 17 years. Initially, Bryant was not liked at Alabama as many of his coaching staff and his players did not enjoy his hard-nosed attitude. As a result, Alabama finished 5-4-1 in Bryant’s first season. A disappointment for someone who had been considered in the schools’ royalty. Bryant needed change and his first step was to dominate Alabama’s in-state rival, Auburn. Auburn had beaten Alabama in 1954,’55,’56,’57, and ’58. The last two times, Auburn was nationally ranked #1 and #2. Alabama needed to make a stand and showing up Auburn was the first move of the new agenda. Alabama finished 1959 with a decisive 10-0 victory over the Auburn Tigers and as a result were elected to their first bowl game in six seasons. Now Bryant needed to set his goal a little higher. A National Championship was what he was required to provide for Alabama and in 1961 Alabama, having defeated all of its opponents including Auburn 34-0, was 11-0 and elected National Champions. “Bear” Bryant had won a National Championship as a coach and now won one as a player at his alma mater. He also made it known that Alabama was to be his territory as he beat Auburn 19 times out of 26. Bryant would win again in 1964 as future NFL Hall of Fame Joe Namath was under center for the Tide. Bryant as a result of winning his second title cemented his legacy at Alabama by repeating as National Champions in 1965 defeating longtime powerhouse Nebraska. Alabama was the team of the decade winning 3 National Championships in the 1960s and 4 SEC Championships.

The Tide experienced moderate success in the later 1960s as they had several undefeated campaigns, but the AP poll crucified them by not giving them an opportunity to play in any significant National Championships despite being arguably the best team of the period. The 1970s restreeted the Alabama craze as they won SEC Championships four seasons in a row between 1971 and 1975 and later 3 in a row between 1977 and 1979. Bryant changed his offensive schemes during the period and moved in favor of the wishbone offense devised by Darrell Royal at Texas. He perfected the wishbone and added flair to it which propelled him to three more National Championships in 1973,’78, and ’79. Bryant even defeated Auburn 7 times in a row between 1973 and 1979 which was extended to 9 in a row ending in 1981 as the Tide were defeated by Bo Jackson and Auburn in 1982. Off the field Bryant received much criticism in his personal life as he had health issues that derived from his heavy drinking and smoking. In addition, he was identified as a racist during his time at Alabama for not recruiting African American players. This claim was defended by him saying that Governor George Wallace was instrumental in not allowing African Americans to play football much less attend the University of Alabama. In 1982, following a season ending loss to Auburn, Bryant retired from Alabama having won 6 National Championships. He died months later after having a heart attack. Bryant was at the time revered as a hero amongst all of college football as he had won more than any coach and as a legend in the game of football for his personality. Bryant received a moment of silence at the Super Bowl that year directed by President Ronald Reagan who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously.

Saban arrived at Alabama 24 years later and like Bryant had expectations for bring Alabama back to the glory it had once known. Saban set off to a rocky start as rebuilding the program proved to be more of a challenge than an accomplishable task. However, with the recognition that he had earned at LSU, Saban was known as a great recruiter. He only wanted the best and the best wanted to play for him. He created rosters that held so much depth that they could possibly have built an NFL level team of their own. Several accounts of Saban’s recruiting have detailed that his golden phrase is “I want you but I don’t need you, you have to be willing to work for everything,” This style, Saban has said, came from his father who was a work-horse and challenged young Nick to be as “perfect” as he could be at every moment. While coaching, Saban uses this philosophy of perfection in every aspect of the game but needed the players to accomplish this goal. 2007 was Saban’s worst at Alabama. He lost to Auburn in the Iron Bowl; at the time they had been a title contender just like when Bryant was coaching at Alabama. Furthermore, he finished 7-6 with a trip to the Independence Bowl. They had lost 4 in a row at the end of the season, one of which came against Louisiana-Monroe. A bright spot was an upset victory over #16 Arkansas. Saban though was heading in a different direction and not one school could see him coming. 2008 was to be Saban’s beginning of supremacy over college football. His tide went from mediocre to #1 in the AP National Rankings. They had beaten all of their opponents including LSU and even played in the SEC Championship that year. They lost a matchup with Florida who would later become the National Champions but 2008 proved to be a turning point in Alabama History. In 2009, Alabama opened its season against Virginia Tech and beaten them decisively. Alabama went on a rampage that year again reaching the SEC Championship undefeated and again playing Florida. This time, Alabama retained the crown as the SEC Champions by beating Florida 32-13. They were finally playing in their first National Championship since 1992. The Tide defeated the Texas Longhorns and Nick Saban had earned his first National Championship at Alabama. This was Nick’s 2nd National Championship overall. Alabama was once again going to bring its name out of the dark ages of college football. In 2011, Saban’s Alabama team was by far his best ever as the Tide had the #1 Defense and in the National Championship matched up against LSU who also had the #2 Defense in the nation. The Tide won convincingly bringing Saban his 3rd championship only to be followed by his 4th in 2012. Since then Saban has won two more in 2015 and 2017 playing in the National Championship several other times with the advent of the College Football playoff.

Bryant and Saban Pictured together in a Sketch.
Bryant and Saban Pictured together in a Sketch.

Legacies

Saban has 6 and Bryant also has 6. Championships alone cannot determine a comparison. It all comes down to coaching style and legacy. Bryant is the clear winner when it comes to coaching style and Saban is the clear winner when it comes to recruiting. The wins and losses all time goes to Bryant while the domination of both Conference and NCAA Football goes to Saban. It appears that arguments could be made for both men if we base what we read on each however Bryant has had his legacy in recent years tarnished for racism while Saban has been inclusive towards players of all backgrounds. This does not affect either’s legacy but their identity. You must also figure the time in which each is coaching in as well. The competition level in College Football today is much more difficult than it was while Bryant was head coach. Also, Bryant himself rebuilt multiple National Championship contenders while Saban has two National Championship schools under his belt, Bryant had three and each was up for a National Championship during his reign alone with the exception of Alabama.

Each man has left an impact on the game though due to their personality. Saban is a demonstrative cry-baby of sorts of the sideline as he is never afraid to have a moment of rage towards his players, officials, or his fellow coaches. Saban is more fiery in his approach to coaching his ball club. He will not accept 2nd place as an option and his records at Alabama prove this to be true. Alabama has very seldom lost to anyone more than one while Saban had been coach. On the opposing end, Bryant although not a screamer or exactly demonstrative leader was not known for showing mercy or restraint to his players. He made his opponents fear him and his legacy simply by looking them in the eye. Bryant was both feared and respected which is something very uncommon amongst coaches in sports. Moreover, his body language was what said it all during his time, his constant sideline shifting with his playbook wrapped up like a post-it note in his hand made him an icon. His houndstooth fedora, which is his trademark made him an icon across college football

The Answer

It seems that between the two choices of which is better the more likely choice would be Nick Saban based on his speed and efficiency into building National Title competitors year in and out. The Crimson Tide have shined under his reign having won a championship just under half of the years that he has been coaching there. In support of Saban, his career is not finished yet and he could still win yet another title to cement himself as the greatest coach ever. Number seven would bring joy to both Saban and the Alabama fan base and place Bryant as an afterthought. Saban has established Alabama football as a way of life more than simply a college football program. He did not invent the program but he molded it based on his prior coaching experiences and has brought a great staff around him in order to showcase his success. Many of those on his coaching tree have gone on elsewhere in both college and professional football to do great things. He even coaches against his former protégés from time to time, most recently Dabo Swinney and Kirby Smart. Bryant had a coaching tree that is pretty extensive as well but he is not remembered for those that coached under him but those that played under him as he coached many future NFL Hall of Famers. Saban’s players in many cases have moderate NFL success but some end up doing extremely well as Dont’a Hightower of the NFL England Patriots won his 3rd Super Bowl in 2018. Saban is coaching in a much more difficult period of the game and with much more mounting pressure everyday than “Bear” Bryant would ever endure. The game belonged to Bryant but like all records, they are meant to be broken and shifted. Saban is both the breaker and the shifter.

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