Ask anyone in the state of Alabama who the best football coach of all time is and you're sure to get the same answer. Even the Auburn faithful will often admit that Bear Bryant was the best there ever was. But for the generation that includes those of us born after 1970, Bryant is often more of a legendary tale than a real figure. Though the way things are going in Tuscaloosa these days, Nick Saban is beginning to look like one of the greats.
There is no arguing the track record of the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant. He won 323 games as a head coach. He was an amazing 70-2 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. He won six national titles and 14 conference titles. He was the three-time national coach of the year and 10-time SEC coach of the year.
These statistics only begin to scratch the surface of what Bryant meant to college football, especially in Alabama.
Bryant died in January of 1982. Born in 1973, I can only vaguely recall watching Bryant coach the Tide. I remember his death, though. I remember former coaches like Ray Perkins and Bill Curry. Somehow the careers of those fine coaches just didn't live up to the legend of Bryant, a legend that continues to grow 30 years after his passing.
Bryant won his last national title in 1979, when I was a mere six years old. My first national championship experience with the Tide was in 1992 when Bryant disciple Gene Stallings was at the helm.
Unfortunately, to Tide fans under the age of 40, the great runs Bryant had in the 1960's and 1970's are the equivalent of Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron yarns. We appreciate them, but we didn't live them. And Alabama has never again matched the level of success that Bryant had over any extended period of time. That is, until now.
Current head coach Nick Saban is on quite a streak of his own. His 'Bama teams have won 10 games or more four years in a row. He has compiled a record of 48-6 in those four years and has led the Tide to two BCS national titles.
For this generation, it doesn't get any better. If so, we haven't seen it. Saban has only been in Tuscaloosa for five years, and he took over a program that many of the top coaches in the country wanted nothing to do with. He is about to begin the 2012 season with a roster loaded with talent that comes from arguably the best recruiting team in the nation over the length of his tenure.
Bear Bryan's best five-year stretch was from 1961-1965 where he led Alabama to a 49-5-1 record while winning three national titles. By percentage points, this run has the edge over what Saban is in the midst of now. But if Saban could lead this year's version of the Tide to another undefeated season and a 15th national title, he would be the one with the best five-year run at Alabama.
Make no mistake about it, Nick Saban is not the next Bear Bryant. He will never replace the Bear or make Tide fans forget about the Bear. He doesn't aspire to.
Having said that, though, what Saban is doing right now is as close to what the Bear did as many of us have ever seen. And in doing so, a whole new generation has a much clearer understanding of what our elders have been telling us about all of our lives. For the first time, we are experiencing it for ourselves.
And it's glorious.