When it comes to Alabama football, Nick Saban will always be the second-most revered figure in the program’s history.
There’s a one-word answer as to why that is the case: Bear. As in Paul “Bear” Bryant, the legendary coach that served as the architect to Alabama’s first dynasty from 1958-82.
Saban and the Crimson Tide cemented their program as a modern dynasty by pounding top-ranked and previously unbeaten Notre Dame 42-14 to capture its third national title in the last four seasons.
But while Saban may never reach Bryant’s mythical status in the state of Alabama, what he’s been able to accomplish since taking over the Tide program in 2007 is equally impressive to Bryant’s 25-year run.
In fact, it’s more astonishing considering the scope of college athletics in present times.
After a 7-6 debut season, Saban has led the Tide to a 61-7 record since 2008, and helped Alabama become the first team in the BCS era to win three crystal footballs.
In Bryant’s tenure, the 85-scholarship limit did not exist and the SEC—while still a strong league—was not the clear epicenter of college football as it is today.
Think about some of the issues Saban has to deal with in today's climate that Bryant’s program was largely immune to for most of his coaching career.
Saban loses players to the NFL every year at a rate that seems like it grows exponentially every season—which makes reloading and staying on top for an extended period a nearly impossible feat.
Alabama’s program is the only current exception to that rule.
Recruiting has become a year-round and cutthroat business with schools fighting tooth and nail over the nation’s top prospects.
With Saban at the helm, the Tide’s last two recruiting classes were billed by at least one major recruiting service as the nation’s best. ESPN has Alabama’s 2013 group currently ranked third.
Additionally, the BCS system currently in place means that teams have to emerge victorious in a championship game with a winner-take-all format, with split national titles essentially out of the equation.
Saban has become practically unbeatable when his team is playing for hardware, with the win over the Irish improving his record to 8-1 in conference or national championship games—which certifies his standing as the best coach in the history of the game in a big-game setting.
The trend of players leaving early for the NFL was not a factor for Bryant, nor was the circus that recruiting has become.
Plus, Alabama was awarded national titles in 1964 and 1973 (which was the last season the Coaches poll crowned a champion prior to the postseason) despite losing their bowl games following those seasons.
No one can deny what Bryant has meant, not only to the Alabama program, but to college football in general.
The Bear will deservedly be a larger-than-life figure for many generations to come.
But in six years, Saban has rescued a Tide program mired in their Dark Ages before his arrival, and elevated them to a level Bryant took a quarter-century to achieve.
Supporters of the Crimson Tide are fortunate to have two coaching legends that revolutionized the game in two different eras.
While Bryant’s place in history is firmly secured, the scary thought for the rest of the country is that Saban’s current run may just be getting started.