Comparing Coaching Legends: Nick Saban vs. Bear Bryant

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Comparing Coaching Legends: Nick Saban vs. Bear Bryant
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Nick Saban has authored a dynasty at Alabama with much of the same principles as former Tide legendary coach Bear Bryant did during his tenure in Tuscaloosa.

As two of the most brilliant minds to ever roam the sidelines at the University of Alabama, Nick Saban and Paul “Bear” Bryant will always be intertwined in college football history.  There are several intriguing similarities between Saban’s clubs and those Tide squads led by Bryant.

But their hard-nosed, grinding mentality combined with a school known for its passion for the game made them both legends.   

After returning to his alma mater following brief stints at Kentucky and Texas A&M, Bryant recorded 232 of his 323 total career victories, capturing six national titles and 13 SEC crowns during his time at the Capstone. 

Since taking the Alabama job in 2007, Saban is in the midst of a prolific run that has seen him lead the Tide to a 68-13 mark, collecting three crystal footballs and a pair of SEC titles. In the process, he has cemented his team as the first dynasty of the BCS era. 

Throughout their respective tenures in Tuscaloosa, both became larger-than-life figures in the sport. Few coaches in the history of the game have won as proficiently as Saban and The Bear, which begs the question: how did they do it?

The nine Alabama clubs coached by either Bryant or Saban that won national titles all possessed the same DNA. Those teams displayed a relentless work ethic and made history under the guidance of two of the most visionary minds the sport has ever seen.

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Both coaches’ upbringings offer great insight as to why both men were driven to succeed as coaches. Bryant’s Arkansas roots and Saban’s humble beginnings in West Virginia shaped their personalities and, in turn, defined the attitude and personalities of their clubs.

Discipline, mental and physical toughness and an unwavering competitive spirit served as a foundation of success for both coaches.

Both grew up immersed in football and played at the college level, with Bryant starring at Alabama in the 1930s and Saban going on to become a scrappy defensive back at Kent State in the early 1970s.

The origin of Bryant’s legendary toughness can be traced back to his childhood when, according to Mike Puma of ESPN, he earned the nickname “Bear” by wrestling a live bear at a carnival in response to a challenge from a friend.

That type of toughness is a trait that symbolized Bryant’s teams at Texas A&M, and he brought it with him when he took over at Alabama in 1958.

As Puma noted, Bryant’s message to his players was simple. "I don't want ordinary people," Bryant said. "I want people who are willing to sacrifice and do without a lot of those things ordinary students get to do. That's what it takes to win."

Nick Saban addresses visitors to his annual camp.

Similarly, Saban demands effort and accountability in addition to physical skill when factoring what it takes to be successful as a player. 

Saban was groomed to exude mental toughness by his father, who was also a football coach. Childhood friend Joe Manchin, current governor of West Virginia, offered a chilling comparison between Nick Saban Sr. and Bear Bryant (h/t Paul Gattis, AL.com).

If you want someone who is conditioned and understands the toughness it's going to take to succeed at that level without Bear Bryant being his father, he had someone as tough, if not tougher, to make sure he was molded into the right person. So he's got all the ingredients to do the job.

Saban is currently the nation’s premier coaching mind, with athletic directors across the country copying his methods according to Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated.  However, his greatest accomplishment may be the fact that he’s managed to escape Bryant’s shadow by creating his own legacy at Alabama.

In addition to the similarities in their backgrounds and personal values, Saban and Bryant approached the game with the same philosophies. 

Both coaches fielded teams that featured overpowering defenses, sound special teams play and ball control offenses.

They also arrived at Alabama at periods when the program was underachieving.  Almost immediately, both Bryant and Saban would transform the program into college football’s most efficient and dominant powerhouse.

Bryant’s title teams in the 1960s were led by gritty quarterbacks such as Pat Trammell and Joe Namath and vicious defenses that simply got after their opponents until ultimately breaking their will.  

Saban’s teams have largely followed the same blueprint, and he’s instilled the same values and toughness into his clubs.  

Former Alabama player, coach and athletic director Mal Moore discusses Coach Bryant's decision to switch to the wishbone offense in 1971.

Both coaches also understood the need to adapt quickly to change and stay ahead of the curve with respect to making adjustments.

After operating out of a pro-style offense in the 1960s, Bryant—after consulting with good friend and legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal—made the bold move to switch to the wishbone in 1971 (h/t Chris Dufresne, Los Angeles Times).

Saban ran a 4-3 defense in previous stints as an NFL assistant and as head coach at Michigan State and LSU.  But upon arriving at Alabama, he switched to the 3-4 defense, and the results have paid huge dividends—with the Tide ranking in the Top 5 nationally in total defense every year since 2008 (h/t rollbamaroll.com).

Former Tide standout linebacker Lee Roy Jordan highlighted some of these similarities between Bryant and Saban per Mark Inabinett of AL.com.

I'm a die-hard Nick Saban fan. Because he's teaching the same things that coach Bryant taught 50 years ago to us guys about honesty and integrity and discipline and teamwork and those kind of things. He's teaching these guys, just like coach Bryant always said, the game of life, not just the game of football. If you apply those things in your life and your profession, you'll be successful no matter what business you're in.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the differences in the rules and external conditions such as media exposure and the business landscape in college athletics, it’s hard to imagine coaches like Bryant and Saban struggling, regardless of the era.

Both coaches were able to adapt their schemes on the field and deal with turmoil away from the gridiron without sacrificing their fundamental philosophies or their ability to keep winning at a high level.

Each man was also responsible for grooming a number of former players and assistant coaches that went on to make a mark in the game after learning under them at Alabama.

It’s not an accident that these two men will go down as legendary figures in college football.  That’s because no two coaches in the sport’s history have personified the ideals of mental and physical toughness like the architects of Alabama’s dynasties.

It’s a combination of that spirit and intense drive will forever connect Bear Bryant and Nick Saban as two of the sport’s most iconic coaches.  


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