Nick Saban is often talked about as a modern-day Bear Bryant, and the comparisons are very fair.
He has resurrected an Alabama program that lay dormant for much of the late 80s, 90s and 2000s, apart from a few good years in the late 90s. He has taken them to the peak of college football, winning three of the last four BCS National Championships, and many have dubbed the run a modern-day dynasty.
Bryant would have been 100 years old on Wednesday—he passed away in January of 1983, shortly after he retired following the 1982 season.
Bryant led Alabama to six national championships and 13 SEC titles. There were a couple of other seasons where Alabama would have a strong argument for a national title as well.
Simply put: Bryant is one of the best, if not the best, coaches ever in the game.
The college football world is vastly different now than it was when Bryant coached. The media scrutiny wasn’t near the level it is now, where nearly every Alabama game is on national television.
But the men who coach it aren’t nearly as different.
In a recent GQ profile of Saban written by Warren St. John, Cedric Burns, Saban’s driver and assistant, puts it best regarding the two types of coaches he’s seen at Alabama.
"There's the ones with statues and there's the ones without," Burns says. "And the thing is, the ones without statues are all different. But the ones with statues are all the same."
Were Bryant alive today, it’s hard to imagine him handling things much differently than Saban does. Both were strict disciplinarians and stuck to a system that they knew could win.
And the SEC was no pushover when Bryant was there. According to Wikipedia’s list of claimed national championships, six different SEC teams claimed titles while Bryant was at Alabama.
Saban faces a higher level of parody around the country—teams like Oregon and Boise State weren’t in the national championship picture. But Bryant faced stiff competition in his league as well.
And then there were the quarterbacks. Bryant had a couple who were big stars on the field but got into the news off the field for the wrong reasons. Sound familiar?
Controversy has surrounded Johnny Manziel and the subsequent handling of his situation by Texas A&M. But Bryant dealt with similar issues when he was at Alabama.
An ESPN Classic story by Mike Puma details Bryant’s strict handling of his star athletes:
In the 1960s, Alabama ruled college football, winning national championships in 1961, 1964 and 1965. But even Bryant's top players weren't exempt from the coach's wrath. Joe Namath was suspended for the final two games of the 1963 season for violating Bryant's no-alcohol policy and Ken Stabler was booted from the team in 1967 for cutting class and partying. Both eventually got second chances.
Bryant stuck to his principles, even when it affected some of his best players.
Saban and Bryant are very different people on the outside but are very similar at their core—football coaches who brought Alabama to the top of the mountain when no one thought it was possible. There will be debate in Tuscaloosa for a while, if not forever, on which was better or accomplished more.
But Saban is still in the middle of building his legacy. Bryant’s will live on forever.