Alabama Crimson Tide Football

Nick Saban vs. Bear Bryant: Who Is the Best Alabama Coach?

In terms of legacy, Nick Saban appears to have caught Paul W. "Bear" Bryant.
In terms of legacy, Nick Saban appears to have caught Paul W. "Bear" Bryant.Dave Martin/Associated Press
Christopher WalshCollege Football National ColumnistJanuary 18, 2016

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Three questions.

That's how long it took for Nick Saban to be asked about his legacy in comparison to Paul W. "Bear" Bryant's after winning his fifth national championship last Monday night.

Under different circumstances, it probably would have been the first question, but with the way things unfolded during the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, where the University of Alabama survived its thriller against Clemson, 45-40, the onside kick and coaching his last game with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart opened the postgame press conference.

Saban skillfully responded, "I really haven't thought about it," but his place in history is something the rest of the college football world has started to extensively debate, along with whether the Crimson Tide's ongoing dynasty is the best the sport has ever seen. With Alabama having won an unprecedented four of the last seven national titles, it just might be.

The coaches are from different eras and the game has changed tremendously over the years, but Bryant and Saban are the only ones who have won at least five national championships during the poll era (since 1936). The school claims six for Bryant and four for Saban, who won his first at LSU.

Nick Saban's latest title was one for the thumb.
Nick Saban's latest title was one for the thumb.Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

When it comes to iconic status, historical significance and longevity, there's no comparison between them. Bryant is one of the most beloved figures in Southern history, whose status transcends sports.

"I don't think there's any question that there's probably only a few people in college athletics history who have had as great an impact, maybe John Wooden at UCLA," Saban said about Bryant on what would have been his 100th birthday, September 11, 2013.

"I don't think you can really kind of put words into what it really has meant and how it has affected the University of Alabama."

When you look at their accomplishments side-by-side, however, Saban begins to step forward.

For the purposes of this article and consistency, the following figures are for the consensus national champions—meaning if there's a split title, only the team that the majority of ranking services consider the titleholder is considered.

That removes from this discussion Alabama's 1973 championship, when the coaches' poll submitted its final rankings before Alabama lost the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.

The timing of the Associated Press Poll was also instrumental in Alabama claiming the 1964 and 1965 titles, with one held before the bowls and the other after, and 1973 was one of three split national titles for Bryant (although, yes, on face value, the undefeated 1966 team probably should have been No. 1 in at least one poll). The others were 1965 and 1978.

Saban's only split title was in 2003, when the Associated Press voted Southern California No. 1. However, LSU won the game that mattered most, against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, and took home the crystal football.

Nick Saban vs. Paul W. "Bear" Bryant
CategorySabanBryant
Seasons2038
Consensus national titles55*
Top Five finishes613
Top 25 finishes1329
Overall record191–60–1323-85-17
Percentage76.578.0
Losing seasons01
Bowl/NCG record10-815-12-2
Percentage55.655.2
Conference titles715
Conference record115-41-1176-57-10
Consensus All-Americans 2923
First-round draft picks 2218
Record against ranked teams64-3865-43-5
Percentage62.7559.73
Record against Top 10 teams30-1633-23-1
Percentage65.258.77
Updated from the book "Nick Saban vs. College Football"

But here's a snapshot of how a good of a coach Bryant was:

From 1946 to 1953, his teams enjoyed eight straight winning seasons to go with appearances in the Orange, Sugar and Cotton Bowls, and he captured his first Southeastern Conference title in 1950. His team capped that season off with an invitation to face Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, which may have seemed like a looming execution considering Bud Wilkinson's Sooners were riding a 31-game winning streak.

Only Bryant came out on top, 13-7...with Kentucky.

Yes, the Wildcats, who have since won just one other SEC title, in 1976, and that was shared with Georgia. Bryant also made his mark at Texas A&M and was closing in on the 1957 national championship when the Tide lured him away and he made his famous statement: "Mama called, and when Mama calls, then you just have to come running."

During his amazing 25 years with the Crimson Tide, Bryant lost just 46 games compared to 232 wins. No program in the nation won more than Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s, as he's considered the only college football coach to successfully lead not one but two dynasties.

"He wasn't just a coach," former Southern California coach John McKay once said. "He was the coach."

"Bear Bryant is probably the greatest coach in college football in terms of what he accomplished, what his legacy is," Saban once said. "I think the biggest thing that impacts me is how many peoples' lives he affected in a positive way, players who played for him, because they all come back and say how he affected their life.

For years Paul W. "Bear" Bryant has been considered the best coach in college football history.
For years Paul W. "Bear" Bryant has been considered the best coach in college football history.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

"They don't come back and say, 'We won a championship in '78, '79, '61,' whenever it was. They come back and say how he affected their lives. There's a lot of Bear Bryant stories that I've learned a lot from, that have made me a better person."

Now Saban is taking what Bryant helped build to new heights. Consider the following:

• Alabama played nine teams that were ranked this season, the most ever of any national champion.

The most ranked opponents that Bryant's championship teams faced were five in 1978. His 1961 and 1965 teams only faced one each. Only three of his title teams faced an opponent ranked in the Top Five (1964, 1965 and 1978), and none played more than one.

• The victory against Clemson was Saban's sixth against an opponent ranked No. 1. No one else in college football history has more than four (Lou Holtz, Jimmy Johnson and Jack Mollenkopf). In all his years, Bryant's teams only beat three.

• Alabama extended its streak of being No. 1 at some point in a season to an incredible eight years.

He's done all that while not only participating in the Southeastern Conference but in the game's toughest division.

With each of the seven teams finishing above .500, the SEC West went a combined 65-27 this season for an incredible winning percentage of 70.7 (and average record of 9.3-3.9). Of those 27 losses, 21 were to other division opponents. It went 13-2 against East Division teams and 31-4 versus everyone else—one bowl loss and the other three in nonconference play.

Every team in the division was ranked at some point of the season, a first for the sport, and during a time when the spotlight has never shined brighter on college football or Alabama. There are more games, an 85-man scholarship limit and recruiting has become bigger than ever.

Besides, have you seen Alabama's massive trophy case for individual awards lately? The number of players who have been named All-Americans? The recent success in the NFL draft?

Saban stands alone in all of those areas in addition to annual recruiting rankings.

"He's one of the greatest coaches of all time in my opinion, in a lot of guys' opinions," junior tight end O.J. Howard said after being named the offensive MVP of the National Championship Game. "Just to be able to play for him is truly a great accomplishment, a blessing, and I think Coach Saban is going to go down as one of the greatest of all time."

Choosing between Bryant and Saban is like trying to pick between your two favorite ice creams—there probably is no wrong answer. To many, the preference is a generational thing, like Gene Stallings telling The Opening Kickoff on WNSP-FM 105.5 (h/t AL.com) that he still gives a nod to his former friend and colleague.

But Saban's five national championships trump Bryant's sort-of six, as this latest title put him over the top. For now, it may be that Saban is No. 1 and Bryant is 1A in the hierarchy of college football's most successful coaches, but the gap can only grow from here seeing as Saban's legacy is still a work in progress.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer and author of Nick Saban vs. College Football. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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