To fans of the Crimson Tide, he’s revered like a family patriarch.
In that way, Nick Saban could probably never match Bryant. But when it comes to producing championship football teams and dominating the sport, Saban is rapidly gaining on the Bear after leading Bama to three of the past four BCS titles in a hyper-competitive, megabucks, huddles-are-optional era.
In the process, he’s adding another floor to the house that Bear helped build during a quarter-century in Tuscaloosa.
“There’s no question that the ’70s were a golden era,” said former Tide lineman Fred Sington Jr. “Really and truly, this is probably the brightest era that’s been at Alabama football. My father played for coach (Wallace) Wade, I played for coach Bryant, my brother played for coach Bryant. I don’t care who you played for, right now this is the epitome of Alabama football.”
It took 24 years, eight head coaches and five losing seasons, but the Bear might finally have met his match in Tuscaloosa with Saban’s hiring in 2007.
The Tide has won 89.7 percent (61-7) of its games over the past five seasons, with two SEC titles and three national championships. It’s shaping up as comparable to Bryant’s seven-year run from 1973-79 when Alabama went 76-8 — a 90.4-percent clip — and collected six league and three national titles, including two Associated Press crowns.
Saban hasn’t been quite so untouchable in a conference with a seven-year monopoly on the national title, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down either.
The Tide is considered the favorite to win a third straight national crown with talent flooding in. Alabama athletic director Bill Battle, who played for Bryant’s first national championship team in 1961, calls it an unprecedented run.
“What coach Bryant did was unprecedented at the time, I think,” Battle said earlier this summer. “This is a different time. I don’t think that competition has ever been greater in the history of college football than it is today. There are a lot of people that are putting a lot of money into football and all sports, as you read about the arms race.
“That hasn’t happened in the past as much as it has today.”
Saban is just halfway to Bryant’s six national titles at Alabama, albeit in only six years. He led LSU to the BCS title — the AP crowned Southern California — in 2004. That gives Saban four titles in his last eight seasons in college, broken up by a much less successful two-year NFL stint with the Miami Dolphins.
Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy and Southern California’s John McKay join him as the only other coaches with four national championships in the poll era, dating back to 1936. Leahy and Nebraska’s Tom Osborne also won it all three times in four years.
It seems unlikely the 61-year-old Saban will approach the longevity of Bryant, who retired in 1982 as college football’s winningest coach with a 323-85-17 record and died within a month of his final game. He won six national titles and 13 conference crowns at Alabama.
Saban is 154-55-1 in 17 seasons.
He insists Bryant is likely the best coach in college football history and said as the man most responsible for establishing Alabama’s tradition his famed predecessor must “be recognized as the person most responsible with contributing to the tradition.”
“I think because of the respect for that tradition that a lot of people have on a national basis, the Crimson Tide is one of the most recognizable names in sports,” Saban said. “When we started having success again that just heightened the awareness all these people have nationwide in terms of the University of Alabama in tradition of football that was really started back when that Bear Bryant probably elevated to the level it’s at now.”
Both Saban and Bryant have rebuilt Alabama quickly. It took Saban three seasons to win a national title; Bryant did it in four. They’ve got statues outside Bryant-Denny Stadium — down Paul W. Bryant Drive from the Paul W. Bryant Museum and Paul W. Bryant Hall.
Both also transcended sports to a degree. Among the framed national magazine covers lining the walls of the football building: Time with Bryant’s face beneath “SUPERCOACH”; down the hall, Saban stares back as “Sports’ Most Powerful Coach.”
The coaches both cut intimidating figures and commanded respect from their players. Sington, who played for Alabama in 1958 and 1959, said he couldn’t imagine calling them anything but “Coach Bryant” and “Coach Saban.”
“They are the best leaders I’ve ever been around,” Hall of Fame linebacker Lee Roy Jordan said. “They are out there inspecting what they expect the players to do every second. They are challenging the guys every play to try to reach that potential that each player has.”
Jordan steers clear of trying to figure out which coach was better.
“I will never get in a debate on that, because I think they’re both unbelievable coaches,” the former Tide and Dallas Cowboys star said. “I don’t think we’ve got to pick one over the other. I’m extremely proud that we have had both of them at the University of Alabama. They create their own history and the records and the reputations of the players they put out.”