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Greatest of all time? ‘Bear’ still holds the edge over Saban; here’s why

Paul "Bear" Bryant statue on campus at The University of Alabama (Photo: YouTube screenshot)
Paul “Bear” Bryant statue on campus at The University of Alabama (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

Submitted by: Bill Rice, Jr.

Regarding the current debate about who is the greatest coach of all time – Coach Bryant or Coach Saban, I think one important point is perhaps being overlooked. With due respect to Coaches Frank Thomas and Wallace Wade, Coach Bryant built the tradition and the Alabama “brand” that has benefitted every coach who followed him, including Coach Saban.

If we are debating team accomplishments and records, a strong case can be made that Coach Saban’s results have surpassed Bryant’s – a truly amazing feat. However, if you are talking about who is/was the superior “Coach,” I still give the edge to Bryant.

Building, enhancing – and then sustaining – this tradition was vital to what Alabama would become in the minds of college football fans around the country, and was incredibly hard to achieve. Absent this tradition, I doubt Coach Saban would have been able to accomplish what he has. Indeed, it’s probably one of the main reasons he came to Alabama in the first place – He knew tradition still counted and, because of its existence, that he could win BIG in Tuscaloosa.

Saban is obviously a great coach, but it should be acknowledged that his “greatness” has moved to an entirely different level while at Alabama. His records at Michigan State, the Miami Dolphins and even LSU do not really hint at “all-time great.”

History shows that simply coaching at Alabama elevates a coach’s resume. Every coach since Bryant had his best seasons while at Alabama and carded mediocre or worse records once they left Alabama.

Mike DuBose (!) won an SEC championship at Alabama (and later went winless at Northview High School). Mike Shula won 10 games and got to No. 2 in the country. Bill Curry shared an SEC title (compare Curry’s record at Kentucky to Bryant’s). Ray Perkins had losing records at the NY Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but had Alabama as a Top-10, competitive team before he departed. Dennis Franchione won 10 games his last year at UA, left for Texas A&M and flopped.

Gene Stallings, who had losing records at Texas A&M and the Phoenix Cardinals, won a national title at Alabama and led one of the best 5-year-runs in program history.

Something (fan passion, high expectations, extreme 365-day interest, etc.) is in the air in Tuscaloosa that is different and that makes nondescript coaches winners (if only temporarily). It also makes very good coaches like Saban, likely icons.

It can be argued that the legacy of Coach Bryant – 25 years after his death – helped ensure Nick Saban would and could become a legend.

Finally, we need to look at what Bryant did as a “coach” at his other stops (and compare this to what Saban did as a coach at his other stops).

Bryant’s record at Kentucky – THE basketball school in the country – is amazing. No coach before or since has done with the Kentucky football program what he did. In four years he built Texas A&M into SWC champs and a national title contender. If he had stayed at Texas A&M, it almost certainly would have become the dynasty Alabama became.

I have no doubt that if a 55-year-old Bryant came to an Alabama with the same tradition he created, his teams would have won at the same clip Saban’s have. I do not know, however, that if a 55-year-old Saban had taken over Alabama’s program in 1958 (after the Tide had won 4 games in the past three years) that Alabama would be a bowl team in 2 years, Top 10 team in 3 years, national champs in 4 years – followed by two other national titles in 4 years and two teams that were national title contenders.

Bum Phillips probably said it best about Bryant – “He could take his’n and beat yours’n. And take yours’n and beat his’n.”

Nick Saban is clearly the best of his era, just as Paul Bryant was clearly the best of his era. But I think Bryant – at four school over 35 years – was the best “coach” ever. It was Bryant who bequest an unmatched tradition to every coach who followed him. This is a gift that should never be discounted. Coach Saban took advantage of this gift – this foundation and brand – better than any other UA coach has.

Another way to say all of the above: If Coach Saban had coached the past nine years at any other program – I doubt he would have won four national titles and seriously competed for two more.

Or ask yourself this question: If Coach Bryant had never coached at Alabama, would Nick Saban have been able to accomplish all he has in Tuscaloosa? I don’t think so. It’s the combination of “the process” and the “tradition” Bryant built that made Alabama a “dynasty” again.

Bill Rice, Jr. is the former managing editor of The Montgomery Independent, and is the editor of the Alabama Gazzette’s annual “Reflections” history publication.