The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who’s better: Nick Saban or Bear Bryant? The comparison is impossible but fully irresistible.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban won his seventh national championship Monday night. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — While comparing one sports era to another is always irresistible and always dubious, comparing one college football era to another is always irresistible and always cuckoo.

So as we gaze earnestly at the chart showing that Nick Saban has reached seven national championships to surpass Bear Bryant’s six and rank tops among college football head coaches, there’s a problem with the chart. The problem is the chart is haywire, a comparison of bananas to pomegranates.

Bryant may well have wrested seven national titles out of an era with a Bowl Championship Series (1998-2013) and a College Football Playoff (2014-). He did prove statuesque and statue-worthy at his work, and he did go 232-46-9 across 25 Alabama seasons. But it’s amazing how we throw around that numeral “six” without thinking of how the six happened, and how the origins of the six just go to show that, while the past gets romanticized, people in the past had even less sense than people today.

The Alabama football dynasty collects another title with a 52-24 rout of Ohio State

In 1964, Bryant got a national championship from two sets of voters even though his team lost the Orange Bowl. In 1973, he got one from one set of voters even though his team lost the Sugar Bowl. In 1978, he got one from one set of voters even though his one-loss team got mauled that September in Birmingham — by the one-loss team that finished No. 2. All those titles appear forever on walls, facades, T-shirts, posters and maybe even ties, although that’s getting crowded.

Well, the first two happened because of a daffy and unexplainable cultural twist: Polls back then would award national championships by voting before the bowl games. The last one happened because the other team in question was Southern California, thus susceptible to age-old Eastern bias, meaning USC barely squeezed to No. 1 in one poll, and even that surprised Coach John Robinson at the time.

One might counter in Bryant’s favor that, in 1966, the polls finished with this conclusion: 1. Notre Dame (9-0-1; no bowl game); 2. Michigan State (9-0-1; no bowl game); 3. Alabama (11-0; won Sugar Bowl, 34-7, over Nebraska).


Far less ambiguity groans from Saban’s titles even as the sport still can’t quell its ambiguity. Saban’s first title (LSU 2003-04) went shared in the two major polls (with Pete Carroll’s USC) after one of those seasons when we never got to see the game we should have seen. One might quibble with the selection of Alabama for the ultimate games in two of his other titles (2011-12 in the BCS and 2017-18 in the College Football Playoff). Some have quibbled. Alabama still won those games.

Yet while the greatest college coach of all time is probably some anonymous straggler at some hidden school with some appalling financial constraints, the greatest college coach of the big time is Saban. “Come on, man,” Alabama quarterback Mac Jones said after Monday night’s trouncing of Ohio State. “Of course he is. How could he not be?”

He’s the greatest because he has proved more, because he has gotten to prove more. And because of his adaptability from the dillydallying football of 2003 to the space-age football of 2021. And because of the humility embedded in that adaptability. And because he doesn’t reel at losing assistants to other schools even as he always loses assistants to other schools. And because, as Jones said, “He recruits well, but more importantly develops great players.” And because a man who has coached for nine schools and three NFL teams and got his first title at 52 seems as adventurous as ever at 69. And because of his steadfast standards and his long-term battle against human complacency.

And because of Bryant. Bryant created the culture where Saban’s excellence could gain sustenance, and that’s where Saban finds his best argument for Bryant:

“Well, I don’t think anybody really compares to Coach Bryant,” Saban said just after midnight Tuesday. “In the era that he coached, the era that he won, he won a lot of different ways. He won throwing it. He won running a wishbone. He won it running conventional offensive formations. His legacy lasted over a long, long period of time. We all have to adjust with the times. Obviously things are a little different now. The challenges are a little bit different with the spread offense, the things that make it more difficult, I think, to play good defense in this day and age.

“I think Coach Bryant is sort of in a class of his own in terms of what he was able to accomplish, what his record is, the longevity that he had and the tradition he established. If it wasn’t for Coach Bryant, we would never be able to do what we did. I mean, he’s the one that made Alabama and the tradition at Alabama a place where lots of players wanted to come. We’ve been able to build on that with great support.”

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Then there’s Saban, who has thrived in the time of Twitter, of distraction, of “rat poison,” in his ancient terminology. He has thrived preaching defense, such as when his LSU held Oklahoma to 154 yards in the 2004 Sugar Bowl. He has thrived through a time when defenses yielded to schemes and rules and entertainment, and it’s forever funny that when Alabama won the 2015-16 title, 45-40, over Clemson, he sort of cringed at the interview dais when he said, “They got 40 points,” as if that offended something in the marrow.

Now he just thrived to 13-0 with a celestial offense, and he looked contented when saying this: “We’re an okay defensive team, not a great defensive team. We played well enough, got some stops. But the offense was dynamic. That’s what made the difference.” He’s up there behind the postgame microphone slinging jargon for which his younger self might need an interpreter. He’s art-patron marveling at his latest offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, who filled the role for a second time and is now bound for Texas.

Saban still thrives about 47 years after Don James, the Kent State coach who later got one of those shared and goofy national titles at Washington (1991), called in a graduating defensive back with a suggestion.

“You know, I never really wanted to be a coach,” Saban said. “I think I have to give all the credit for Don James, who was my college coach, calling me in one day and saying, ‘I’d like for you to be a GA,’ and I immediately responded that I’m tired of going to school, I don’t really want to go to graduate school, and I don’t want to be a coach, so why would I do something like this? He was pretty convincing that it’s something I should try.

“My wife, Terry, had another year of school, so I really couldn’t go on and do anything else because she wanted to finish and we wanted her to finish, and we had promised our parents that if they let us get married that we’d both graduate from college.”

Then: “When I did it, I just absolutely loved it.”

That was quite some meeting back in Kent.

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