MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - The iconic image of legendary Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant is of him leaning against the goal post — trademark checkerboard houndstooth hat atop his head — watching his players as they went through pre-game warm-ups. Bryant usually had a passive gaze on his face during those moments, as if he considered his job of preparing the players to already be over, and there wasn’t anything left for him to do.
In that regard, Nick Saban is no Bear Bryant. When Saban stepped onto the field at Sun Life Stadium 54 minutes before kickoff of Monday night’s BCS championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame, there was absolutely nothing passive about him. Saban immediately went to midfield and turned to intently watch his players go through their warmups. He paced back and forth within the confines of the BCS championship logo, arms crossed, eyes darting back and forth. He yelled out when he wanted his players to switch to a different set of drills, instead of leaving that assignment to his assistants. He repeatedly pulled a piece of paper from the back pocket of his khaki-colored pants and jotted down a few notes. After more than a month of preparation for this game, Saban acted like there still was work he could do to make his team better, even in the final minutes before kickoff.
No. 2 Alabama 42, No. 1 Notre Dame 14
All of which leads to a question that would have seemed ridiculous six years ago, when Saban was slinking out of this same city after two mediocre seasons with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins to take the Alabama job. Namely, is Saban on the verge of going down as the greatest coach in the history of college football?
It is easy to get caught up in the moment and declare that what we are seeing in front of us is the best thing ever, overlooking all of the great moments that took place decades earlier. But what Saban has done in recent years is nothing short of amazing, and historical. Consider that Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, easily two of the best head coaches in the history of the game, needed a combined total of 80 seasons to win four championships. Saban has equaled that number in eight seasons.
It is unlikely that Saban will coach long enough to ever reach the career victory mark of some of the all-time greats. But in terms of national championships, he has already passed many well-known names. Barry Switzer and Bud Wilkinson of Oklahoma along with Nebraska’s Tom Osborne and John McKay of USC each won three titles. In addition to Bowden and Paterno, the list of coaches who won two championships include Ara Parseghian (Notre Dame), Bob Devaney (Nebraska), Frank Royal (Texas), Dennis Erickson (Miami), Woody Hayes (Ohio State), Pete Carroll (USC), and Urban Meyer (Florida). Saban is ahead of them all.
Other than Bryant, the only coaches with more championships than Saban are Fielding Yost of Michigan with six and Minnesota’s Bernie Bierman with five, and both of them accumulated their titles before World War II, when the game was far different and not nearly as widely competitive as it is today. Saban is now tied on the all-time list with Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy and Tennessee’s Robert Neyland, who also coached in vastly different eras. So if nothing else, an argument could be made that Saban is the best college coach of the past 60 years not named Bear Bryant, and possibly the best coach period.
Skeptics will say that Saban has built up his trophy case at a school where it is easy to win championships. Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier stated as much earlier this year when he took a playful shot at Saban by saying, “If he wants to be the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win. Because they’ve always won there at Alabama.”
Actually, that’s not entirely true. Alabama certainly won big when Bryant was there. But in the 28 seasons from 1981 (Bryant’s final year) through 2008, the Tide managed only one national championship (in 1992 under Gene Stallings). It is easy to forget now, but when Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007 the program was a mess, having endured a series of unsuccessful coaches and several losing seasons.
No, Alabama is winning partly because it has history and resources and a loyal fan base on its side, but largely because Saban is leading the way. He is the reason that Alabama has gone from simply being one of the big names in college football to being a legitimate dynasty, though that is not a term Saban likes to use.
“Yeah, I think it’s pretty special what we’ve accomplished. What the players accomplished, what the coaches accomplished. I think it’s really special. And one of these days, when I’m sitting on the side of a hill watching the stream go by, I’ll probably figure it out even more. But what about next year’s team? You’ve got to think about that, too.”
And with that, you have the primary reason for Alabama’s remarkable run of success. Barely 30 minutes after holding up the crystal football trophy for the third time in four years, Saban already had an eye toward next year. Toward trying to win it all yet again.
As Saban left the field at Sun Life Stadium to the raucous cheers of the Alabama faithful still partying in the stands, it was 11:57 p.m. Another national championship day for the Crimson Tide was drawing to a close. But it appears the clock is far from striking midnight on Alabama’s run of championships under Nick Saban.
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