Bear Bryant vs. Nick Saban
Hemingway thought great novelists compete only with the dead. The same might be said for great football coaches.
As Alabama’s Nick Saban wraps up his 23rd season as a college head football coach, his only real rival for the unofficial title of all-time greatest college coach is one of his predecessors at the University of Alabama, Paul "Bear" Bryant.
Given the differences in the game from Bryant’s era (1945-82) and Saban’s (1990 to present), no comparison can ever resolve the question of who was the greatest. Yet the parallels in their careers and amazing similarities in their success make comparison inevitable.
Note: All stats are updated through Dec. 1.
The success of both Bryant and Saban is reflected in an evaluation of the winningest coaches from major schools. Bryant is number three in wins, and Saban clocks in at number 11.
Bryant: 323-85-17 (.780 winning percentage), 38 seasons
Saban: 236-62-1 (.791 winning percentage), 23 seasons
Edge: Pick 'em (Slight edge to Saban)
Success at Alabama
Bryant coached the Crimson Tide for 25 years and retired with a record of 232-46-9 (.824 winning percentage) at Alabama. Since Nick is only in his 12th season leading the Tide, let’s compare his record to Bryant’s first 12 years in Tuscaloosa.
Bryant: 102-22-7 (.805)
Saban: 145-20-0 (.879)
Bowl Games, Career
The success of both coaches is reflected in their teams' bowl appearances. Alabama leads the pack with the most bowl wins of any college football team. Here are their all-time bowl records.
Bryant: 15-12-2 (.552)
Saban: 13-9 (.591)
Bowl Games, Alabama
The Crimson Tide went to a bowl game every year Bryant was head coach. The same is true of the Tide under Saban.
Bryant: 12-10-2 (.522)
Saban: 10-4 (.714)
In the Bryant era, Associated Press and United Press International polls voted before bowl games, so "popularity" decided national championships. This cost the Crimson Tide a couple of titles.
For instance, in 1966, voters once again took their final tally before the bowl season. This was the year of the famous 10-10 tie between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State. That’s the way they finished in the polls, both 9-0-1, while the defending champion Crimson Tide finished a perfect 10-0, beat a 9-1 Nebraska 34-7 in the Sugar Bowl, and wound up No. 3 — a slight many Alabama fans who weren’t even born at the time still feel.
That's why the national title count is debatable.
Bryant: 6 (All at Alabama — 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979 )
Saban: 7 (Sixat Alabama — 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2020. One at LSU in 2003.)
Edge: Pick 'em
Heisman Trophy Winners
Bryant was college football’s ultimate socialist: If he had two capable quarterbacks or four or five good running backs, he’d divide the opportunities so they all were in the game. Most of his players never got to pile up the kind of stats that impressed Heisman voters.
Also, during Bryant’s era, it was hard for Alabama to get the attention of the sportswriting establishment who votes for the trophy. For instance, Notre Dame’s John Huarte won the Heisman for the 1964 season. Everyone in both the National and American Football Leagues knew that Joe Namath was the best player in the country. He was the AFL’s number one draft pick, and his $427,000 deal set a pro football record. But "Broadway Joe" wasn’t even in the top 10 Heisman finalists.
Bryant: One (John David Crow, Texas A&M, 1957)
Saban: Two (Mark Ingram in 2009, Derrick Henry in 2015)
Programs Turned Around From Losing to Winning
In 1944, the Maryland Terrapins were 1-7-1. The next year, in Bear Bryant's first coaching job, he gave the Terps one of their best teams in decades with a 6-2-1 record.
The Kentucky Wildcats were a dismal 2-8 in 1945. When the Bear took over, he finished 7-3 in 1946. By 1950, Bryant had coached Kentucky to a 10-1 regular season and a victory over No. 1-ranked Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. But he always was overshadowed by legendary basketball coach Adolph Rupp, who was gifted a Cadillac one year by the alumni while Bryant got a cigarette lighter.
In 1954, Bryant cleaned house on a Texas A&M Aggie program that had won just 7 of 20 games in two previous seasons. This was the famous Junction Boys year, and the only losing season of his career after team went 1-9. Within three seasons, he had A&M in contention for the national title, finishing at 9-0-1 in 1956.
Bryant always said "Mama called" in 1958, when he became head coach of Alabama, his alma mater, where he had played on offense and defense in the 1935 Rose Bowl (Bama won). But times were hard at Alabama under coach "Ears" Whitworth, who sat Bart Starr his entire senior year. The Tide had won just four games in its previous three seasons before Bryant arrived, but he led them to 5-4-1 finish his first year. Three years later, in 1961, the Tide finished 11-0, and Bryant won his first national title.
Bryant: Four (Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama)
In 1990, Nick Saban began his head coaching career, turning around the Toledo Mudhens from 6-5 in 1989 to 9-2.
After a stint as an assistant coach in the NFL, in 1995, Saban inherited a Michigan State Spartans program that had lost all 11 games the season before. His first MSU team was 6-5-1.
LSU, or the Bayou Bengals, won just 9 of 24 games in the two seasons before Saban arrived. When he took over in 2000, the Tigers were 8-4. By 2003, LSU was 12-1 and won several national championship polls.
In 2007, he was recruited to coach a Crimson Tide team that had not won a national title since 1992 and was mired in mediocrity. Saban’s Tide has played in six national championship games in the last 11 years, taking home five titles, and will vie for another in the 2018 College Football Playoff.
Saban: Four (Toledo, Michigan State, LSU, Alabama)
Edge: Pick 'em
Bryant Actually Turned Around Five Programs
It might be argued that Bryant turned around five programs, one of them his own. In 1969 and 1970, just before he succeeded in finally integrating the Alabama football team, an all-white, undermanned Crimson Tide suffered through two seasons with a combined record of 12-10-1.
By 1971, Bryant had integrated the team (which he had wanted to do for years) and installed a new offensive formation, the wishbone. Alabama rebounded and began what would be Bryant’s second consecutive decade of domination.
When it comes to sustained excellence, Bryant was great. Saban has been greater.
Bryant’s best run was the 11 seasons from 1971 through 1981 when his Crimson Tide went 116-15-1 for a winning percentage of .882.
Saban’s best 11 years were from 2003 to 2004 at LSU (after which he coached two years in the NFL) and then at Alabama from 2009 through the 2017 season. His record for those 11 years is 135-16 for a phenomenal .894 won-loss record.
Record Against Auburn
One thing that hasn’t changed about Alabama football is the fans' fervor to beat Auburn.
Despite the fan acrimony, something has changed about the importance of beating Auburn: When Bryant was coaching, if Bama beat Auburn, the Tide had a good season.
In Saban's era, the rivalry hasn’t mattered quite as much as the annual face-off has become a steppingstone to the national championship. In 2017, Auburn won a spectacular upset over Alabama to end the regular season, but the Tide still made it to the playoffs.
And I don’t think many Alabama fans would trade the CFP trophy that the Tide ended up with for the win over Auburn.
Bryant: 9-3 (first 12 seasons at Alabama)
By our scorecard, the edge goes to Nick Saban. Do his achievements merit the mythical title of greatest college football coach ever?
If pressed to choose, I’d say that Saban has reached higher peaks than Bryant at his best. Saban is, probably, the better coach.
Bryant’s accomplishments were more varied and over a much longer time span, and in two distinct eras. The Bear, I think, is the greater coach.
Still, there might be some room for revision here if Saban coaches the Crimson Tide to another national title: number 18.
And as they say in Tuscaloosa — 18 and counting.