TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - You head toward the University of Alabama campus along Paul W. Bryant Drive. You pass by the Paul W. Bryant Museum on the way to Bryant-Denny Stadium, where the Crimson Tide football teams holds Saturday services seven or eight times a year. Inside the stadium you see numerous fans attired in replicas of the black-and-white houndstooth hat famously worn by Bryant. You watch a pregame video montage of past Crimson Tide glory, punctuated by a recording of Bryant declaring in his distinctive gravel-road voice, “I ain’t never been nothin’ but a winner.” At that moment, the frenzied roar of the Alabama faithful reaches a crescendo.
Nearly 30 years after he coached his final game and then passed away a month later, Paul “Bear” Bryant remains a powerful presence looming over the Alabama football program. And with good reason. Bryant directed the Crimson Tide to six national championships in less than 20 years, neatly divided between three in the 1960s and three more in the ‘70s. It is easily the greatest run of sustained success for the Alabama program, and one of the best in all of college football history. The architect of those championship decades will forever hold a special place in the hearts of all Alabama fans.
Still, as Nick Saban continues to accumulate victories and championship trophies as the current Alabama head coach, it is tempting to propose something that just a few years ago would have been considered heresy among Tide devotees. Is Saban threatening to become even more popular than Bryant in the state that “Bear” built?
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Saban will turn 61 this season but he looks and acts 10 years younger. Assuming he remains healthy, doesn’t leave for another shot at the NFL, and the competitive fire continues to burn fiercely within him — and at the moment there is absolutely no sign of that fire dwindling — then Saban easily could coach another eight or nine years. If he can win this year’s championship and then pick up maybe two more, which certainly wouldn’t seem to be out of the question given his recent record, then Saban would retire with six national championships overall and five at Alabama. He would do so in an era when even the most successful coaches have a hard time acquiring more than one title. Would such a surge of success propel Saban past Bryant in the Alabama coaching hierarchy?
The issue of past vs. present is one of the reasons Saban might come out ahead when pitted against Bryant. Keep in mind, anybody currently under the age of about 35 knows of Bryant only as an historical figure. By the time Saban is likely to retire, approximately half the people in the state will have been born after Bryant’s death. To them, Bryant is a record book and a museum. Saban is here-and-now reality, the man they watched bring multiple championships back to Tuscaloosa after a 17-year title drought. Saban isn’t a winner on an old, scratchy recording. He is a winner directly in their face. It is human nature to have a greater appreciation of what we see and experience rather than what we read about in history books.
Jack Thornell / Jack Thornell / AP file
Paul 'Bear' Bryant won six national titles at Alabama.
Saban has taken this old-school approach and made it succeed in the 21st century. Sure, he has done it at one of the premier programs in the nation, but don’t underestimate how difficult it is to win a championship regardless of the resources. Georgia, for example, has many of the same advantages Alabama enjoys, including an equally fervent fan base (complete with adult men barking in the middle of the street in support of their Bulldogs). Yet Georgia has not won a national championship in more than 30 years. Even Alabama had managed only one title in three decades before Saban gave the school crystal football bookends over the past three seasons.
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As the relentless machine Saban has created at Alabama prepares to motor into another championship-caliber season, it is easy to forget that he has not always been considered such a football genius. In fact, when he was hired by the Tide in 2007, one clueless observer in the state wondered what all the fuss was about. After all, the thinking went, Saban’s career resume at that time included only one season with more than 10 victories, and a single national championship that was shared with USC. Yet he was being greeted by Tide fans as the second coming of Bryant. Wasn’t that reaction a little over the top?
Five years later, it is obvious that Alabama fans knew what they were talking about when it came to Saban. They were indeed getting a coach who is potentially one of the greatest in college football history.
A coach who, once his career is over, might actually be considered better than “Bear.”
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