“Right or wrong, Bryant’s legacy will always dominate Alabama football.” –Keith Dunnavant in “Alabama’s unbearable decade” Sport Jan. 1993.
It is commonly accepted that Paul W. “Bear” Bryant dominates Alabama Crimson Tide football. There is a statue. The stadium bears his name. There is a museum. There is a conference center. There is a street named for the legendary Alabama football coach.
It is no stretch to say that Bear Bryant dominates Alabama football like the Colossus dominated Rhodes. And like the Colossus, Bryant’s time at Alabama is nothing more than a memory. Memories memorialized with banners flying over the stadium proclaiming six national championships and 13 conference championships won during the Bryant era.
Dunnavant said Bryant’s legacy will always dominate Alabama football. But what is Bryant’s legacy?
Winning. Certainly, Bryant returned Alabama to national relevance. He won games. Lots of games. He became the winningest college football coach at the time of his retirement in late 1982 and death in early 1983. However, winning was always a legacy of Alabama football. Another legendary coach, Wallace Wade left Alabama for Duke at least in part because Wade took personally any criticism, according to Richard Scott’s Legends of Alabama Football. Wade won three national titles at the University of Alabama and this included the impressive Rose Bowl wins that made it into Alabama’s fight song. Wade’s successor was also a successful coach. Frank Thomas posted some impressive numbers and left his own imprint on the program—he coached a few Hall of Fame football players like Don Hutson and, yes, Paul W. “Bear” Bryant. What separated Bryant from the previous coaching greats?
Beating Auburn. Beating Tennessee. Bear Bryant posted an impressive series record against his rivals. According to al.com’s list, Alabama’s coach Bryant posted a 19-6 record against Auburn and a 16-7-2 record against Tennessee. For most of Alabama’s history beating these two teams were important to winning the SEC and often the national championship. Bryant did that. Tennessee was a traditional southern football power. Auburn was the bitter in-state rival. Bryant understood these rivalries and posted an impressive legacy. Beating your rivals are just as important post-Bryant. Coach Bill Curry was unsuccessful against Auburn and this created tension in the program and discontent amongst the boosters. (Not to mention that Curry was simply not ready for the Alabama job.) Coach Gene Stallings rallied support with his early victories over Auburn. Today, one could argue that beating LSU is now more important than Tennessee. LSU has become a critical power in college football thanks to Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. Saban saw potential in LSU and seized it when he took the job in November 1999. Even Les Miles has enjoyed success in the path opened by Saban. However, beating your rivals is important. And nobody did it better than Bryant.
When writing the history of Nick Saban’s tenure as coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, his overall winning percentage, national championships, SEC titles will be in the equation, but part of his legacy will be how Saban handles Alabama’s biggest rivals. Why? Because it matters to the fans.