The two greatest coaches in the history of Alabama football are Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and Nick Saban. While Bryant has many more overall wins and bowl victories, Saban has a higher winning percentage and is arguably coaching in an era that is much more competitive. Let’s examine the coaches and their respective eras to help answer the question being debated by fans and sports columnists, “Who is greater, Bryant or Saban?” We look at two areas in our comparison the overall strength of the SEC when Bryant coached compared to Saban’s time at the Capstone and then look at each coaches’ bowl record to see how they fared against top out-of-conference teams.
Nick Saban began his career in Toledo in 1990, leading them to a 9-2 record. The following season he took over at Michigan State and had a relatively mediocre record of 34-24-1 in five seasons. In 2000, Saban moved on to LSU, leading the Tigers to an 8-4 record and win in the Peach Bowl. All told, he was quite successful at LSU, compiling a 48-16 record with three Bowl victories, including two Sugar Bowls and one BCS title. Saban’s first season in Alabama was a less than stellar 7-6, but the Crimson Tide took off from there. From 2008 through 20015, Alabama has compiled a 93-12 record, including three BCS Championships, two playoff appearances and one College Football Playoff national championship. Saban’s career record at Alabama is 105-18 and is 196-60-1 overall with four national championships. He is three-time SEC Coach of the Year, among 10 coaching honors. Saban’s bowl record is 10-8 for a .556 winning percentage.
Paul “Bear” Bryant began his storybook collegiate football coaching career with Maryland in 1945. After a 6-2-1 season, he went on to Kentucky where he posted a 60-23-5 record including a Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl victory. In 1954 Bryant took over at Texas A&M and struggled to a 1-9 record, but quickly put A&M on the map with a 24-5-2 record over the next three seasons. Then came the move to Alabama in 1960, where Bryant left his mark for 23 seasons. He had four, 10-win seasons in the 1960’s, winning three Sugar Bowls and two Orange Bowls. Alabama dominated much of the 1970s, winning 10 or more games eight times, 7 over those times winning 11 or more. Add in four more Sugar Bowl victories, one for the 12-0 team in 1979, and a Liberty Bowl victory during that stretch. Bryant coached through the 1982 campaign, going out on top with a win in the Liberty Bowl. He compiled a 232-46-9 record with Alabama and 323-85-17 overall record. Other honors include SEC Coach of the Year honors 10 times. Bryant lead 29 teams to Bowl games (a much more difficult task in that era) and is third all-time in Bowl wins with 15, including 6 national championships. Bryant’s bowl record was 15-12-2 for a .552 winning percentage.
Comparing eras, we start with the 1960’s and 1970’s during Bear Bryant’s run at Alabama. The Crimson Tide won twelve conference championships during that time with four coming in the 1960s. The SEC had 41 teams besides Alabama that had winning records throughout the 1960’s, winning a total of 301 games, for an average of 7.34 per season. It appears that as competition got better, so did Alabama under Bryant. From 1970 through the end of Bryant’s career in 1982, 61 SEC teams besides Alabama had winning records, averaging 8.02 wins per game. During that span 12 teams had 10+ win seasons, compared to 3 during the 1960’s. One thing to keep in mind is that while teams played fewer games, the games were often contests between what are today legendary coaches. Bryant faced some of the SEC’s winningest coaches including Vince Dooley (208 wins), Jon Vaught (190 wins), Shug Jordan (176 wins), Robert Neyland (173 wins), and Wallace Butts (140 wins). Let’s compare all of that to the Saban era.
First, there are more teams now in the SEC than during Bryant’s time, with two divisions. There have been 71 SEC teams, not including Alabama who have compiled winning records since 2007. They totaled 647 wins for a staggering 9.1 wins per season, a full win more than during the era from 1970 through 1982. Of course, there are more games played now than in earlier eras, but one thing that has improved is the SEC’s bowl record. In 2015, the SEC set a new record with 9 bowl victories and posted a 9-2 bowl record and placed 10 teams in bowl games last season. The record of 12 teams in bowl games was set by the SEC in 2014. Since 2006, the conference has won 65 bowl games while playing in 97 for a winning percentage of .670. Comparing coaching wins is difficult because of the shorter tenure college coaches face today. However, many coaches Saban has faced make the list of winningest SEC coaches. These include Steve Spurrier (208 wins), Mark Richt (154 wins), Phillip Fulmer (152 wins) and Les Miles (112 wins).
What does this tell us about the conference? Hard to tell, could indicate more parity now. There is no doubt the teams are quite strong today, but also no denying that Division I teams often have very weak out of conference schedules . There are many more Bowl games today, with big money for the universities and the networks televising the games. While there are certainly plenty of excellent teams in the games, there are a slew of teams right around .500 participating in these games. A bowl game in earlier eras of college football means more.
While parity likely is more prevalent today, that takes nothing away from Saban. In fact it might make the case for him stronger. Bryant had his share of powerful teams to face, but also a few weaker caliber teams played in the conference than today. One thing is certain, both coaches rightfully have their place as the top college coaches in history. Should Saban put together a few more excellent seasons with more conference championships or perhaps another national championship, he could go down as the best coach in Alabama and perhaps NCAA history. He may already be there.