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Alabama football: Considering Bear Bryant’s legacy

“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’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.

9 thoughts on “Alabama football: Considering Bear Bryant’s legacy”

  1. I’m a Saban Kool Aid drinker, so don’t think I’m knocking him in any way. But so far with the very best talent in all of college football he has only managed to best two of our four most important rivals – Tennessee and Florida. He’s only 2-2 against Awbie and LSWho. He is 3-1 against up and coming Arky, 4-0 against what has become irrelevant Old Piss and 1-1 against Phucking Steve Spurious. He has his work cut out for him if he intends to be mentioned in the same light 30 years from now as Bear, Wally and Frankie are now. If he can win another BCSNC in the next two years and beat Awbie and the Corndogs twice, he will be on his way. One thing is for damn sure – things are a hell of a lot more interesting now than they were from ’94 through ’06. And once again Alabama is the face of college football, and championships go through Tuscaloosa. RTR!

  2. I don’t have a lot of time to get into this right now, but I do want to point out that the level of competition within the league is much higher now than it was in Bryant’s time. I’m not sure it’s possible anymore to dominate some teams like it was in the past. We’ve all seen that even when teams like Tennessee and Auburn have a few down years, they still manage to recruit decently, or even well – because they’re Tennessee and Auburn. It’s a frustrating truth for us Bama fans (“Why in the eff would they wanna go THERE??”), but that’s just how it is.

    I do think that Saban does as good a job as anyone possibly could in this day and age. I consider us lucky to have him, and hope he sticks around for a long time.

  3. Excellent points guys. I didn’t include this comment in the post above, but thought it was worth mentioning about how important it is to beat your rivals.

    This from a Birmingham News story dated 1996: “It seemed losing to Auburn in football was catastrophic compared to everything else going on,” Sloan said. “I still believe had we been able to beat Auburn, it would have been OK.”

    Think about how different things would have been had Bill Curry beaten Auburn. What if Curry had done it in 1989?

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  5. Saban is 4-0 against Arky, not 3-1. The 2007 game was vacated not forfeited making his official NCAA record 3-0 against Arky.

    Bryant had his one major screwup against Auburn with the 2 blocked punts in ’72. There was no excuse for that nor for what happened in Bryant-Denny last season. Saban really needs to reestablish domination with AU by winning that game in at least a 3-4 game streak fashion. I don’t count his LSU years against Auburn. If we do that, then it’s only fair we claim the 2003 BCS title

  6. *ubarn University

    “The 2007 game was vacated not forfeited making his official NCAA record 3-0 against Arky.”

    He’s still 4-0 against Arky in my book. That was the most ridiculous penalty for the most ridiculous violation in the history of college football. Yet around the same time, *ubarn, AL was giving out free class credits in Sociology (without having to attend a single class or take a single test) to student-athletes, yet it was merely swept under the rug, like every other violation they’ve committed post-Ramsey (ie Tator Tot spilling the beans, Ramsey/McClover spilling the beans, $cam and Cecil/Greg Robinson/Dakota Mosley/Dyer/Lemonier/the kid who just received a new car, etc. etc.).

    Until the NZAA grows a set, they can take their vacated wins and shove it.

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  9. “I don’t count his LSU years against Auburn. If we do that, then it’s only fair we claim the 2003 BCS title.” – Rc


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