Who is the better Alabama football coach? Paul W. Bear Bryant or Nick Saban?

By Hunter Ford

Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.
Bear Bryant or Nick Saban? Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Photo via Bryant Museum.
Who do you think is a better coach, Nick Saban or Paul Bear Bryant? And does it matter? It’s like asking a music fan who is better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?

My 13-year-old son asked me recently, and I didn’t flinch.

Bear Bryant.

Then, the dreaded follow-up question. Why?

Bear Bryant or Nick Saban

The argument for the Bear

Bryant had a long career at Alabama, won more games, and won more national championships. Of course, Nick Saban has the opportunity to change those statistics. He’s on the verge of winning a historical third-in-a row national championship, which would bring his total to five. Saban is a youthful 60-something who doesn’t have many hobbies outside of coaching. I could see him being around a long time.

Even if Saban surpasses Bryant’s number of championships or winning percentage, Bryant still gets my vote as the better … no, let’s say … the most “legendary” coach.

Bryant won football games over five decades. He won with one-platoon teams, he won in the era of mass substitutions and specialists. Bryant won with all-white teams , he won with integrated teams.

Bryant overcame serious challenges that Saban hasn’t dealt with. Early in Bryant’s tenure at Alabama he was accused by a national magazine of fixing a game. Bryant sued for libel and won. After winning back-to-back national championships in 1964 and ’65, and going undefeated but uncrowned in 1966, Bryant endured a slump. The season records slowly regressed, culminating in back-to-back 6-5 marks in 1969 and 70. That would get you a lifetime contract at Vanderbilt. At Alabama, it had Bryant tired of complaining boosters and contemplating bolting to the Miami Dolphins.

Bryant overhauled his offense, literally told the fair-weather fans where they could go, and dominated again, winning national championships in 1978-79.

Saban may never have to endure such a dry spell, but it is almost statistically impossible to maintain his current level of success. How would he handle mediocre seasons? How would the fans handle it?
Bryant had the cooler nickname. The “Bear” has a better ring to it than “Nicky Satan.” But the legend of the Bear goes much deeper.

I once interviewed former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley. Baxley told me an anecdote about going to a late dinner with Bryant. Baxley had a reputation as a civil rights champion. He told Bryant he was concerned that local booster clubs were not showcasing black athletes in the ads they placed in Alabama game programs. Baxley said he didn’t think Bryant took his concern seriously. The next morning, Baxley had a phone message from Tuscaloosa. Baxley returned the call. Bryant said to Baxley, “You know that thing about the game programs we talked about? Do something about it.” Baxley called the local booster clubs. They listened.

Maybe witnessing the era of the Bear helps me understand what a force he was… what effect he had on players, fans and on the culture. Outsiders make fun of Alabama fans for hanging on to “The Bear” for so long. But Yankees make fun of Southerners for hanging on to Robert. E. Lee.

As far as I’m concerned, there will always be two head football coaches at Alabama. The current coach, and the ghost of the Bear.

3 thoughts on “The ghost of the Bear: Bear Bryant or Nick Saban?”

  1. Bear was the better personality, the bigger than life shadow that hang over the State. Saban is the better businessman, the no nonsense, cold blooded dictator. Both of their personalities and methods have worked for their times. However, Bear had it easy for most of his career in that he could stockpile all the best players and keep them away from his rivals. Saban is doing it, and so far doing it better under what most pundits consider almost impossible conditions. If Saban had followed Gene Stallings and would coach us until he retires, there would be a dynasty with records the likes of which no one in a thousand years could approach. RTR!

  2. Saban is a great coach. He’ll be regarded as the defining coach of an exciting era in college football. He’ll forever be a legend.

    But better than the Bear? It’s just not fair.

    Even if he wins more games and more titles, the Bear was the epitome of college football. He had too much personality, too many great quotes, too much influence in changing the sport itself, and too big of a persona for anyone to try to compete to be “better” than Paul Bryant.

    We still smoke cigars after beating Tennessee, just like the football team did when Bryant would award them with a cigar for the victory over the Vols. But if Saban did that today it would be considered an “impermissable benefit.”

    One thing they both have in common is they are a perfect fit for the culture and spirit of the University of Alabama. For both their sakes, I’m glad they made it back to the Capstone. Roll Tide.

  3. Having met both coaches at different times in my life, and knowing players that were on each of their teams, I would agree that Coach Bryant has the upper hand in legendary status. If Coach Saban continues to coach into his 70’s – something that I believe no one thinks he will do – he will probably attain that “legend” status.

    The thing about Coach Bryant – and it was mysterious, even to hear those who knew him well tell it – was his ability to take a kid who had good talent and make him perform like he was great. I think Saban has that with the Process, but it doesn’t affect his players the way Bryant did. Some of Saban’s players go on to attain success in their chosen fields, but it seems that nearly all of Bryant’s players took something with them from that program, and all of them became successful in their chosen endevours. You also see the incredible respect he earned from his players – there’s a group of them who get together fairly often that all named their children after him, for heaven’s sake! And when they talk about him, all they can do is tell about how he made them feel when he would speak – there’s no magic formula or wording, but they all say the same things – he made you want to do whatever you had to do to make him proud of you.
    Bryant also had a personality that had time for everyone. Now, of all the situational aspects, this is probably the one that was a product of the times. Bryant’s home was completely accessible to anyone who happened to be walking by in his neighborhood – heck, we used to run past it when we trained for cross country – and he didn’t have the level of security that is practically required now. He also didn’t have the 24/7 news cycle that pretty much ruins the lives of the popular and newsworthy now. Coach Bryant could enjoy a level of privacy and intimacy with friends that Coach Saban will likely never know the rest of his days. Coach Bryant also could enjoy a certain level of respect and “hands off” from the media and alums that Saban will never have, as well as coaching in a day and time when coaches were given the time to build their teams and programs instead of having to meet a demand for instant success.

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