The ghost of the Bear: Bear Bryant or Nick Saban?

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

By Hunter Ford

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.