Coaching icon Bobby Bowden has long-established ties to the states of Alabama (born in Birmingham, played football at Samford University) and West Virginia (served the Mountaineers program for 10 seasons, including six as head coach from 1970-75).
As such, Bowden probably didn’t have any preordained biases for either candidate when broached with the following question this week (don’t worry, it’s not Hillary vs. Donald):
Who’s had the more successful run at Alabama — Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant or Nick Saban?
Bowden’s answer was equal parts insightful, surprising … and perhaps even correct.
“That’s a pretty good question,” Bowden wondered on the radio airwaves (105.5 FM in Mobile, Ala.), according to AL.com, before rationalizing, “I’d say probably what Nick Saban is doing (is more impressive) because (college) football is more balanced now. I think when Coach Bryant came to Alabama in 1958, I think it was unlimited recruiting. You could sign all the kids you wanted, and he’s gonna get most of them.
“There was an old saying back in those days, ‘He’s gonna get his and he’s gonna get yours.'”
For a large segment of Roll Tide Nation, the answer to the most fantastic either/or question in college sports history isn’t so clear-cut.
To those living outside the South, it’s akin to whether ice-cream lovers prefer chocolate or mint chocolate chip (can’t lose either way). But for the good people of Alabama, at least those who don’t live and die with Auburn football, the Saban vs. Bear debate typically ends up as a generational bone of contention, relying on nostalgia or present-day goodness to supersede hard numbers.
That’s what made Bowden’s radio response so fascinating. He was born 16 years after Bryant and 22 years before Saban; and yet, Bowden (377 coaching victories) still sided with the new-school leader.
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Technically, Saban (four national titles with Alabama since 2009) and Bryant have each captured five Associated Press championships in their decorated careers. Both legends also have bronze statues outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
However, in the eyes of Crimson Tide fans, Saban (national championship with rival LSU in 2003) might still trail Bryant on the ‘titles’ tote board.
As a counter to that, The Bear (232-46-9 record in Tuscaloosa) accrued his five championships (six, if you count the hard-to-explain UPI/coaches’ title from 1973) in a 19-year span, while Saban (100-18 overall, .850 winning percentage at Alabama; 32-6 in true road games with the Tide) matched the feat after an 11-year span (counting the LSU national championship).
(What makes Bryant’s ’73 championship tough to rationalize? Undefeated Notre Dame clipped Alabama in that season’s Sugar Bowl.)
Also, to extrapolate something from Bowden’s belief: It’s harder to claim national titles in today’s college football, which has substantially more parity than the primitive days of the 1960s and ’70s.
For example, 40-plus years ago, big-armed quarterbacks like Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler and Richard Todd dreamed of playing for Bryant (15-12-2 in bowl games, .824 winning percentage with Alabama), regardless of the Crimson Tide’s ultra-conservative rushing attack. However, in the modern age, those same blue-chip QB recruits likely would have sidestepped Bryant’s unwavering commitment to the running game, in lieu of a pro-style offense.
Something to the effect of, “Nothing personal, Coach Bryant, but I want to play in the NFL someday.”
In earnest, Saban has had to relent on some of his own conservative viewpoints about offensive football, knowing that prolific passers also make for productive leaders.
Here’s another thing to consider: From 1961-79, bottom-feeders Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State rarely competed for SEC crowns, minimizing the number of daunting opponents on Alabama’s conference slate. And in those days, Alabama’s SEC schedule sometimes included only six conference games per year.
In fact, for the ’75 season, Alabama easily shook off a season-opening loss to an eventual six-win club (nonconference Missouri) and still competed for the national title by year’s end. Of its six in-conference games that season, the Crimson Tide swept to a 6-0 mark and allowed a grand total of 40 points.
Which brings us to this: Saban has claimed four SEC titles in nine years with Alabama. At that rate, 16 years from now, he’ll fall slightly short of Bryant’s 14 SEC championships from 1958-82.
Of course, in Saban’s defense, The Bear never encountered a scheduling model like the present-day SEC West, where top-notch schools, like LSU or Alabama, must survive a round-robin sequence against divisional opponents — almost all candidates for New Year’s Day bowls — and still have enough for Florida and Tennessee, as respective permanent crossovers.
(Don’t forget about the conference championship game, either.)
And for what it’s worth, no one has ever owned the Web-domain rights to “FireCoachBryant.com.”
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.