Three days before Nick Saban prepared to lead another Crimson Tide team in a national championship game, former standout Barrett Jones weighed Saban’s greatness against another Alabama legend.
Jones, an offensive lineman at Alabama from 2008-12, was asked if it was possible for Saban to be held in higher regard than Paul “Bear” Bryant, who led the Crimson Tide to six national championships and 13 SEC titles.
The 2011 Outland Trophy winner played on Saban’s first three national title teams at Alabama (2009, 2010 and 2012). He saw Saban transform from a flameout with the Miami Dolphins into one of college football’s best ever.
“Even if Coach Saban never won another national championship, which seems unlikely right now, I think he’s still the greatest coach of all-time. I think (that’s) the opinion of a lot of people, particularly in my generation,” Jones said.
“It was obviously such a different era back then (for Bryant), with recruiting and the way the rules were. Now, I think the playing field is much more level. And what he has done is absolutely outstanding and hard to put in words.”
Titles aren’t everything for Saban, Bryant
When Alabama faces Clemson on Monday night at Raymond James Stadium, Saban will try to claim his fifth national championship with the Crimson Tide and his sixth overall. That would tie him with Bryant, who remains a legendary figure among Alabama followers for going 232-46-9 during a run from 1958-82 in which the Crimson Tide won at least 10 games in a season 13 times.
Given the differences between the coaches’ respective eras, comparing Bryant and Saban can be difficult. Ken Gaddy, director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, likened the chore to choosing between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as the United States’ best president.
Still, Saban’s success in posting a 114-18 record since arriving at Alabama before the 2007 season has created talk that he’ll at least match Bryant in Crimson Tide lore seem not-so-outlandish. Parallels between Bryant and Saban can be striking for some who have lived through both Alabama dynasties.
“I don’t think the national titles will make a difference in who’s respected more than somebody else,” said Lee Roy Jordan, a former All-American linebacker at Alabama who played under Bryant from 1959-62.
“I think there’s going to be my generation that certainly loved Coach Bryant and loved what he taught and loved the way he produced football champions. And of course today, I certainly respect and love the way Coach Saban is teaching his players. I just think everybody is going to be awful glad that we were lucky enough to have two champions like these guys.”
Jordan said he sees similar traits in Saban that Bryant displayed as a respected leader. Jordan recalls Bryant stressed discipline in small areas, such as arriving early for team activities and showing respect to teammates and superiors. Minor details, Jordan learned, had to be mastered to accomplish major tasks.
Today, Saban’s program and the grind toward greatness is labeled “The Process.” The title is a nod to Alabama’s methodical consistency under Saban. The Crimson Tide just claimed a third consecutive SEC title, their fifth since the Saban era began. He also won one national title and two SEC championships with LSU during a stint in Baton Rouge from 2000-04.
After the Crimson Tide went 7-6 in Saban’s first season, Alabama has won 10 games in each of the last nine campaigns. Bryant won 13 SEC titles in his Crimson Tide tenure at a time when major college football was less of a national fascination and rivals enjoyed fewer resources.
Most of Bryant’s career came during a period with no scholarship limits or minimal limits. The NCAA lowered an initial cap of 105 (1973) to 95 just five years later. Programs have operated with no more than 85 scholarships since 1994.
“The times that Coach Saban really yelled at us the most were often times after we won a game in a fashion that we should not have won it — we didn’t play well, and we won,” Jones said. “That was a time when he really unleashed on us.
“That’s what it has always been about — to play up to standard. It’s really not as much about records and wins and losses. He feels like if we play to that standard every single day in practice and every single game, then we’ll win the national championship. It’s a message that’s tried and true. Coach Bryant said a lot of similar things to that. He maybe didn’t call it ‘The Process’ or ‘The Standard’ or whatever, but he had similar principles.”
Nick Saban vs. Bear Bryant: A generational thing
Is it possible for Saban to be held in higher regard than Bryant?
The question leads to subjective answers. Personal experiences shape perspectives in all areas of life, including football fandom. For those who lived during the Bryant era, the former coach developed an aura that will be hard to surpass no matter what Saban accomplishes.
Bryant formed a mythical, larger-than-life persona. Author Winston Groom, who wrote “Forrest Gump” and attended Alabama from 1961-65, described Bryant as “Moses who led us out of the wilderness.”
Bryant made Alabama relevant after a prolonged period of frustration for the program. The Crimson Tide won six or fewer games in eight of the seasons from 1948-57 under Red Drew and Jennings Whitworth. Whitworth’s three-season stint was particularly awful, with Alabama going 4-24-2 from 1955-57 before Bryant arrived after a four-year stay at Texas A&M.
Saban, meanwhile, began with the Crimson Tide after Alabama went 26-23 under Mike Shula from 2003-06. Saban advanced Alabama well past mediocrity, but Bryant faced a much longer climb toward respectability.
“I think it’s a generational thing,” Groom said. “When Coach Bryant came, it was a new day, a new light. He had this enormous, outsized personality.
“Bryant was, frankly, beloved in his time. I don’t know if Saban is beloved. I think he’s certainly respected. (To call him a) great coach is not even describing him (correctly). It’s almost unbelievable what he has done.
“But Bryant, there was a different aura, a different personality. Bryant had a sanctity sort of hovering over him because of his personality. Coach Saban’s personality is quite different. His personality is, ‘Let’s get this stuff done here.’ … He’s like a businessman, whereas Coach Bryant was just like a coach, an old ball coach.”
Said John Clements, former president of the University of Alabama National Alumni Association who attended the school as an undergraduate student from 1959-63 and later for law studies: “Alabama was probably at its lowest in football at the time Coach Bryant arrived. He immediately made a difference in the direction and the consequence of the program.
“And Saban, although the program wasn’t at a very good level, it wasn’t at the same desperate state that it had been prior to his arrival. He certainly had a plan that he believed in, just as Coach Bryant did. But I think the times were vastly different, too. And people’s attitudes and social differences were there. He just was a beloved person for the people of my generation.”
Even ardent Bryant loyalists hope Saban can rival or surpass Bryant’s achievements. Saban’s resume at Alabama remains unfinished.
“I think Coach Bryant will always have a special place,” Gaddy said. “When you talk about historical figures — presidents and things like that — there are different times and different situations. But when we talk (Saban) having as many or more national championships as Coach Bryant, my answer is always, ‘Let’s try.’ There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Time will define Nick Saban’s legacy
Time is the ultimate judge of a legacy. But Jones understands he was part of living history. He envisions a day when people will talk about Saban in the same way many now speak with reverence about Bryant.
“One day we’ll be telling our grandkids about Nick Saban,” Jones said. “We’ll have the statue and walk down the Walk of Champions, and (we’ll) tell them how it used to be.
“I definitely think that will be the case, and I’m honored to be a part of that and to have played for him. It’s pretty special to know you’re sort of a part of that — a tiny, tiny part of that history and were able to live it out.”
Saban is 65 years old, and Bryant was 69 when he retired. Regardless of the result Monday, it’s easy to envision more championships for Saban with rising stars such as freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough primed to return. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt also proved his savvy in overseeing one of the country’s most dominant defenses this season.
The comparisons between Saban and Bryant won’t end soon.
“They are certainly on the same level in my thinking,” Jordan said. “And for most of us who played for Coach Bryant, we are extremely proud and proud to say how excited we are for these young people to get the same opportunities not only to learn the lessons of life but to be on championship football teams.”
That pride spans generations of Alabama players. From one charmed era of Crimson Tide football to another, from one past coaching legend to a current master who could be recalled in a similar way someday, the enjoyment is timeless.
“It seems like we’re really still in this golden age of Alabama football,” Jones said. “It has been so fun to be a part of it. … I don’t think it has fully sunk in. I think it’s one of those things that will be really fun to remember and think about in a lot of years.”