No college football program in the country comes close to having a modern coaching duo as strong as Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant and Nick Saban.
Bryant won six national titles between 1958 and 1982. Saban has already collected three since coming to Tuscaloosa in 2007.
From the time the Associated Press poll began in 1936, no other program — let alone pair of coaches — has reached nine. What Saban has done in the past eight years is as impressive as any coaching job in recent memory.
So the question is inevitable: “Who would you rather have on the sideline?”
Let’s break it down a few different ways, beginning with this weekend’s Alabama-LSU matchup. The schools’ AP rankings (No. 7 and No. 4, respectively) make this a “Top 7” regular season game.
Alabama has played 23 such games since 1936 — the first being in 1942 at Georgia, and the most recent being vs. Mississippi State last season.
Want proof that the program has been comparatively miserable when Bryant or Saban has not been in charge? Only six of those games occurred in the 45 regular seasons without them. Alabama went 1-5 in those contests.
With Bryant and Saban (33 seasons), the Tide rolled to a 12-5 record in such games. Many of them paved the way for national title banners.
The breakdown: Bryant 7-3. Saban 5-2.
In Saban’s favor: The Bear did not play a single “Top 7” regular season game during his first 10 seasons at the helm. This weekend marks Saban’s eighth “Top 7” game in eight-plus seasons. Saban certainly seized the national spotlight much quicker than Bryant (though several circumstances — new millennium recruiting, television money, softer schedules, etc. — make absolute comparisons impossible).
“So what?” you might ask. “The regular season isn’t as important as what comes after.”
How about postseason games in which both teams were ranked? Alabama played in seven of them from 1936 to 1957, going 4-3 with one national title (1941).
When Bryant took over in ’58, he needed just nine seasons to hit seven such games, and wound up coaching in 19 before his retirement.
In all, The Bear went 11-8 — including a six-game winning streak from 1975-1980 — with the six aforementioned titles. For the first time in four decades, Alabama was playing for national championships almost every season.
But that fizzled out immediately once Bryant retired.
It wasn’t until 1986 that Alabama found itself in another ranked postseason game. The Tide took down Washington, 28-6, in the Sun Bowl, and would go 9-6 in 15 such games — including a national title with Gene Stallings in 1992 — before Saban showed up in 2007.
Alabama has already played 11 since then.
Saban’s teams are 7-4, with the most recent game being a 42-35 loss to Ohio State in the national semifinal. The Tide won six such games in a row while racking up three national championships from 2009 to 2012.
Advantage: Saban. National titles trump all else, and his championship rate (one every 0.38 seasons) soars above The Bear’s (one every 0.24).
But you can’t go wrong: Both men won an extra (disputed) title before showing up in Tuscaloosa (Bryant with Kentucky, Saban with LSU), and both men have nearly identical winning percentages to their name (Bryant 0.78, Saban 0.778).
Will Saban reach 25 seasons in T-Town? Almost certainly not. He’d be nearing his 80th birthday at that point. Rumors have swirled over the past couple years that he’s nearing either a new challenge or retirement.
So The Bear will always get the ‘W’ when it comes to longevity.
But if Saban wins this Saturday and somehow guides Alabama to the school’s 16th national championship, the numbers say Nick — not Paul — is the better choice.