Alabama Gazette - The people's voice of reason

By Bill Rice 

I still think Bryant edges Saban on "Greatest Coach Ever" debate


Regarding the on-going debate about who is the greatest coach of all time – Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant or Coach Nick Saban, I think one important point is perhaps being overlooked. With due respect to Coaches Frank Thomas and Wallace Wade, Coach Bryant built the tradition and the Alabama "brand" that has benefitted every coach who followed him, including Coach Saban.

If we are debating team accomplishments and records, a strong case can be made that Coach Saban's results have surpassed Bryant's. This qualifies as a truly amazing feat. However, if one is attempting to identify who is/was the superior "coach," I still give the edge to Bryant.

Building, enhancing – and then sustaining – the tradition now associated with Crimson Tide football was vital to what Alabama would become in the minds of college football fans, and was incredibly hard to achieve.

Simply put, absent this tradition I doubt Coach Saban's would have been able to accomplish what he has in Tuscaloosa. Indeed, Alabama's august tradition is one of the main reasons Coach Saban came to Alabama in the first place. He knew tradition still counted and, because of its existence, that he would be able to win BIG in Tuscaloosa.

Saban is obviously a great coach, but it should be acknow-ledged that his "greatness" has been elevated to an entirely different level while at Alabama. Saban's records at Michigan State, the Miami Dolphins and even at LSU do not really hint at "all-time great."

Coaches do better at Bama ...

History shows that simply coaching at Alabama elevates a coach's resume and any coach's likelihood of experiencing significant success. The record books are clear. Every coach since Bryant experienced his best seasons while at Alabama and, once they left Alabama, carded mediocre or worse records.

Mike DuBose won an SEC championship at Alabama (before later going winless at Northview High School). Mike Shula won 10 games with his next-to-last Tide team, which was undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country before an overtime loss to LSU.

Bill Curry's last Bama team shared an SEC title. (It is educational to compare Curry's subsequent record at Kentucky to Bryant's records at the same school). Ray Perkins had losing records at the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but had Alabama as a Top-10, competitive team before he departed. Dennis Franchione won 10 games his last year at UA, left for Texas A&M and flopped.

Gene Stallings, who had losing records at Texas A&M and the Phoenix Cardinals, won a national title at Alabama and led one of the best 5-year-runs in program history.

Something different (fan passion, high expectations, extreme 365-day interest, etc.) is in the air in Tuscaloosa that makes nondescript coaches winners (if only temporarily). It also makes very good coaches like Saban candidates for icon status.

It can be argued that the legacy of Coach Bryant – 25 years after his death – helped ensure Nick Saban would and could become a legend.

Finally, we need to look at what Bryant did as a "coach" at his other stops (and compare this to what Saban did as a coach at his other stops).

Bryant's record at Kentucky – THE basketball school in the country – is amazing. No coach prior or since has come close to accomplishing what Bryant did while leading the Wildcats football program. In four years Coach Bryant built Texas A&M into SWC champs and a national title contender. If he had stayed at Texas A&M, the Aggies almost certainly would have become the dynasty Alabama became.

I have no doubt that if a 55-year-old Bryant came to an Alabama boasting the same tradition Bryant largely created, his teams would have won at the same clip Saban's have. However, I am not so sure that if you flipped the scenario - if a 55-year-old Saban had taken over Alabama's program in 1958 (after the Tide had won a mere four games the prior three years) - that Alabama, in two seasons would be a bowl team; in three a Top 10 team, and in four seasons national champions.

Bum Phillips probably said it best about Bryant – "He could take his'n and beat yours'n. And take yours'n and beat his'n."

Nick Saban is clearly the best of his era, just as Paul Bryant was clearly the best of his era. But I think Bryant – at four school over 35 years – was the best "coach" ever. It was Bryant who bequest an unmatched tradition to every coach who followed him. The value of this gift should never be discounted. Coach Saban took advantage of this gift – of this foundation, brand and fan passion- better than any other UA coach has.

Another way to say all of the above: If Coach Saban had coached the past nine years at any other program – I doubt he would have won four national titles and seriously competed for three more.

Or ask yourself this question: If Coach Bryant had never coached at Alabama, would Nick Saban have been able to accomplish all he has in Tuscaloosa? I don't think so.

It's the combination of Nick Saban's "Process" and the tradition Bryant built that made Alabama a dynasty again. But the latter is just as important as the former. In attempting to identify the best coach of all time, I vote for the man whose heavy lifting built the tradition ... and then passed it on to his heirs. Because of Bryant's efforts from 1958-1982 winning big at Alabama has been a tad easier in 2007-2015.

- Editor's note: Bill Rice, Jr. is the former managing editor of The Montgomery Independent, and editor of the Alabama Gazette's annual "Reflections" historical publication.


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