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Nick Saban & Bear Bryant: A Comparison

One thing's for sure. Both coaches knew the importance of looking sharp.
One thing's for sure. Both coaches knew the importance of looking sharp.

Earlier this week we noted that the comparisons between Nick Saban and Paul W. Bryant have been relatively common this off-season. It's honestly not that surprising. Much the same chatter ensued after Gene Stallings' 1992 Alabama team won the National Championship in 1992.

But as Coach Saban and the Crimson Tide seem poised at making a very real run at the crystal football in 2010 we should probably expect this discussion to intensify rather than abate. And that's a level of scrutiny that Coach Saban is very much aware of.

"There are high expectations at Alabama and it's tough living in the shadow of Bear Bryant," he admitted earlier this year at the Coach of the Year Clinic in Las Vegas, NV.

From a numbers point-of-view it's not even close. Coach Bryant’s all-time total of 323 victories has since been exceeded among Div. 1-A coaches by both Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno but it still remains a massive achievement. His 323-85-17 record gives him a career win percentage of .780 -- a staggering number given the amount of games involved.

But it is the sheer number of titles Coach Bryant accrued that remain the Mt. Everest for college football coaching: six national championships, 14 Southeast Conference championships and one Southwest Conference championship.

In comparison with all that, there’s little chance Coach Saban can ever catch up despite his own formidable resume.

Currently, Coach Saban boasts two BCS National Championships, three SEC Championships and five SEC West Division Championships.  In 14 years as a head coach he has rolled up a 124-50-1 record that (minus five games in 2007 vacated by the NCAA) has earned him a .703 winning percentage. At 58 years of age,  it's highly doubtful he'll be in the business long enough to make a serious stab at Coach Bryant's tally.

Yet, simply looking at the two coaches' records obscures the issue rather than clarifying it. The fact is there exists a wealth of similarities between Coach Saban and Coach Bryant that most Alabama fans recognize instinctively if not consciously. In terms of coaching philosophy, these two men were not that far apart and that's what we're going to take a look at in some detail today. So follow along after the jump.

During the intro video shown at Bryant-Denny Stadium (as it shows Kenny Stabler's "Run in the Mud") you hear the recognizable growl of Coach Bryan intoning one of his most famous maxims: "The same things win that always won... and we just have a different bunch of excuses if we lose." In this respect, the similarities between Coach Bryant's approach to the game and Coach Saban's aren't too difficult to perceive.

Neither Coach Bryant and Coach Saban invented anything new to build their national championship teams. The emphasis on preparation and hard work they both espouse are the hallmarks of any successful football team. The difference in their approach and other programs seems to be in the intensity, consistency and commitment. Things they they not only brought with them to Alabama, but subsequently required of both the coaching staff and the players.

With this in mind, the similarities between the two coaches in term of their means of achieving their ends become startlingly obvious -- once you start looking for them, of course. For the purpose of this article we'll only look at three: the importance of organization, conditioning and hiring quality assistants and staff.


In his 2004 book, How Good Do You Want to Be? Coach Saban -- then the head coach at LSU --  laid out his outline for creating a successful college football program. Organization, he insists, is a necessary condition for success with any large group and to achieve that a systematic approach is required.

"A systematic program includes organizing defense, offense, special teams, and recruiting. We [LSU] have a systems for the off-season. These systems are reevaluated every year; we have to be flexible enough to make the systems better, using a quality control system that is effective in evaluating strengths and weaknesses."

It's a philosophy he brought with him to Tuscaloosa in 2007 and it is eerily similar to the assessment of the system Coach Bryant put in place at Alabama when he arrived in 1958.

"[Coach Bryant] demanded of himself a definite plan for success, dedication and tough-mindedness that permitted 'decisions that were unpleasant'… The planning extended to every aspect of the program – administration, testing and selection of players, the teaching of fundamental football techniques, offensive and defensive techniques, scouting and game preparation, game administration and halftime adjustments."

For both coaches, the emphasis on organization and working efficiently is most apparent on the practice field. In his biography of Coach Bryant, Coach, Keith Dunnavant describes the practices at Alabama as "an intricately organized flurry of hitting and instruction" where every aspect of the proceedings was planed in advance.

This was a sharp contrast to the approach of his woeful predecessor JB "Ears" Whitworth where there was no formal schedule whatsoever. Practices could last hours on end or be cut short early depending on the mood of the coach. During practices it wasn’t uncommon for whole groups of players would be standing around waiting while others were doing drills or scrimmaging.

That all changed with the arrival of Coach Bryant, according to the author Tom Stoddard whose book Turnaround chronicles the coach's first year at Alabama.

"In meetings before and after practice, Bryant would thoroughly discuss plans and techniques with the assistant coaches and go over details until he was certain his way was understood. Once on the field, the teaching method was to describe the technique, demonstrate the technique, and then ask the player to perform it in one-on-one sessions."

This approach is almost identical to what Coach Saban espouses in How Good Do You Want to Be? in terms using preparation and organization to maximize efficiency.

"Some players – or teams – spend two hour in the afternoon doing drills, rehearsing plays, and going through the motions of practice. But others invest their two hours by working hard, correcting mistakes, and investing time can impact results dramatically."

And both coaches strongly emphasize the details of technique at the expense of general scrimmage.  Every aspect of the player's performance has been dissected to it's atomic elements and every drill of every practice is designed to rebuild those aspects correctly. And then they are done over and over until they become second nature.

For the sake of comparison it's interesting to see how close Stoddard's description of practices under Coach Bryant in 1958 are echoed in the comments of Alabama’s current Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart at the Coach of the Year Clinic last February.

"Practices [in 1958] were divided into five, six or seven segments of 15 or 20 minutes… At the end of each period, the managers blew a whistle and called out the assignments. Players and coaches were expected to sprint to the next station and the next drill." – Tom Soddard, Turnaround
"When we go to the practice field, we do not want to spend time explaining the drills… We want to repeat the drills and not have to teach daily… We do not waste time doing different drills or creating new drills. We want the repetitions for the individuals and we want to make the most of the time we have." -- Kirby Smart, The 2010 Coach of the Year Football Clinics Football Manual


Coach Bryant once insisted that a successful football team had to be "willing to out-condition your opponents." And he didn't waste any time making sure that the Crimson Tide was going to be in better shape than anybody it would face across a football field.

Coach Cochran hard at work.

In January 1958, just days after meeting their new coach for the first time, the Alabama players began a new conditioning program. The coaching staff had transformed the third floor gymnasium of Friedman Hall into a workout area with weights, floor mats and a chain for the door.

The sessions were voluntary but only in the sense that they were not, Stoddard wrote in Turnaround. If any player wanted to stay on the team they went up the stairs at your appointed time and the doors were locked behind them.

What ensued was a non-stop hour-long ordeal of intense physical drills and weightlifting that quickly became dreaded among the players. The sides of the room were eventually lined with buckets so the players to vomit into them and immediately resume the workouts. Players sometimes crawled out of the building.

The ordeal wasn’t simply to weed out the weak; the workouts were designed with the intention of "heightening physical condition, improving quickness and building endurance" as Stoddard explains it. Coach Bryant ran punishing practices but he made sure his players were physically prepared to handle them.

Jump forward to 2007 when, upon arriving in Tuscaloosa, one of the first things Coach Saban did was create the 4th Quarter Program based the conditioning regimen developed in 1983 by his assistant at Michigan State Carl "Buck" Nystrom. The spring program consists of runs twice a week for endurance and speed, twice a week agility work, and three-times-a-week weightlifting sessions. The goal is much the same as Coach Bryant’s a half-century before.

"You have to be in great physical condition. We loaf when we get tired. We make mental errors when we get tired and we will not be able to execute. When you are tired you do not play with the same kind of toughness. We must be a well-conditioned team… the teams we played this year could not match our intensity for 60 minutes."

When Coach Bryant introduced his conditioning program at Alabama in 1958 it was an oddity in the conference. Today, it's a necessity. Coach Saban demonstrated his commitment to it by hiring Scott Cochran who had worked with him at LSU. Cochran's intense demeanor has made him a Crimson Tide fan favorite but the success of the program has made him one of the highest paid conditioning coaches in college football. And that success isn't difficult to measure.

The initial payoffs tend to be in terms of team unity and player focus, something that is light-years better today than even in Coach Saban's first season. The longer term advantage is being able to flat out outlast opponents in games. Compare these two comments by Alabama players from the two eras:

"You’d just sit there and laugh at [your opponents]. Really, you just felt so good, you were dancing around over there, these old boys sucking wind, and we’d say, ‘Oh, boy, we’ve got you now.’ That was one of the best feelings in the world." -- Gary O’Steen, Crimson Tide Halfback,  1957 - 1960
"You stay bought into [the conditioning program] when you see your opponent sucking air and physically failing and you're still fit and ready and you know you own his ass. You know Coach Cochran was right all along and you don't ever want to be that man." -- Crimson Tide Linebacker Cory Reamer, 2005 - 2009

Assistants & Staff

Coach Bryant's impact to the game is felt even today due to the number of assistant coaches that served under him who went on to success leading their own programs. Of the 54 assistants that served on Coach Bryant at the Capstone, no less than a third went onto head coaching jobs elsewhere.

(Although it should also be mentioned that Coach Bryant maintained a 43-6 record against his former coaches and players. As LSU head coach Charlie McClendon who played under Coach Bryant at Kentucky once opined: "He taught us everything we know, but not everything he knew.")

This trend was not simply due to Coach Bryant's own tutelage but to the men he chose to work under him throughout his career. He insisted a successful staff must be comprised of "dedicated men who must believe in the head coach and his plan," but he wanted assistants with intelligence, not ‘yes men.’

"I don't hire anybody not brighter than I am," he said."If they're not smarter than me, I don't need them."

Coach Bryant confers with his assistants.

This wasn’t simply a case of Coach Bryant's notorious poor-mouthing, as Allen Barra explained in The Last Coach. "Every man was chosen carefully for his loyalty and dedication as well as his knowledge over specific areas of football," he wrote. And the man wasn't timid about surrounding himself with good people. At one point Alabama boasted a staff of 18 coaches, by far the largest in the conference.

Coach Saban’s approach to his staff is almost exactly the same. "Hire good people," he wrote. "It’s that simple."

In the past three-and-a-half years Alabama has become a hotbed of assistant coaching talent as evidence by the increasing pressure from other programs to hire them. The response by the university has been to increase their pay accordingly which, unsurprisingly, Coach Saban supports strongly: "Our guys do a great job, and they should be compensated for it," he said earlier this year.

What is interesting about Coach Saban’s hiring philosophy is how it seems to eschew the rush to grab the hottest name out there. When Major Applewhite left after a season as Offensive Coordinator under Coach Saban the man chosen to replace him was a little known WAC school assistant. While Jim McElwain was shocked to be contacted about the position at the time, he’s now a hot commodity among coaching circles.

"The bottom line is that any good leader should have a strong supporting staff who are not clones but add something to the organization," Coach Saban explains in his book. And while Coach Saban’s coaching tree has a long way to go in order to ever reach the extent of Coach Bryant’s, it’s already become clear it’s growing in the same manner.

It also deserves mention that both Coach Bryant and Coach Saban put a premium on their assistant's ability to recruit. They both keenly understood that the lifeblood of any college football program is keeping on-the-field talent coming in and the key to doing that was with good assistants.

Almost as soon as Coach Bryant arrived, he brought the coach of Huntsville High School, Clem Gryska on board. "He figured I had an open door to every high school in the state," Gryska recalled. And he was right.

Similarly, Coach Saban moved quickly upon arriving at Tuscaloosa to nail down the pipelines for in-state talent first. One of his earliest hires was Hoover High School assistant coach, Jeremy Pruitt, and within two months he brought head football coach at Benjamin Russell High School in Alexander City, Willie Carl Martin, on board as well.

The success of Coach Saban's staff in this respect has been evident in Alabama's recruiting classes ranking among the best, if not the best, in the country every year. Coach Bryant's success is apparent by his record.

These comparisons are by no means exhaustive. The two coaches' had extremely similar ideas concerning accountability,teamwork and the importance of fundamentals in all aspects of their respective programs just to name a few. Yet it's also very important to note one critical difference in the approach of the two coaches -- their specific focus.

Coach Bryant's emphasis was always on winning and paying the price that doing that entailed. "If you are not here to win a National Championship, you're in the wrong place," he told his team during their first meeting in 1958. Coach Saban, by contrast, has gone out of his way to tell his players the exact opposite.

"Every time you think of winning the national championship -- stop. Instead, think of what you have to do to dominate your opponent for sixty minutes," he wrote in his book.

The difference in philosophy is rather distinct but in practice they prove to be quite similar since both men prioritized the means over the ends knowing one eventually would lead to the other.

Coach Bryant pushed his players to focus on the goal but with the commitment to pay the price necessary to achieve it. "It's not the will to win that matters," he explained, "Everyone has that. It's having the will to prepare to win." Giving less than 110% even in practice was an unforgivable offense since it suggested a lack of conviction in the goal of winning.

Coach Saban, by contrast, urges players to have long term goals and to pursue them relentlessly but to do so by focusing on doing the task at hand the best of their ability. In a game situation this means dominating the opponent on every play is a faster way to victory than focusing on the scoreboard. "You have to play every play of the game as if it has a history or life of its own," he says.

Achieving that with consistency will eventually make the more distant goal -- such as winning national championships -- possible.

Part of the difference was a difference in perception toward losing and failure. For Coach Bryant, losing was a personal affront and a transgression that was not to be tolerated. Failure was never an option. For Coach Saban, failure is a necessary part of the process and critical for eventual success.

"When you play poorly and still win, that's the kiss of death," he wrote. "You have a lot of improving to do but not the right frame of mind with which to accomplish it."

Yet, despite this disjunct in approach both men put the highest premium on players that had the pride and perseverance to overcome defeat and continue their quest for excellence. Both understood they were only as good as the players on the field and were smart enough to focus the whole of their energy making those players reach the limits of their potential. That's a recipe for gridiron success as old as the game itself.