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ESPN’s Mike Greenberg: “Alabama is the best program of all time.” Is it?

Looking at the claimants for “best ever.”

frank thomas

From SEC Country

Saban is making the rounds on ESPN today, going on many of the program’s shows as part of it’s “Car Wash,” and the Crimson Tide coach’s day began with an appearance on “Mike and Mike.”

Greenberg not only stated that Saban is the sport’s all-time greatest coach, but also that Alabama is the best program of all-time.

There’s no question that Nick Saban is among the very best to ever wear a whistle. Others go further and say that he is the best ever. I would agree with that sometimes-controversial assertion for a variety of reasons.

But, the line from Greenie that really caught my attention was the statement that Alabama is the sport’s greatest program.

Let’s look at the evidence for it. We’re not going to do individual accolades like Heismans and All-Americans; the determination of greatness is winning on the field:

NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

All-time wins:

Alabama is 5th with 878 wins since 1892. Ahead of the Tide are (year founded/wins): Ohio State (1890, 886); Nebraska (1890; 898); Texas (1893, 891); and Michigan (1879, 935.)

In this department, based upon similar years of play, Texas and Alabama fared best, with Texas having won 13 more games in one less season than Alabama. The other competitors began play seasons before the Tide, and Michigan had an absurd 13-year head start.

Advantage - Texas for apples to apples, or Michigan if you prefer an apples to oranges comparison

Earl Campbell  - File Photos Photo by University of Texas/Getty Images

Win %:

Again, Alabama places 5th in this category, at a healthy .721 (tied with Oklahoma.) Ahead of the Tide (and Sooners) are: Notre Dame (.723), Texas (.723), Ohio State (.724), and Michigan (.731).

Four of these teams are so close as to make no practical difference. The major outlier is Michigan, which has won just a shade over 1% more of its games than its competitors.

Advantage - Michigan

James Rouse

Conference Titles (All-time/Post-WII/Last 25):

We had to have an arbitrary dividing line for championships and conference titles. I chose 1946 for two reasons. 1. It is roughly contemporaneous with the AP era and the closest thing to a unified selector system, and 2. The modern conferences had been solidified by this time. Though most conferences had taken on something resembling their present configuration by the mid- to late-’30s, the War Years that followed resulted in many teams not even fielding a program. However, I’ve included all-time as well as Golden era and modern titles to see trends.

Michigan: 42, 26, 9

Ohio State: 37, 30, 10

Nebraska: 46, 38, 13

Oklahoma: 46, 40 (including one stretch of 14 in a row and 16 of 17,) 10

Alabama: 30, 22, 8

Texas: 32, 22, 5


Advantage: All-Time: Nebraska/Oklahoma. Post-WWII - Oklahoma (close second is NU). Past 25 - Nebraska

We’re going ahead and calling this for the Cornhuskers by a whisker.

Lou Holtz

Bowl Record:

There is an important caveat about Big 10 bowl teams. It was not until the 70s that the conference abandoned their ridiculous Rose-Bowl-or-Nothing scheme: Previously only the conference winner could go to a bowl game. Ohio State and Michigan’s bowl appearances are significantly lower than other programs who were not subjected to an inane, fart-sniffing rule. Notre Dame likes its navel-gazing as well, has declined bowl invites and has been shut out by the conference affiliation scheme.

That said...

Alabama dwarfs this field in this one for both most bowl appearances and bowl victories. Its .721 winning percentage in bowls smokes every other team on the list by a wide margin, save USC who has won 2-of-every-3 bowls.

Michigan: 21-24 (.479)

Ohio State: 22-25 (.468)

Nebraska: 26-27 (.491)

Oklahoma: 28-20-1 (.582)

Alabama: 38-25-3 (.721)

Texas: 27-24-2 (.528)

USC: 34-17 (.667)

Notre Dame: 17-18 (.498)

Advantage: Alabama, in a clean sweep


National Titles (All-time/Post-WWII/Last 25)

What jumps out at you here are the other two programs generally vying for “best ever”, Michigan and Notre Dame, haven’t really gotten over the hump in the modern era, totaling just 2 national titles between them in a quarter century. Likewise, some programs that were dominant before the post-war era were able to maintain or build on the success -- Nebraska, Alabama and Ohio State. Then you have the curious case of some programs that were excellent in the interim period between the post-War years but have dropped off in the modern era -- your Texases and USCs.

This makes sense, of course; championships are like mercantilism: one team gains at the expense of others, and generally two teams do not claim titles in the same season. And, in fact, in the last 20 years, that has been an impossibility, devolving into a zero-sum model: only one can ever stand as the champion.

Michigan: 11, 3, 1

Ohio State: 8, 7, 2

Nebraska: 5, 5, 3

Oklahoma: 7, 7, 2

Texas: 4, 4, 1

Alabama: 16, 11, 5

Notre Dame: 11, 7, 1

USC: 11, 7, 2

Advantage: Alabama, all time. Alabama, post-War. Alabama, past 25

Ohio State v Illinois Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Emergent Sunbelt Dynasties:

Florida, Miami, and Florida State can’t play the century-long big boy game. But, in the past half century, the Florida schools have taken turns dominating decades. For comprehensive treatment, I’m putting their data below:

Florida: Florida started playing in 1906 and have won 710 games (.633.) They have won 8 SEC titles and 3 national titles all in the past 26 years. They have gone 22-21 (.512) in Bowls. With Miami, if there is any true “new money” power, this is the newest.

Miami: The ‘Canes began play in 1926 and have won 613 games (.633.) With the exception of a stint in the SIAC, Miami was an independent for all purposes until 1990, when they joined the Big East formally. They won 9 conference and 5 national titles -- four of five of the national titles being before they had a conference home. Since joining the ACC, Miami has no titles of any kind, The ‘Canes are .500 in bowls at 19-19. It remains to be seen if Miami has national staying power, or if there was just an incredible 18-20 year period where UM was one of the national forces.

Florida State: This has easily been the most consistently dominant of the Florida schools. They have 18 conference titles and 3 national titles, all after WWII. Two of their three national titles have come since 1999, and 15 of the past 25 years have resulted in a conference title for the ‘Noles. FSU has a .682 winning percentage and 532 wins since they began play in 1947. They also have a good record in bowl games, matched only by USC and Alabama, 27-16-2 (.622).



It’s probably useless to say that there’s one best program across the sport’s 130+ years of history; instead, it may be more instructive to try and rank the teams into eras roughly as follows:

Pre-War years: Notre Dame, Michigan, Alabama, Texas in roughly that order.

Post-War til Reagan: Oklahoma, USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Alabama in basically any order you want here. Though, I’d probably give the nod to Alabama for one more title (6) than the others (5).

Reagan to the present: Alabama, Miami, Nebraska, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma in roughly that order.

There are so many other variables you can use to make your case or a counterfactual you can propose to support your argument. I think some teams like Michigan, USC and Nebraska have been consistently excellent, but I don’t think they can lay claim to any era where they were the dominant team for decades at stretch, much less having done so over multiple eras. Others like the Irish and Texas have not benefited from the national scope of the modern game. Still others have been up and down over different eras, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Florida State come to mind. Others have bottled lightning, like Miami and Florida.

So, is Alabama the best program of all time? It’s in the discussion and probably gets the nod for winning the biggest prize the most often and most consistently, likely with Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma a close runner-ups. But, it is easier to say it’s the best program in the modern era/post-WWII, with probably Ohio State and Oklahoma being the others in the discussion.

...Then again, check back in 30 years, and Florida State may have wiggled its way into the title and relegated everyone to second place...