“Call no man happy until he is dead,” - Athenian statesman Solon, to King Croesus of Lycia, 560 BCE
Nick Saban is unwilling to speak of his legacy. For a man that sees many more productive years on the sideline, that is reasonable. And, for we outside observers, it is hard to adjudge the legacy of a man for whom it is still being written.
However, with Monday night’s 26-23 victory over Georgia, Nicholas Lou Saban, 66, has carved out an epithet that seemed nigh-impossible, indeed blasphemous, four decades ago: He has become the best to ever coach at the major college level.
By nearly every metric, Coach Saban has either met or exceeded the seemingly insurmountable gold standard set by Paul William “Bear” Bryant from 1945 to 1982.
Bryant held several major records that have since been passed by other coaches. The almost-talismanic number 323 was long ago eclipsed by several contemporaries of Bryant, the late Joe Paterno (409) and legendary ‘Noles architect Bobby Bowden (377.) HBCU godfather, Eddie Robinson of Grambling posted 408 victories. And, I am certain that St. John’s legend Joe Gagliardi’s 486 will not be topped until the heat death of the universe. In terms of all-time wins, Nick Saban’s 213 victories are paltry in comparison: 78 other coaches have done that. He can’t even stake a claim to be the best active coach in terms of winning games. Saban’s career win percentage of .786 is only 8th among active coaches, and only 4th among active coaches with at least 100 games played, behind Chris Petersen, Bob Stoops and Urban Meyer.
But, what Nick Saban has done at every program is win championships, and he has done so at four programs from the ground up, taking hard cases and making them champions. In that regard, he has few peers. In the modern poll era of football (1936-present) only he, Urban Meyer, and Bear Bryant can stake that claim. Nick Saban has won conference titles at a record-four separate programs, in three different conferences. The coaches that come closest to that mark are Bear Bryant (titles at three schools in two different conferences) and Urban Meyer (titles at three programs in three conferences.)
In fact, by almost every metric, Nick Saban has met, or exceeded, every accomplishment that Paul Bryant had earned in his first 22 years as a coach. Here’s how they compare through the first 22 years of college coaching and their first 11 seasons at Alabama.
|Metric||Paul Bryant||Nick Saban|
|Metric||Paul Bryant||Nick Saban|
|No. of Conference Titles (through first 22 years of career)||6||7|
|No. Years AP No. 1 (through first 22 years)||6||12|
|10-win seasons (12 or more game seasons only, first 22 years)||5||12|
|No. Schools w/Conference Titles (career)||5||4|
|Losing seasons (first 22 years)||1||0|
|No. Conferences with title won (career)||3||4|
|National Titles (through first 21 years of career)||3||6|
|National Titles at Alabama (through first 11 years at school)||3||5|
|National Titles (career)||6||6|
|Bowl Record (through first 22 years)||9-6-1tie||14-9-0tie|
|Win % (through first 22 years)||0.75||0.78|
|Win % (through first 10 years at Alabama)||97 wins, 14 losses, 7 ties (.822)||132 wins, 20 losses, 0 ties (0.868)|
This does not even touch upon the relative competitiveness of the eras in which the two men coached. Coach Bryant made his stellar career in an era of hoarded, unlimited scholarships. Those were eventually pared down to 101 scholarships. Coach Saban has always dealt with scholarship limitations, having to carve out a coaching career with 85 players on the roster. Despite the talent that Bryant was able to obtain, Saban actually has made more of them into difference makers: Bryant had 23 Consensus All-Americans throughout a career spanning over four decades. Nick Saban has already placed 27 All-Americans on consensus teams.
Ours is also an era of unprecedented parity, which has made Saban’s accomplishments all the more impressive: He has made a Bud/Bear/Woody career in a 21st century world: Every major conference has comparative big bucks; the talent level is better across the board; modern nutrition and training and science have produced better athletes for everyone. Saban has also had to deal with an unprecedented amount of scrutiny from the traditional media, electronic outlets, and the potential that every Joe with a keyboard and a Twitter account is a possible critic, fan, or citizen muckraker. It is not a career for the faint of heart: there are no longer private lives — not that Bryant was anything short of a rock star in the state.
By elevating Nick Saban, we are not disparaging Bryant’s accomplishments or his career. But, records were meant to be broken. The appellation of “best ever” is a malleable one, and while it is tempting to say that the feats of Saban’s career, one which is still being measured, will never be matched or exceeded, we know that to be wrong. Great men, like civilizations, rise and fall — ours is never the last era; our luminaries are never the final word.
And, Father Time is against him. Football is still, by and large, a younger man’s game. Only nine FBS coaches are in their 60s or older, and, of those, only Rocky Long (66,) Frank Solich (72,) and Bill Snyder (77) are older and still prowling the sidelines. Urban Meyer, who has the misfortune of coaching in the same era as Nick Saban, may very well pass all of Saban’s marks: He is a decade younger, in a winnable conference, at a traditional power. But, his time is not now. For now, and for the foreseeable future, this is Nick Saban’s sport.
Where you fall on the Bear-Saban divide is probably a factor of age and the era of football you grew up and grew old watching. But, nothing diminishes the fact that Alabama has been exceptionally blessed to have the two best to ever walk a sideline at the major college level.
However, for now, only one man can hold the crown: And, the best to ever coach them up, and the undisputed best of the modern era, is Nick Saban.
These are the good ole’ days.