Nick Saban will go down in history as the greatest college coach of all-time.
He already owns that title.
But, so much of what makes Saban great is also inimitable, unique even. Saban has the complete package: His eye for coaching talent, his recruiting prowess, his ability to develop players and coaches he brings into Tuscaloosa, the program-building, the pre-game preparations, the work effort, the ability to motivate, the outstanding record in big games when they matter the most.
A lot of good coaches can nail down a few of these; a few great ones can even tick half a dozen off. But Nick Saban is Nick Saban. He’s sui generis, in a category all by himself. In that respect, he will cannot be considered “an innovator” — how he builds programs and manages them is unique to Saban (though, Kirby has come closest, and it’s not surprising he has literally stolen every single thing from Alabama to bring to Georgia — right down the LED lights).
But his predecessor in greatness, the man Nick claimed the GOAT crown from, was special in his own way: Paul W. “Bear” Bryant had his own idiosyncrasies and unique skills, but on the gridiron, he was a trailblazer. What Bear left the game on a day-by-day basis, has been imitated, borrowed, adapted, and otherwise become so ubiquitous throughout the sport, that we lose track of those impacts he made on the sport. Revolutionary at the time, we can’t imagine a college football landscape without his contributions.
Let’s go over a few, as part of SBN’s Game Changer series.
Though race had long-been an issue in college athletics, Bryant was the first coach that had to reside in an uncomfortable world of segregation and integration in a very public spotlight; an employee of the State of Alabama — and handcuffed by Wallace and the segregationists — while also balancing the demands of fielding a consistent national powerhouse and hoping to one day attract the black talent that the State prohibited him from actively recruiting. And he had do this while trying to avoid being lynched himself, or ostracizing the donor class that the Tide relied upon, while also quietly moving behind the curtains to get it changed. His attempts at creating a publicly apolitical program, one that brushed against but never fully confronted the political and racial dynamics tearing the nation apart, has since been imitated across a broad range of social issues. Did it work? Not always. Beginning in 1963, and then later in 1966 and 1970, Bryant would face a racial reckoning: sins of the father, and what not. While that apocryphal 1970 USC game is what everyone recalls, as well as the 1971 integrated class, what he did quietly to integrate the team by way of the walk-ons of 1967, is often forgotten. And for better and worse, “stick to sports” was born in Tuscaloosa by a man stuck in the middle that you can praise or fault, depending on your perspective and sense of presentism — despite the fact he had tried to desegregate the SEC as far back as the 50s, while at Kentucky.
You will find, in almost every evaluation of a defensive lineman or defensive line scheme, a baffling array of numbers: “one-technique,” or “three-technique,” for instance. We speak of “five-tech” pass-rush defensive ends and “two-gap nose tackles,” and “A-Gaps” etc.
Ever wonder where that came from? Why, Paul Bryant:
If there is a defender heads up on the center he is a 0 technique. If he aligns on the guard’s shoulder he is in a shade or 1 technique. Moving outside from the center, all the head up positions are labeled with even numbers. Heads up on the guard is a 2 technique, over the tackle is a 4 technique, and the over the tight end is a 6 technique. The outside shoulders of the offensive linemen are the odd-numbered techniques. The outside shoulder of the guard is a 3 technique, the outside shoulder of the tackle is a 5 technique, and the outside shoulder of the tight end is a 9 technique. The inside shoulder of the tight end is a 7 technique. No one knows why that is the case, but Coach Bryant numbered it that way and no one has the guts to change it. There are two special techniques on the inside [shoulder] of the guard and tackle. Those are called the 2i and 4i techniques.
Not only has no one “had the guts” to change it, as Coach Paul Johnson lamented, there are very few coaches in the country with the hubris to even try it:
His system not only identified specific positions, but also the “techniques” a defensive lineman would use to play that position, since their function changed depending upon where they were aligned and their proximity to the ball, prior to it being snapped.
So, a “technique” not only specifies a location opposite the offensive line and the responsibility that goes with it, but the skills a defensive lineman will need to carry out those duties. Should he be moved or “shift” a few feet left or right—his duties and skills will need to change as well, and in accordance with his new alignment or “technique.”
The thing you need to remember is that the parcel of turf along the line of scrimmage is precious, so moving half a foot—six inches!–can make a big difference in a tackle being made or a tackle being missed. And a missed tackle can easily result in six points.
It’s why the positions are called “techniques” instead of just alignments. Because they not only tell a defensive lineman where to be, but how to do his job when he get’s there.
As with all things in football, people do steal and adapt: imitation is not only the most sincere form of flattery, it’s the quickest way to notch some wins. And Bryant’s gapping and numbering schemes gave way to more advanced techniques.
That wasn’t all The Bear changed. Bryant innovated along the offensive line, as well, tweaking — sometimes entirely inventing — new blocking schemes:
We think of Alabama football as a hard-nosed, defensive-minded program. That is the Tide’s history for a full century now. But, what if I told you that Bear Bryant is also credited as one of the earliest innovators of the Spread offense, with some of his concepts still appearing today:
In Meyer’s version, the quarterback begins to sprint out and reads the defensive end. If the end attacks him, he pitches or “shovels” it up to either a running back, slot receiver, or H-back. If the end stays home the quarterback can simply continue around him, and often has a pitch read as a third option. The backside guard also pulls and leads. It’s a great play
Who’s still using his offensive schemes?
Heard of Gus Malazhn, maybe?
We have grown so accustomed to year-round conditioning of players, that we can’t imagine a time when it wasn’t part of the sport. But, until the mid-50s, it was unheard of.
Bear Bryant brought modern conditioning and year-round fitness to the sport. While Junction, Texas may not fly in 2023, at the time, it was on the cutting edge of team cohesion, physicality, and athletic conditioning. As with so many other things Bryant gave to football, it was immediately stolen by some of his biggest rivals, who in turn elevated their programs to compete with an all-time great.
It is fair to say that the modern SEC — and not just aspects of college football — was borne as a result of Bear Bryant:
Bryant was innovative throughout his career,” Gilbert said. “Neyland looked around the country and cherry-picked things offensively that he saw other coaches do, but Bryant did that way more than Gen. Neyland ever did. He once said he didn’t give a damn about offense, but defense was what he prided himself on.”
If Neyland impacted the way college defense was played, Bryant helped change the football culture in the SEC.
“He elevated the level of competition,” Dunnavant said. “You talk to anyone who was in the SEC in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, he elevated everything: the intensity of the way the game was played on the field, the year-round conditioning. He took the SEC to another level and created this incredible standard that not only his successors at Alabama have had to shoot at, but every coach in the SEC since then.”
Whether you want to reduce the man’s achievement as simply being the best adapter of others’ innovations, as Bud Wilkinson famously did, or whether you want to engage in a hagiography that lays every positive development in the sport at his feet, it is hard to deny the impact that Paul W. Bryant had on the sport, on the creation of the modern SEC, on the development of Coach-as-a-marketable brand, and even on leery acceptance in a deeply segregationist state and era.
It is as inconceivable to imagine football without Paul Bryant as it is to imagine traversing Tuscaloosa without using one of the many streets named in his honor.
At the end of the day, perhaps the most lasting contribution Bryant made to college football lay not necessarily in the innovations themselves, so much as they lay in his ability to teach them to others, to be replicable. And those contributions enabled the sport as a whole to grow, with the modern SEC still laying claim to his offspring.
Bear Bryant is a legend for a reason.