Chasing the Bear

Kyle Riviere
kriviere@weeklycitizen.com
Weekly Citizen Sports Editor Kyle Riviere.

Paul "Bear" Bryant casts a huge shadow over not just Tuscaloosa, but all of the college football world. After Alabama beat Clemson, 45-40, to capture their 11th national title, that shadow just became a little smaller.

His personality may not be so big, and he may not don the legendary black and white houndstooth hat, but Nick Saban has chased down the ghost of Bryant. He's right on the Bear's tail.

Saban already has a statue in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium--just like the Bear. Now, he has captured yet another national title. It's his fourth at Alabama and his fifth total, which ranks him only second to Bryant--who has six.

Understandably, the talk of Saban's legacy has been heating up ever since the Tide's thrilling victory over Clemson.

Is Saban better than Bear? Is Saban the best coach in college football history?

I'm not ready to reach those conclusions. What the Bear accomplished in his coaching career has made it almost blasphemous to mention a coach in the same breath with him.

Until Saban wins another title to tie his record, I'm still proclaiming the Bear as the greatest. However, Saban's now nipping at his heels.

In fact, you can make a compelling argument that what he has been able to do in this modern era of college football is even more impressive than what Bear pulled off in his illustrious career.

There is no question about it, it's tougher to win a national championship in 2016 than it was in 1973.

There is more parody. A lot of this is due to how wide open recruiting has become. This has allowed the talent to be more evenly distributed throughout the country.

It also comes down to simple mathematics. Teams play more games. Most conferences have championship games now, and the new College Football Playoff has forced schools to face an extra matchup to win a national title.

However, the biggest roadblock in modern college football is the inability to keep teams intact.

In Bear's day, you could build dynasties because players stayed all four years. Now, teams often lose their best players as they leave early for the NFL Draft. Could you imagine if LSU was able to keep all of those early departures from 2012-14?

Another impressive feather in Saban's cap is how he has won national titles at two different schools. Even the Bear couldn't do that.

He turned around Kentucky and Texas A&M's programs. He won Sugar and Cotton Bowls in Lexington and led a hapless Aggies team to an undefeated season in 1956. Though, his six championships were all won at Alabama.

Before Saban became a living legend, he won his first national title for LSU--their first since 1958. He totally transformed the program while in Baton Rouge.

Prior to his arrival, they were a middle-of-the-road team coming off of two straight losing season. He instantly made them a bowl winner. Five years later, they had won two Sugar Bowls, a national title and two SEC championships.

He laid the foundation for what LSU has become today. They're now a top-tier program that is expected to win 10 games and compete for a national title year in and year out.

It just pains me to think about what could have happened for LSU if Saban never left Baton Rouge. How many more national championships could the Tigers have won? Could we be the dominant war machine that Bama has been since 2009? There is no doubt it my mind.

Saban is a lot like Bear in many respects. He coaches to the very end, he never gets complacent and he's never satisfied. As a result, his players do the same.

That's exactly why you rarely see a Saban-led team ill-prepared, flat or losing games that they shouldn't lose.

Either way you go, Bear or Saban, you're eyeing greatness. How successful was Bear at Alabama?

In his 25 years there, the Tide finished in the AP top 10 on 19 separate occasions. In 13 of those 25 years, Alabama either went undefeated or lost only one game.

How does Saban's numbers compare? In nine years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama has only ranked outside the AP top 10 once. They have gone undefeated or lost only one game four times.

Bear had an 81-percent winning percentage with the Tide. They also won 81 percent of their SEC games. Saban has won 85 percent of his games in Tuscaloosa and 83 percent of SEC contests there.