TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There is no reason to revive a debate that cannot be settled by simple statistics, but it never goes away.
Paul W. “Bear” Bryant was the greatest college football coach in the Era of Bryant. Times were different, the world was different. One thing that wasn’t different: Every team in college football wanted to win, and Bryant won more than anyone else. He integrated a team in tumultuous times. He battled with the media sometimes. He was a leader.
Nick Saban is the greatest college football coach in the Era of Saban. Every team in college football still wants to win, and Saban wins more than anyone else. Saban battles with the media at times, too, but his challenge — one that Bryant didn’t face — is the need to feed the insatiable beast of the 24/7/365 news cycle that now exists.
Saban probably does more television appearances in a week, especially weeks like this, than Bryant did in a season, maybe two seasons. Both worked tirelessly, but time passes differently in 2021 than it did in 1971.
Nick Saban celebrates with his team after the Crimson Tide beat LSU for the 2011 title. (Photo: The Associated Press)
So how do you begin to compare: based on total wins, or conference championships or Heisman winners?
How do you begin to compare based on national championships
That’s a sticky one, although a win against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff championship game Monday night would, alliteratively, tie the two titans at the top. Bryant would have the following, all awarded by one or both of the major recognized wire services: 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978 and 1979. Saban would have seven, six at Alabama: 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2020. There is also the 2003 title he won at LSU, which Alabama fans count as part of the title family in the same way you must include at Thanksgiving and Christmas the really strange guy that your sister married.
So would a 2020 title tip the balance? Would it settle matters in our list-loving, LeBron-or-Michael-slanted brains? That depends on the brain of the beholder.
For one thing, circumstances are different. All of Saban’s titles, with or without assuming an outcome against Ohio State, have one thing in common: a win at the end of the year. Two of Bryant’s titles were settled after the regular season but before losses in the postseason, the 1964 championship and the 1973 UPI-only crown.
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