It's the kind of comparison you hesitate to make -- like when someone compares a president to Lincoln or a new anchor to Walter Cronkite. Once you put someone on the same level as the greatest there ever was at their profession or their position, you change how they are viewed and what's expected of them. But, as I wrote shortly after Alabama won the national championship earlier this month, it might be time to start comparing Nick Saban to Bear Bryant.
There are a couple of gigantic caveats that obviously apply to this. First of all, these men coached in very different times, in ways that gave different advantages to each. For many years, Bryant wasn't bound by the same scholarship rules that Nick Saban now has to follow; at the same time, the Bear was confronted with the Byzantine structure of polls and bowl arrangements that didn't always end up with a "clean" No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup at the end of the season. Bryant never had to contend with an SEC Championship Game, something that ended the Crimson Tide's undefeated run in 2008, but he also didn't get the almost automatic championship berth that now comes with winning that game.
But if we take all that into account and isolate just the first six years of each man's career at Alabama, we get a picture that is surprisingly favorable to Nick Saban.
|Bryant vs. Saban|
|Bear Bryant||Nick Saban|
|Overall Win %||.808||.829|
|SEC Win %||.750||.800|
Now, we need to add a couple of more caveats on top of the normal ones above. First: Bryant was coming in after Ears Whitworth, the worst coach in the history of the Alabama football program and quite possibly one of the worst in the history of the SEC. And before you go "Three Mikes and Fran" -- Ears Whitworth went 4-24-2. At Alabama. Bear Bryant was undertaking a massive rebuilding project that makes what Saban was facing when he took over look like inheriting 1995 Nebraska.
And we're going with Saban's "official" record here, which takes away five wins from his initial season. If we were to take the results on the field, it would be 68-13, 39-9 and the corresponding winning percentages.
The thing that makes this entire enterprise so tricky, though, is that Bear Bryant did not become a legend based on what he did in his first half-dozen seasons, but what he did after that. Bryant's second national championship happened in his seventh season, his third would come the following year and he would finish worse than third in the SEC just twice in the 19 seasons that followed his first six on the sideline.
And when Bear Bryant retired after leading Alabama for 25 years, he was 69 years old. Nick Saban is currently 61, or almost 11 years older than Bryant was at the same point in his career. It seems unlikely that Nick Saban would be willing to coach until he's 80 years old just to see who's better.
So Saban might not "pass" Bear Bryant by on some of the longevity records -- the 13 SEC titles at Alabama alone, for starters, seems pretty safe -- but Saban has shown that he might be just as good in a concentrated period of time. And if you're an Alabama fan right now, a concentrated period of time is really all you're worried about. If Saban keeps putting up results like this for a few more years, the exact head-to-head with Bear Bryant won't matter as much; it will still be a whale of a ride while it's running.