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SEC 2009 // Nick Saban, Alabama and History

Perhaps surprising Alabama fans who think me some sort of anti-Bama attack hound, I have a great deal of respect for the Crimson Tide's heritage and history. Even growing up as an Auburn fan, I was in a family of Alabama fans, and couldn't escape the idea of Bear Bryant as greatest head football coach ever -- an honor he very likely deserves -- even had I wanted to.

And there's a good reason for Alabama fans to remember Bryant with fondness. Because no coach, even the great Nick Saban, is ever going to repeat the Bear's accomplishments. Not at Alabama, and not anywhere else.

In fact, I would go so far as to say I doubt that anyone will repeat the dominance of Steve Spurrier in the early to mid-1990s. Urban Meyer might come close, but it will be far more difficult than we tend to imagine.

Consider that the only SEC coaches to have consecutive 10-win seasons at their current location are Les Miles and Mark Richt. And consider that no team has won consecutive SEC championships since Tennessee in 1997-98. If Urban Meyer wins another national title, he'll have three -- two of them with one of the greatest football players in history. No other SEC coach has won two since Bryant.

In comparison, Bryant had streaks of 10-win seasons from 1961-62, 1971-75 and 1977-80. (Remember, there were ties in those days. The 1960 Bama team went 8-1-2 while the 1965 team's 9-1-1 record is the only one that keeps 1964-66 from joining that list; 1981 ended Bear's last streak because Alabama went 9-2-1.) And Bryant won or shared consecutive SEC titles in 1964-66, 1971-75 and 1977-79. The only stretches before or since even similar to one of Bryant's streaks were Florida's reign over the league from 1993-96 and Tennessee's three titles (one of them split three ways -- with Georgia Tech and Sewanee) from 1938-40. Bryant had six national championships, including two repeats.

Obviously, I believe that Florida and Alabama this year are both going to post some notable streaks. I've predicted Alabama will go 11-1, the first time Nick Saban has ever won 10 games in two consecutive seasons. And it's clear from what I've posted so far that I'm calling Florida to again win more than 10 games and win a second consecutive SEC title and a second straight national title. That's still a long way from Bear.

Parts of what helped Bryant and Spurrier achieve their dominance was the era in which they coached. Much of Bryant's success -- easily half -- came before the NCAA began limiting scholarships in 1973. Unlimited scholarships had a more profound effect on the game than fans might think -- not only did Bryant have at his disposal as much talent as he could sign (and the initial limit of 105 didn't mark too much of a downgrade), stockpiling the best recruits in Tuscaloosa also allowed him to keep a good amount of talent away from his competitors. As the scholarship limit has fallen to the current 85, the best schools have been able to "keep" less talent away from other teams. Not only are the best teams less talented than they used to be, they are facing more talented opponents.

Spurrier, of course, came along at a time when the SEC was simply not prepared to stop his offenses. As they caught on -- sometime around the late 1990s -- he was slightly less successful. (I'm focusing exclusively on his go-round as Florida head coach for the purposes of this article.)

I want to make it clear that I am not trying to diminish the accomplishments of Bryant or Spurrier. Had they come along now, would they have still been among the best coaches of their generation and (particularly in Bryant's case) the best coaches in history? I believe so. Bear Bryant would have found a way to be dominant today just as he did in his own day. He might not have been as dominant, but that's about like saying if Michael Jordan had won one fewer NBA title, he would not have been as dominant.

No, Bryant would still have been arguably the strongest contender for the title of "the best who ever lived." His accomplishments won't be repeated in part because of the rule changes -- but mostly because there was only one Bear Bryant.

If Nick Saban does half as well, he'll be doing pretty good.

NEXT WEEK: Florida


MONDAY: Alabama Aims for Something Special
TUESDAY: Tuscaloosa Nights (and Days); Nick Saban Runs for Congress
WEDNESDAY: How About That Defense? We Also Have to Play Offense?
THURSDAY: Tomorrow's Tide
EARLIER TODAY: Elephants Answering Questions About Alabama Football