ATLANTA--If Clemson had completed one less pass or run one fewer of its 99 plays on January of 2017, we probably could have put this argument to bed.
But Clemson, led by the splendid Deshaun Watson, scored with one second left to beat Alabama 35-31 to win the CFP national championship. In the process it denied Alabama coach Nick Saban his sixth national championship.
If you have spent any amount of time in the state of Alabama, you know there is something magical about the number six. For if Saban had won at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium he would have tied Paul “Bear,” the Alabama icon, for most national championships won by a coach.
Saban, who is 217-62-1 as a college football coach, will get another chance at six Monday night when No. 4 Alabama (12-1) meets No. 3 Georgia (13-1) for the CFP national championship.
And if Alabama wins at Mercedes-Benz Stadium the debate will begin in earnest: If Saban gets to six, should he be considered Alabama’s greatest coach? And given the time in which Saban has done it, should he be given strong consideration as college football’s greatest coach ever? [membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
Now understand that when it comes down to Saban possibly supplanting The Sainted Bear, it is a generational argument. And it is deeply, deeply personal.
The Baby Boomers of Alabama will remind us all what a sorry state the program was in when Mama called Bryant home in 1958. By 1961 the program had been transformed as the Crimson Tide won six national championships over the next 19 years (1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979).
When Bryant announced that he was retiring, he said he “would probably croak in a week.” His final game was in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29, 1982. Just 43 days later he was dead.
The fact that Bryant passed so soon after this final game only added to the lore and the special place that he occupies in the hearts of that Alabama generation. And that’s why, I’ve long maintained, that it would take more than wins and national championships to supplant Bear Bryant. In this 25 years as head coach Bryant lifted up an entire state and gave them pride. He helped guide the University through the stormy waters of integration, using football as a beacon of how it could work.
Saban knows all of this which is why when the subject comes up in public appearances, he always defers to Bryant.
“Coach Bryant is Alabama’s greatest coach,” Saban said at a function I attended a couple of years ago.
Now, having said all that, if Saban wins Monday night it is essential that we put his accomplishments in context.
All of Saban’s national championships (2003, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015) have come in the BCS or College Football Playoff era. Only one was shared. His 2003 LSU team won the BCS championship but the AP media poll voted USC No. 1.
All of Saban’s championships required a win in a BCS or CFP national championship game. Four of Bryant’s championships were shared. Three of Bryant’s championships (1961, 1964, 1965) were awarded before the bowl games were played.
Bryant’s three championships in the 1960s were won at a time when schools were free to give as many football scholarships as they could afford. In 1973 a scholarship limit of 105 was introduced. That number was reduced to 95 in 1978 and finally went to 85 in 1992. So Saban won all of his championships in the era of 85 scholarships.
Finally, it should be noted that in Bryant’s 25 years as Alabama’s head coach (1958-1982) four SEC teams (LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama, Georgia) combined for nine national championships. Since Saban started at LSU in 2000 four SEC teams (LSU, Florida, Alabama, Auburn) have won nine national championships in 18 years including seven straight from (2006 to 2012).
The two men came from different times and different places. Both were the very best in their eras. Both already have statues outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium. It is the kind of argument that makes sports fun.
If Saban wins Monday night let the argument commence.
CAN SABAN CATCH THE BEAR?
With a win over Georgia Monday night, Alabama’s Nick Saban would tie the great Paul “Bear” Bryant for most national championships by a coach.
Bear Bryant (Alabama)……………….6
Nick Saban (LSU, Alabama)…………5
Bernie Bierman (Minnesota)……….5
Woody Hayes (Ohio State)……………5
Howard Jones (Yale, USC)……………5