Alabama football: Tracking down the Bear is finally within Nick Saban's reach
From the threadbare carpeting to the bare-bones weight room to the dead weight and hangers-on within the athletic department, Nick Saban surely saw a lot of easy fixes when he bolted the Miami Dolphins to become the 27th head coach at the University of Alabama.
But what Saban undoubtedly saw, crystal clearly, was this: a sleeping giant of a once-proud football program was under the layers of muck and grime, just waiting to be polished into a diamond.
Monday, 14 years and 11 days after he took the podium at Alabama to declare a whole new way of doing business, Saban’s Crimson Tide is on the cusp of what was absolutely unthinkable on that bright winter day of Jan. 4, 2007: a 6th national championship under Saban’s tenure, tying him with Paul W. Bryant, and a 7th overall, surpassing every college football coach in history.
Saban winning 6 national titles in 14 years would be arguably an even more impressive accomplishment than Bryant’s 6 national titles in 25 years at the Capstone. The Southeastern Conference, now 14 teams, is undeniably tougher than ever before. The glut of nationally televised games means high-profile players don’t just to go the handful of traditional power schools. And the current 85-player scholarship limit doesn’t allow Saban to overstock the roster like Bryant was able to do with virtually unlimited scholarships.
If the Crimson Tide can get past Ohio State in Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game, it would mark Saban’s 7th ring overall — as his 2003 BCS national championship with LSU was his first triumph on the sport’s biggest stage.
The hagiography that surrounds Bryant’s tenure in Tuscaloosa is exhaustive. The favorite son of Moro Bottom, Ark., Bryant starred at Alabama and won a national title as a player in 1935 before his coaching career took him to Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M. Mama finally called for Bryant to replace the spectacularly bad Jennings B. “Ears” Whitworth in 1958, touching off a quarter-century run of dominance that also included an astounding 13 SEC championships and 12 conference coach of the year honors.
Saban entered Alabama’s universe under similar circumstances. The program had been racked by NCAA sanctions stemming from Mike DuBose’s dubious tenure and recruiting disasters, was still reeling from the black eye given it from Dennis Franchione’s bolting to Texas A&M and Mike Price’s ill-fated experience at a Pensacola gentleman’s club, and was just a shell of former greatness under a mediocre coach and fine gentleman Mike Shula. Saban walked onto the tarmac at Tuscaloosa Regional Airport to cheers, into a packed media room and declared that the rhetorical buck stopped with him.
Bryant came home to Mama with similar circumstances. Whitworth’s Tide were abysmal, and Bryant himself was mediocre early at Alabama — going just 5-4-1 in 1958. More success came at a trickle, with Bryant teams going 7-2-2 in 1959 and 8-1-2 in 1960, before a landslide in the form of an 11-0 season in 1961 that ended with a Sugar Bowl victory and the national championship.
Saban’s initial years at Alabama? Dogged by his ragged departure from the Dolphins, as well as entitled players who needed to be weeded out, Saban went 7-6 with an Independence Bowl victory in 2007. But a stellar recruiting class in February 2008, led by 5-star wide receiver Julio Jones, immediately bore fruit in the form of a 12-0 regular season before an SEC title-game loss to Florida and a Sugar Bowl loss to Utah spoiled the end of Saban’s sophomore year.
The next year? An undefeated 14-0 season and the 2009 national championship.
Bryant famously put his Texas A&M players through hellish preseason conditions at Junction and had a no-nonsense approach to all facets of football at Alabama. Being athletic director as well certainly helped, but Bryant’s 3rd-year success gave him enough juice in a state racked by racial injustice to make changes like finally integrating his football program with Wilbur Jackson in 1971.
Saban has been a lot of things in his 14 years at Alabama — recruiting machine, media bully, unrelenting pursuer of excellence, enthusiastically undesirable of BS — but he has also been open to change. Not at the same level that Bryant faced with racial inequality, of course, but Saban wrestled with the wholesale offensive changes in the game and eventually changed his offense from a balanced run/pass attack to a scheme that embraced passing to the point that it produced Heisman Trophy finalists in Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones.
Bryant became a deity in Tuscaloosa, with the school attaching his name to Denny Stadium, the city renaming the road in front of it Paul W. Bryant Drive, the school building the Bryant Museum to display and celebrate his coaching legacy and eventually the city building Paul Bryant High School.
Saban’s legacy is slightly different, partially because it is still being written. He undoubtedly will get a road on campus named for him — University Boulevard becoming Saban Boulevard seems appropriate — and Bryant-Denny Stadium itself has been renovated twice more in his tenure to become a 101,821-seat college football palace. The Bryant Museum, already overflowing with trophies and memorabilia from Bryant’s day, could certainly be doubled in size to house and memorialize Saban’s teams.
Who knows what Monday brings, whether it is yet another Crimson Tide romp in a national championship game or an Ohio State upset victory. But after years of building a résumé to become undeniably the 2nd-best coach in Alabama history, Nick Saban finally has a chance to get to college football’s Mount Everest — Paul W. Bryant.
There are no higher mountains to climb, and winning even a single title in that gigantic shadow is remarkable enough to earn a bronze statue on Alabama’s Walk of Champions.
Win 6? Your legacy truly lives forever.