HOOVER, Ala. — He drives to work on Paul Bryant Drive. He wins games in Bryant-Denny Stadium. And yet he already has his own statue outside that stadium.
In six years, Nick Saban has achieved the unthinkable. He has forced a dialogue as to who is Alabama’s greatest football coach.
Paul “Bear” Bryant coached for 25 years at his alma mater. “Mama” called him home in 1958 to clean up a mess. He retired after the 1982 season with six national titles on the trophy shelf. No one towered over the landscape of Southern football like the Bear.
Steve Spurrier rocked hard at Florida in the 1990s, at least on the SEC level. But in the bigger picture, Spurrier’s work pales next to Saban.
Alabama wasn’t Saban’s “Mama,” but it called him away from the Miami Dolphins to clean up another mess in 2007. Saban was happy to oblige and get back to college football, where he had won a national title at LSU in 2003.
Six years later there is a statue. Oh, and three national titles in the past four years.
It’s hard to imagine Alabama football ever being on a higher pedestal than it is today. The Tide is even the preseason pick to win it all again in 2013.
Saban, a youngish and fit 61, made the rounds Thursday at SEC Media Days, a 10-ring circus that Bryant, who died in 1983, could not have imagined.
To get to the media, Saban had to negotiate a “Roll Tide” chanting crowd roped off in the hotel lobby. His expression suggested he’d rather be in a dark room breaking down videotape of Texas A&M.
In the middle of that crowd, several middle-aged men were studiously comparing notes on their respective Alabama championship T-shirts.
Here’s what Gary from Mobile told me:
“If Coach Bryant were alive today and you asked him, ‘Who’s the best football coach you’ve ever had?’ He would tell you, the guy there now.
“And I’m a Bryant fan from ’58.’’
Paul from Hartselle, Ala., equivocated a bit:
“Well, I admired Coach Bryant growing up and he was the best in his time, Nick is there now. He’s where Bear Bryant was in his heyday. And I love ’em both. I’m glad they both came to Alabama.’’
Paul’s grandson, he noted, is named Paul Bryant Sibley. Who’s to say his great-grandson won’t be named Nick Saban Sibley.
Bryant was 50-10-5 in his first six years at Alabama. He had one national title, with two more just around the bend.
Saban is 68-11 with those three crystal footballs. By this point no one remembers that loss to Louisiana-Monroe in 2007. They do remember six consecutive wins over Tennessee.
It’s probably harder to win a title now than it was in Bryant’s day. More schools — especially in the SEC — commit more
resources to the pursuit. Bryant benefitted from unlimited scholarships. He could stockpile talent on the Alabama bench that today would be playing at LSU or Auburn.
All of which makes Saban’s record even more impressive. But the last guy who wants to open that can of worms is Nick Saban.
“I don’t think I have any reason that anybody should do that,’’ he said. “Bear Bryant is probably the greatest coach in college football in terms of what he accomplished, what his legacy is.
“I don’t think it would be fair that anyone really be compared to what he was able to accomplish, the way he did it, and how he impacted other people.’’
As another southerner, William Faulkner, said, the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. That has always rung true with Alabama football.
Bryant’s presence has remained inescapable in Tuscaloosa, on campus, especially at Alabama games. During the lean years of the early 21st Century, it almost seemed creepy to outsiders. As if, the faithful were hoping for a resurrection.
It finally came. He just doesn’t wear a houndstooth hat.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.