Over the last week, Sports on Earth counted down the 100 greatest coaches in college football history. The project was inspired by the success of Nick Saban, whose fifth national championship last January has propelled him into the thick of conversations about all-time great coaches.
Whereas once it seemed unthinkable for anybody to compare to Bear Bryant, Saban has made a legitimate argument to being not only the best Alabama coach, but the best college football coach period. We're not quite ready to make that declaration yet. Our rankings placed Bryant first, Notre Dame's Knute Rockne second, Saban third, Notre Dame's Frank Leahy fourth and Michigan's Fielding Yost fifth. It is an ongoing conversation, though, as Saban, at age 64, is still showing no signs of slowing down and has a potential top team again ready for 2016.
There are some similarities to the career trajectories of Bryant and Saban, as both have had four head coaching jobs, making the biggest name for themselves at Alabama. So how do their careers (college only) compare thus far? Let's go job by job.
First Jobs: Saban at Toledo, Bear at Maryland
Saban's path to Alabama was more of a winding road than Bear's. After playing at Kent State, Saban stayed on as an assistant to Don James (who would go on to win a national title at Washington), before a long journey that took him from Syracuse to West Virginia to Ohio State to Navy to Michigan to the Houston Oilers, before he landed the Toledo job at age 38. He went 9-2, losing two games by a total of five points and sharing the MAC title, but losing the head-to-head tiebreaker to Central Michigan, who played in the California Bowl. That was it for Saban, who leapt to the NFL to be Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator in Cleveland.
Note: SRS in charts refers to Sports-Reference's Simple Rating System data, which adjusts point differential for strength of schedule.
Bryant's first head coaching job was a step up from where Saban began. A star player at Alabama under the legendary Frank Thomas, Bryant assisted at Alabama and Vanderbilt before joining the Navy during World War II. After the war ended, he was hired by Maryland at age 32 and finished with a 6-2-1 record -- Maryland's second winning record in eight years. With that, Bryant jumped to the SEC at Kentucky.
Second Jobs: Saban at Michigan State, Bear at Kentucky
Saban returned to East Lansing in 1995 to coach a middling Michigan State program that had faltered with 26 losses in George Perles' last four years and had only one AP top-10 finish since Duffy Daugherty's national titles in 1965-66. He began his tenure by getting smoked 50-10 by Tom Osborne and Nebraska -- "You're not as bad as you think," Saban says Osborne told him afterward -- and had four mediocre seasons, with highs including upsets of then-No. 7 Michigan in '95, No. 4 Penn State in '97 and No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 1 Ohio State in '98. Saban finally got the Spartans rolling in 1999, with a 9-2 record and a top-10 ranking -- although he left for LSU before the Spartans beat Florida in the Citrus Bowl.
Kentucky tires to claim it won the 1950-51 national championship under Bryant, in a season in which it did go 11-1 with a Sugar Bowl win but finished No. 7 in the AP poll … because the final polls were taken before the bowl games. Kentucky had lost its final regular-season game to Tennessee, but then it beat No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, thus creating a messy championship by today's standards. It's not a recognized championship, but nevertheless, it shows the success that Bryant had at his second stop. That team was the second of five straight top-20 finishes for the Wildcats, who had never had a ranked season before Bryant and wouldn't again until 1976. Unfortunately for Kentucky, Texas A&M called Bryant, who made the move in 1954.
Third Jobs: Saban at LSU, Bear at Texas A&M
Both Saban and Bryant moved on to big jobs at schools that had seen their football programs fall on hard times. LSU had two ranked teams in 11 years when Saban took over in 2000 and had not won an SEC title since 1988. Saban proceeded to win two SEC Championship Games in four years, knocking Tennessee out of the national title race in 2001 and punching its own ticket to the BCS title game in 2003. That '03 LSU squad went 13-1, topping Oklahoma 21-14 in the Sugar Bowl to claim Saban's first national championship and LSU's first since Paul Dietzel did it in 1958. Saban followed that with a 9-3 campaign, then jumped to the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
Bryant's Texas A&M tenure started in 1954 with an infamous debacle: the brutal Junction, Texas, preseason camp that chased off a chunk of the team -- one that hadn't finished ranked since 1941 -- and ended with the Aggies going 1-9. The turnaround was swift, though, and the core of an improved team was built. Bryant's final three Texas A&M teams went 24-5-2, with the 1957 squad climbing to the top of the polls before suffering three straight defeats to end the season. The late-season disappointment continued for Texas A&M, as Mama called, and the Bear went home.
Fourth Jobs: Saban at Alabama, Bear at Alabama
Saban was an outsider when he got the job, but it was a necessary home run for Alabama, who lured him back to college from the NFL to fix a team that couldn't put consistently strong seasons together since the end of the Gene Stallings era a decade earlier. Saban's first team struggled to find its footing -- 7-6 with a loss to Louisiana-Monroe -- but that season marked the end of any sort of struggles. Since then, Alabama has been a nearly unstoppable machine, reclaiming the crown of the strongest, most powerful program in college football. Alabama has won at least 10 games and finished in the top 10 every year since 2008, played in a major bowl game seven of eight years, made the first two playoff fields and won four of the last seven national championships. Saban signs No. 1 recruiting classes every year, and that talent is molded into championship teams. He has also coached Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry, the only two Alabama players to win the Heisman Trophy.
Bryant coached 18 top-10 teams in 25 seasons, becoming the dominant figure in the sport. He coached two undefeated teams and won three national titles in his first eight seasons. After a dry spell, Alabama switched to the wishbone and finally integrated, and Bryant went on another dominant run that included a claim to the national title in 1973, thanks to the UPI's crowning of a champion before the bowls, and back-to-back titles in 1978-79. From 1971-79, Alabama lost more than one game in a season only twice. Bryant stepped down after the 1982 season and died a month after his final game.
For now, it's unfair to compare Saban's Alabama tenure to Bryant's entire tenure. Saban will turn 65 this fall, and he would have to coach at Alabama until he's 81 years old to match Bryant's Tuscaloosa longevity. It's impossible to know how long Saban will coach, but it's unlikely he'll stick around anywhere near that long. For now, we can compare what Saban has done in nine seasons at Alabama to what Bryant did in his first nine -- and the two look awfully similar.
As mentioned, Saban's story is still being written, and there's a good chance he'll enter his 10th season with the Crimson Tide rated as the preseason No. 1. In Bryant's 10th year, Alabama opened ranked No. 10 and finished 17th, before a pair of unranked seasons at the low point of Bryant's tenure. Every dynasty must end, and while it seems impossible at the moment, Saban's run is bound to hit a rough patch, at least by Alabama standards, at some point.
Still, given the ridiculous amount of talent that Saban has recruited, it's just impossible to see the Crimson Tide slowing down in the next few years, giving Saban an opportunity to catch up to and even surpass Bryant, if he hasn't done so already.
It's difficult to compare eras, and our top 100 fully acknowledges that. There's no perfect way to compare coaches of different eras, and in many ways Saban faces more challenges than Bryant did, with scholarship restrictions that previously didn't exist and tougher paths to the national championship in the playoff system. There isn't parity in college football today, but there's more parity now than in the 1970s.
Bryant's legend is too strong -- he was too charismatic, too ingrained in Crimson Tide lore -- to ever truly be surpassed as an Alabama personality. But for over 20 years, Alabama had been looking for another Bear. On the field, at least, it has had the incredible fortune of finding him, and maybe even more.