By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
Even before Nick Saban coached Alabama to its third national championship in the last four years and his fourth overall in Monday night’s 42-14 beatdown of Notre Dame in the BCS national championship game, the question was being asked.
As it was put forth in Sunday’s press conference to Saban by a reporter: “I've heard people say that if Alabama wins this game, that Nick Saban is in the same conversation as Coach Bryant.”
It wasn’t exactly a question, but Saban answered in the manner you’d expect.
“I wouldn't agree with that at all,” he said. “It's about this team, these players, all they've done all year, embracing the challenges that they've had, especially after having success a year ago, to get themselves in a position to have this opportunity, it's all about trying to help those players be successful, and that's really all we're focused on and all we care about. I don't think it would be fair at all to Bear Bryant and the tradition that he created and the standard of excellence that he sustained for years and years and years to really there's no one that I know that I would say should be even spoken of in the same sort of circumstance at all.”
Not until now.
Not until you’ve won three BCS championships over three of the biggest names in college football history (Texas, LSU and Notre Dame) by an average of 33.3 to 11.6 points, by an average total offense edge of 392.3 yards to 135.6 and by shutting out the Longhorns, Tigers and Fighting Irish in 7 of 12 quarters.
Most Alabama fans – even those in the 25 to 35-year old age bracket who never saw the Bear coach the Crimson Tide to any of the six national titles they won under him – still believe there’s no better ’Bama coach than the Bear, because that’s what their parents and grandparents told them.
Because the Bear came along at such key time in the history of the state of Alabama, the accomplishments of his program helped sometimes eased the pain. Anytime that Alabama was able to beat head-to-head or finish ahead in the polls of the perceived glamour programs, particularly USC and Notre Dame, and all their Heisman winners who seemed straight out of Hollywood casting – it was a win for the whole South.
Take that feeling six times for the Bear and magnify it even greater in the state of Alabama.
Most of the Bear’s coaching career came at a time when unimaginable amounts of money didn’t rule college sports, when a coach was actually afforded two or three losing seasons to establish groundwork for a winning program.
Most of his coaching career happened without the constant glare of technology, with the 24/7 prodding eyes of I-phone, the forked tongues of blogs and Twitter.
There’s also the fact that in Bear Bryant’s day, there were no NCAA scholarship limitations. Any school could sign as many players as they wanted as long as they could provide some kind of aid, because the NCAA didn’t have rules in place anticipating the recruiting shenanigans that grew as the game got bigger.
Throw in the Bear’s 232-46-9 record in 25 seasons at Alabama (323-85-17 adding his combined 12 seasons at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M), his 72-2 record in Bryant Denny-Stadium, his 24 consecutive bowl trips, his 14 SEC titles, the aforementioned six national titles, his 46 first-team all-Americans, 103 NFL draft choices (including 15 first-rounders) and the thousands of athletes he prepared to succeed in all walks of life.
Well, yes, then it appears Bear still walks on water and Nick Saban is still trying to find flippers his size.
But with the fear of being ticketed every time I pass through Alabama, I’m going to say it.
Because times have changed in college football and in our world in general, with the scholarship limitations and stringent academic creating vastly more parity, with today’s instantaneous technology making programs transparent (or as coaches like to say “too exposed”), with millions of dollars produced by football (especially) from TV and thus demanding high return quickly on the dollars spent on coaching salaries and facilities. . .
Okay, I’m declaring it RIGHT now.
The Bear, who died in 1982 just weeks after coaching his last Alabama win in the Liberty Bowl, was the best SEC coach in history until 2000 when Nick Saban entered the conference first as LSU’s coach.
It’s my argument because today’s game is harder to coach, because the pressure created by the above stated avenues and outlets, NICK SABAN, AS OF 10:45 P.M. MONDAY NIGHT, IS STANDING NEXT TO BEAR BRYANT AS THE GREATEST COACH IN SEC HISTORY.
No other major college coach in history has won national titles at two schools and Saban accomplished that with his first national championship for Alabama in 2009 to go along with his first BCS title won for LSU in 2003.
No major college coach in history won a national title by beating a school that he won a national title, and Saban did that last year when he blanked LSU 21-0 in the BCS championship game in New Orleans.
And now with Monday’s win, you get this: Saban-coached teams have won four national titles in his last eight seasons of college football. That’s something the Bear didn’t do. That’s something that has only been done by Frank Leahy, who four national championships in seven years at Notre Dame in the 1940s.
Saban’s secret is simple, and those coaches who have worked with him the longest, like defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, know how Saban has ascended to his greatness.
“He goes deep into the mental side, and he spends as much time on that as he does defensively now, and I think that is where he's grown as a coach,” Smart said. “I can remember being at LSU, I didn't remember the mental side being so great for him, and now six, seven years later, it's extended so far.
“He really believes in that, he believes in what you tell the players, he believes in the angle of approach of each game being different and getting their mindset right for the game. To me that's where he has established himself as a coach ahead of the curve because of his ability mentally to create an advantage with his team. Whatever the mindset is, whether it's physicality, whether it's execution, whatever it is, he does a great job of conveying that to the kids.
“And he makes us realize as coaches, it's not going to be about what we call, it's not going to be about what we rep, it's going to be about the mindset in (Alabama defender) Damion Square's head that's going to make a difference in this game.”
Saban also understands that from coaching in the pros, that players want specifics, from what is expected in their roles to game plans. At LSU and Alabama, he extended that into recruiting, which is why he consistently has an enviable influx of talent.
Every Alabama player I’ve talked with from the three national championship teams say what sets Saban apart is he tells you the exact plan how he use and develop them as a player, how everyone fits in the plan to win the national championship and how that player is guaranteed to get a degree and championships if he follows the specific plan.
Also, Saban also pursues only recruits he feels have the physical qualifications and mental toughness to fit his plan. Because of that, from the moment an Alabama recruit reports as a freshman, much is expected.
“Coming here to ‘Bama as a freshman, he’s not going to coach you as a freshman or sophomore,” linebacker Nico Johnson said. “He’s going to coach you to the junior or senior level, you’re going to be down the line. That’s what makes us year in and year out be so good because we respect that and we understand that and we respond the right way to that.”
It takes an extraordinarily strong personality to coach football at Alabama. It is a school with unparalleled history of national championships, where that success permeates through a state and fan base that all expect records every year far above other programs.
You have to have a guy who is, for a lack of a better term, “a control freak.” Whatever the decision that needs to be, whether it’s in game-planning or what time team buses should leave to maximize hotel rest and less ride time, Nick Saban makes it.
You also have to have someone with remarkable drive. Because Saban knows in a league that has now won SEVEN straight national championships, there is no rest.
The SEC finished with 6-3 bowl record (with the six winners averaging 39.5 points) and with five teams ending with 11 wins or more – Alabama 13-1, Georgia 12-2 and Texas A&M, South Carolina and Florida at 11-2 each.
Alabama’s 2013 SEC opener is on Sept. 14 at Texas A&M, the only team to beat the Tide this year with a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback (Johnny Manziel) who’ll be just a third-year sophomore.
So Tuesday, you won’t find Saban sitting at poolside in Miami at team hotel, the Fontainebleau, wearing shades, working on a tan, signing a few autographs and actually sustaining a smile for more than 10 seconds at a time.
No, he’ll already be thinking about Wednesday when he’ll hold the first team meeting back in Tuscaloosa of the 2013 team. He might change a few words, but his speech will be the same it was to the 2012 team just two days after they were the 2011 squad that won the national title by whitewashing LSU.
That speech, according to Saban:
“You guys are not the national champions. Some of you played on the National Championship team, but the challenges that this team has are all in front of you in terms of what you're able to accomplish and what you're able to do to sort of set a standard for this team, this year, and what you did last year is not going to have any impact or effect on what you do next year other than make the game that you play against whoever you're playing against a target. You're going to be the target. Everybody is going to bring their `A’ game to beat you because of what you've accomplished.
So you need to be focused on what you need to do to be all you can be as a team, and see what this team can accomplish.”
In other words, rinse, wash, repeat, Roll Tide.