SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The thing that impresses the most about what Nick Saban has accomplished is this: Where he’s accomplished it. Maybe you need to have spent a little time in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to fully appreciate what it means to hold the job that used to belong to Paul William “Bear” Bryant. Or maybe all you need to do is look at the Bear’s record.
Six national championships. Six. Alabama won six of the 19 championships awarded between 1961 and 1979, and if there wasn’t exactly a way in those days to prove who the consensus champ was … well, you never heard a lot of dissenting votes in the years when the Crimson Tide would wake up on Jan. 2 topping the polls.
All these years, that number seemed like a cartoon. Six titles? That’s crazy. A guy wins one of them and he’s all but canonized in the tailgating plazas of college football. It’s that hard to do. Look at all the sweat and heartache Joe Paterno had to endure before he won his first. Same with Tom Osborne. Same with Bobby Bowden.
Bear? Bear won six. Six!
Nick Saban has won six, too, including one at LSU at a time when LSU was just re-emerging as a football power worthy of fear (which Saban built by himself). He’s won five at Alabama, and if the Crimson Tide can eke their way past their stubborn rivals from Clemson on Monday night at Levi’s Stadium, he would win a seventh title, and a sixth at Alabama, and … well, that’s beyond cartoonish.
Except as the rest of college football can attest: It’s also deadly serious.
“I’m not at all surprised to see Alabama and Coach Saban here this week,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said this past week, smiling. “Are you?”
Nothing Saban does, nothing Alabama does, surprises anyone. They have been that good. They have been that consistent. In college football, where you essentially construct and deconstruct and reconstruct your roster every year, on the fly, there is Alabama and there is everyone else. Every September. Every January. Every year.
“We pride ourselves in our consistency,” Saban said. “And I take pride in having coached so many players here who have shared the common goal of working hard, working together and letting that hard work yield whatever it may.”
Look, there is little question Saban has a few inherent advantages at Alabama, which has been college football royalty forever, especially since 1957, when “mama called me home,” as Bryant explained returning to his alma mater. But here’s the thing: Mike Shula had those advantages, too. So did Dennis Franchione, and Mike Dubose, and Bill Curry, and Ray Perkins. So did Gene Stallings, the Bryant disciple who did win a national championship in 1992 but wound up buried in scandal by the end.
We saw just this past week how strong — and how ominous — a lasting shadow can be. UCLA is the basketball version of Alabama in almost every way, beginning with the looming posthumous presence of John Wooden, who won 10 NCAA Tournaments in 12 years and set an enduring standard of excellence in Westwood almost impossible to duplicate.
The job swallowed up its share of terrific coaches, from Gene Bartow to Larry Brown, from Larry Farmer to Ben Howland and, much like with Stallings at Alabama, it even snuffed out the one coach able to reach the same pinnacle Wooden did, Jim Harrick. But UCLA has never been able to find its version of Saban. Steve Alford was fired with a 7-6 record and it felt like a mercy killing.
Swinney is a terrific story, and what he’s built at Clemson is every bit as enviable as what Saban has crafted. But Swinney had no ghosts riding shotgun with him. Clemson has just as many resources, and likes to use every one of them, and it has a rabid fan base that fills its Death Valley Stadium every week. But it’s one thing to live up to Danny Ford’s legacy.
The Bear? That’s something else.
“I think Coach Bryant is probably the best coach of all time because of the longevity of his tenure as a coach and the way he changed,” Saban said last January, on the day after he won his sixth title. “I mean, he won championships running the wishbone. He won them with Joe Namath dropping back throwing when people never, ever did it. I just think that, for his time, he impacted the game and had more success than anybody ever could.”
Anybody except one, perhaps.