By Joe Spears | @joe_spears7
Sports Capital Journalism Program
ATLANTA — Nick Saban walked off the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the coach of a national champion for the sixth time.
Before Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide completed their come-from-behind, 26-23 overtime victory over the Georgia Bulldogs, only one coach in the modern history of college football could make a similar claim.
Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant coached teams that claimed six national titles during his illustrious 25-year career at the school. Saban’s influence over his 11 seasons could be found in the five titles in nine seasons.
Saban also led Louisiana State to the national title in 2003 with a win over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, the one controversial championship on his resume. The complex rankings of the Bowl Championship Series were criticized when Southern California was left out of the championship game. Oklahoma beat Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl to win the USA Today coaches poll, and USC was voted No. 1 by the Associated Press poll of reporters.
But Saban’s influence on the history of the game could be found in the more orderly post-season process that has evolved in the last two decades, compared to past eras that crowned what was commonly referred to as a mythical national champion. The dominance of his program has taken place as the industry has made its most extensive effort to match the strongest teams in the post season.
Alabama’s College Playoff Victories over No. 1 Clemson and No. 3 Georgia were the 20th and 21st of Saban’s career against teams ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll, three more than Bobby Bowden of Florida State and the most in the history of college football.
Much of Alabama’s success during the Bryant era took place at a time when final polls were conducted before bowl games. Of the six claimed championships of the Bryant years, only two – 1961 and 1979 – were consensus titles in seasons that ended with a bowl victory.
The 1964 Alabama season ended with a controversial 21-17 Orange Bowl loss to Texas. Alabama finished No. 1 in the 1965 Associated Press poll of reporters and defeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. But the coaches, in the United Press International poll, voted for Michigan State.
Bryant’s Tide was voted the 1973 champions by the coaches. But the Tide did not finish first in the final AP poll, which by then appeared after the bowls. Alabama was beaten by Notre Dame, 24-23, in the Sugar Bowl.
In 1978, Alabama was first in the AP poll but Southern California was voted first in the coaches’ poll. And in 1979, the Tide defeated Arkansas, 24-9, in the Sugar Bowl, and finished first only after No. 1 Ohio State lost to No. 3 USC in the Rose Bowl.
Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy, who led the Fighting Irish to four championships from 1943 through 1949, coached the Fighting Irish during an extended era in which the university did not participate in bowl games.
After all of the discussion about Saban’s legacy and where he stands in comparison to Bryant, Saban was eloquent when asked about the subject at the morning-after press conference.
“I don’t want to minimize the significance of what we have been able to accomplish at Alabama,” Saban said. “I think the key word there is we. I think when you look back on these championships, the first thing that comes to mind for me is all the people who have contributed to them, and that starts with the coaches, it starts with the administrators, it starts with athletic directors, Mal Moore, Bill Battle, Greg Byrne, our guy right now.”
Saban cited former Chancellor and President Robert Witt, the university community, and the players.
“We won all these things because we had really, really good players who bought into the principles and values of the organization,” he said, “the hard work and perseverance that it takes to do this.”
Where Saban ranks amongst the greats will always be a topic of debate for hardcore fans of college football. His career coaching record is 218-62-1. During his 11 years with Alabama, Saban has amassed a record of 127-20, which ranks second to Bryant, who won 232 times at Alabama and 323 overall. Saban’s 2007 Alabama team had a record of 7-6, his only single-digit victory total with the Tide. Five of the victories were later vacated as part of NCAA sanctions from violations that preceded his arrival.
The real measure of his Alabama success could be found in the program’s dismal performance through much of the previous decade. From 1997 through 2006, Alabama finished first in the Southeastern Conference west division just once, in 1999 under Mike DuBose. A 2002 West championship was voided because Alabama was ineligible as the result of NCAA violations.
Saban was the fourth Alabama coach in period of eight seasons, following DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula. In the 10 seasons from 1997 through 2006, Alabama’s record was 67-55. But the official record, after 10 victories became vacated, was 51-55. Alabama lost at home to Northern Illinois in 2003. The university asked Penn State to delay a scheduled home-and-home series.
Those days are now a distant memory. A statue of Nick Saban already stands on the campus of the University of Alabama. He has a championship ring for each finger on one hand, with one to spare.
You won’t be catching Saban wearing any of those rings, though.
“I do respect the symbol that those things have significance to, you know, what they mean,” Saban said. “When we start talking about building monuments, about winning championships at Alabama, there was only one thing that I demanded that they do and that’s put every player’s name on the plaque that was on the team so that they could come back and it was part of their personal legacy of their accomplishment as well as the significance of them being part of a group and a part of a team.
“So 25 years from now, they can bring their grandson or their son and say, see, I was part of that,” Saban said. “I think that’s what those rings do.
“So as long as you have them, I don’t see any reason to wear them. But I’m certainly proud of them.”