Nick Saban’s Place in College Football History (As of Now)
The statue is warranted. He has vindicated his increasing greatness. And now it is time for people to begin using Nick Saban‘s name among the best coaches to ever coach college football. After coaching the Alabama Crimson Tide to their third national title in four years and winning his fourth national title as a head coach, it’s almost mandatory that Saban’s name be put among the greats that have coached the game at the college level.
The two most impressive parts about Saban’s titles is that all four of his national titles have come in his last eight seasons coaching college football, and that he’s won national titles with two teams (LSU Tigers and the Crimson Tide). The only coach that immediately comes to mind that has won national titles at more than one school would be Glenn “Pop” Warner who won national titles with the Pittsburgh Panthers and Stanford Cardinal in the 1910′s and 20′s. In the nearly 90 years since that, no coach has achieved the feat that Saban and Warner accomplished.
Other elements that make Saban that much more worthy of his place in the history of college football is that he’s won all of his titles within the same conference (SEC) and did it with a failed stint as an NFL coach coming in between his two coaching jobs in that conference. Most coaches don’t end up with consecutive college coaching jobs in the same conference; it’s happened before (Steve Spurrier rings a bell), but is still something rare. Not to mention that when Saban dove back into college coaching, he did it at a time when the SEC was beginning to take over college football. And at that time, the Crimson Tide wasn’t a team that many believed would be a major part of the takeover with the Tigers and Florida Gators being the SEC teams winning championships at the time.
Something to remember is that lack of success in the NFL for a mainly college coach sticks with that coach for a little bit. Any success a coach may have in college after a failed stint in the NFL usually isn’t instant. But again, Saban has shown himself to be someone who doesn’t listen to tradition if it means lack of success. And sure enough, Saban’s first national title with the Crimson Tide came in only his third season with the school.
Another thing to remember about Saban’s titles is that they have come against a variety of opponents, all of them among the big names in the history of college football and worthy of those labels at the time a Saban coached team got to them in a national title game. In order, Saban’s titles have come against the Oklahoma Sooners, Texas Longhorns, the Tigers, and Notre Dame Fighting Irish. This variety of opponent speaks to the parity of the time as it has become nearly impossible for a team to make consecutive trips to the national title game, another factor to consider when pondering how impressive this latest run from the Crimson Tide has been.
Currently, Saban’s four national titles falls below three men: Bernie Bierman with five titles, Fielding Yost with six titles, and Paul “Bear” Bryant also with six national titles. Monday night’s win tied Saban with Frank Leahy and John McKay at four national titles.
But to best sum up what this run and Saban’s overall body of work means to his place in the history of the game lies with the coaches that Saban has more national titles than, and the spots in the history of college football those men occupy. When people look at history, especially with coaches, they look at titles. Wins, conference titles, bowl wins, and top-five or top-10 finishes all mean something and can add to a coach’s résumé, hall-of-fame credentials, and overall legacy, but the number of national titles they’ve won can be used as a trump card. Saban currently has more national titles than Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno, Barry Switzer, Ara Parseghian, Tom Osbourne, Glenn “Pop” Warner, Woody Hayes, Darrell Royal, Bud Wilkinson, Walter Camp, and Knute Rockne, among others.
Finally, it’s also about the time that Saban won his titles. It’s not just the SEC’s dominance, but also about the nature of college recruiting in the 21st century. It’s a whole different ball game today than it was when most of the coaches that Saban has passed were coaching, when T.V. only broadcasted college games selectively and the game was still a regional one. Today, everybody knows everybody, everybody can see everybody, everybody can travel anywhere, and what your school can do for a player’s NFL prospects are held highest, being more important to many than holding that crystal football even once. Yet, even with the nature of the game being that, Saban has been able to go to multiple places, put together great teams in both places, win titles with them, and keep them great. That may be the most important factor of all when Nick Saban’s legacy is decided after his time in the game is done.