TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Nick Saban is one away from the Bear.
At least that’s what the record book shows.
Actually, an argument can be made that Saban already surpassed the man in the houndstooth hat.
Saban has five national titles — four as Alabama’s coach, plus a BCS crown at LSU — going into tonight’s championship game against Clemson.
Paul “Bear” Bryant is the only coach to win six championships during the poll era, but his mark comes with a very big asterisk.
Two of them, actually.
In 1964, with Joe Namath at quarterback, the Crimson Tide finished 10-0 during the regular season and was voted No. 1 in The Associated Press media poll as well as the coaches’ poll, both of which conducted their final tally before the bowls.
Alabama closed the season with a 21-17 loss to Texas in the Orange Bowl. If another poll has been conducted, Arkansas undoubtedly would have finished No. 1 with an 11-0 record that included a regular-season victory over Texas — the Longhorns’ only loss — and a Cotton Bowl triumph over Nebraska.
The real soft spot in Bryant’s record came nine years later.
While the AP began awarding its title after the bowls in 1965, largely because of what happened the season before, the coaches poll continued to be based strictly on the regular season.
Alabama was No. 1 in both polls after a perfect regular season in 1973, but the Crimson Tide lost to No. 2 Notre Dame 24-23 in a Sugar Bowl still remembered as one of college football’s landmark games. The Fighting Irish claimed the AP title, prompting the coaches poll to change its format the following year.
“Hey, any time you win a national championship, regardless of who puts you in there, you count it,” quipped Gene Stallings, who played for Bryant and is the only other Alabama coach to win a national championship in the modern era. “I’m sure he counted it.”
Records aside, Saban said he’ll never surpass Bryant’s total body of work.
“I think Bear Bryant is probably the greatest coach that ever coached college football,” Saban said. “That would be my vote, and it would stay that way for a long time, because he had success over a long, long period of time.”
Indeed, Bryant captured his first three national titles with an all-white team during the turbulent civil rights era of the 1960s, then three more after integration and a switch to the revolutionary wishbone offense in the early 1970s.
“The environment of college football changed dramatically during his time,” Saban said. “He won championships running the wishbone, he won championships passing the ball. He effectively changed with whatever his players could do and whatever was required at the time.”
While hardly a driving force when it came to breaking down racial barriers, Bryant supposedly scheduled the 1970 season opener against Southern Cal — which featured African-American running back Sam Cunningham — to show the value of having black players.
“He had a great impact on integration of college football in the South, which may be his most significant accomplishment,” Saban said. “A lot of those things that he accomplished, I don’t know that anyone else could provide the leadership that could match that.”
Bryant retired after the 1982 season with a then-record 323 wins. He died about a month later at the age of 69.
“I think coach Saban could’ve won back in coach Bryant’s era, and coach Bryant could’ve won in coach Saban’s era,” Stallings said. “But to compare them? I don’t think you can do that.”
More than three decades after his death, Bryant’s presence still looms large over the Alabama program. The stadium in Tuscaloosa bears his name. Many fans continue wear Bear-style hats and other houndstooth attire to games. Most of the coaches that succeeded him struggled to deal with his enormous legacy.
He has embraced Alabama’s history while carving out a dynasty that surpasses any of Bryant’s sustained runs of greatness .
Since the beginning of the 2008 season, Alabama has won 112 of 124 games. Of Saban’s four national titles, the only one that stirred any debate was in 2011, when the Crimson Tide lost to LSU at home during the regular season but got another shot at the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl.
A dominating 21-0 victory left little doubt about who was the best team in the country, but there are still some who think Alabama didn’t deserve a spot in the title game after failing to win its own conference.
Saban said he’s merely carrying on what Bryant started.
“If you want to talk about the success that he had, that’s rivaled by no one,” Saban said. “He does loom large, and we’re happy for that because the things that he did created our opportunity to be successful because of the tradition he established at the University of Alabama.”
When it comes to who’s No. 1 at Alabama, Saban still goes with the Bear.