Alabama’s Nick Saban went into Monday night attempting to win a record seventh national championship in major college football. The first was a BCS title at LSU in 2003, and that had been followed by five at Alabama: Three in BCS title games in 2009, 2011 and 2012, and two in the College Football Playoff in 2015 and 2017.
Damien Harris, a senior tailback for Alabama, was asked about his coach last week and said: “Sometimes, we sit around and talk about, ‘We’re really playing for the greatest coach ever.’ ‘’
The one location in what’s now called Power Five football where you might get a strenuous and legitimate argument on Saban’s standing as greatest-ever would be football fans in the state of Alabama, of all places.
You can say that Saban is mighty great and applaud him for winning his national titles on the field, and point out that Paul “Bear’’ Bryant had to win his half-dozen at the ballot box, and you can probably get away with saying, “This Saban is right up there with Bear.’’
But if you’re going to get real uppity in your Saban passion and say, “Nick is the greatest coach we’ve ever had at Alabama’’ … well, as they say in Dixie, that could start an argument in an empty house.
Alabama’s adulation for Saban is clear every time the school puts a deposit in his bank account. He made $11.125 million for the 2018 season, including a $4 million for a contract extension signed last summer. Saban is now 67 and the new contract signed last summer carries through 2025, so he's a favorite for double figures in national championships before he's through.
There was a different kind of adulation for Bryant in Alabama. It was worship tied to the football wins, of course, and also for his demanding the very best from the young men representing Alabama, and combining that with a simple cordiality that made civilians feel appreciated.
Saban has a well-earned arrogance that arrives from under that fine crop of hair and sweeps across the TV screen in interviews or news conferences. The Bear was the wrinkled son of Dixie who mumbled answers in a disarming manner under that wonderful houndstooth hat.
You wouldn’t call Bear a charmer; more of a man grateful all of this could happen for a kid from Moro Bottom, an incorporated, three-mile square area of Arkansas farmland.
“I’d be back there behind a mule, wouldn’t even be able to afford a little tractor, if it wasn’t for football,’’ Bryant said.
This was in Bear’s office on the Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa. It was Nov. 21, 1981, and the Tide had a week off between a 31-16 victory at Penn State and the regular-season finale vs. Auburn in Birmingham.
There were two sports writers in the office on that Saturday morning: one from New York and me. Bryant was in his 24th of what would be 25 seasons at Alabama. Throw in a combined 13 seasons at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M, and a victory over Auburn in the Iron Bowl would put the Bear at 315 wins, breaking his tie with Amos Alonzo Stagg at the then-record 314.
The opponent Bryant was worried about that morning was cigarettes. “I try to limit it to 10 a day,’’ he said. “I was down to five a while back, but now it’s more.’’
He looked at the filtered cigarette in his hand with disdain and added: “The things are close to smoking on nuthin’ … I smoked Chesterfields for years. They used to send them to me for free.’’
We were there for maybe 45 minutes and then came a knock on the door. Bear welcomed in his “good friend’’ Jimmy Hinton, and a serious discussion followed as to when the next turkey hunt would take place at Sedgefield, which was Jimmy’s estate.
Bear didn’t need Alabama to fork over enormous riches for his football victories. He was paid well, but his real money came from being included in investments by Hinton and another good friend, George Moody.
“I would have been in the poor house if wasn’t for Jimmy over there,’’ Bryant said. He then smiled and mentioned Mary Harmon, his wife, and always called by her maiden name in Bear-speak.
“Mary Harmon wanted me to get out of football so I could be home for dinner by 5, o’clock,’’ he said. “Then, we started winning and getting some of the goodies, and she would say, ‘Get up and go to work.’ ‘’
Bear beat Auburn the next Saturday and went to the Cotton Bowl, where the Tide lost to Texas 14-12. It was the 18th time Bryant had taken Alabama to either the Cotton (4), Sugar (9) or Orange (5) bowls – 24 bowl games, and 18 of the real ones.
I saw Bryant again a year later. The Tide had ended the regular season with a three-game losing streak in the SEC, and the Auburn loss ended Bear’s record nine-game winning streak in the Iron Bowl.
Bear announced he would retire and I covered his last game, a 21-15 victory over Illinois on Dec. 29, 1982 in the Liberty Bowl. It was victory No. 323 overall, and he finished 232-46-9 at Alabama.
Twenty-eight days later, Bryant died at age 69 of a heart attack. The romantic view in Alabama was that Bear couldn’t live without coaching football. My guess was that it was more likely a carryover from the Chesterfields.