Alabama’s Nick Saban chasing legendary college coaches

Coach, School Years W-L-T WIN %
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma 14 148-36 .804
Gary Patterson, TCU 13 116-35 .768
Mark Richt, Georgia 12 117-40 .745
Nick Saban, Alabama 17 153-55-1 .734
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina 23 207-77-2 .727

Kevin Norwood was born in D’Iberville, Miss., nearly a decade after Paul “Bear” Bryant coached his final football game and passed away on Jan. 26, 1983.

Thirty years — and three national titles after his departure — seems like plenty of time for even the greatest college football coach of all time to start fading off into the background. Not the Bear. Not in Alabama.

“Bear Bryant is a legend,” said Norwood, a 6-2, 195-pound junior receiver who has spent the past three years seeing the statutes and images of the houndstooth-hat wearing coach all over campus.

“In order for Coach [Nick] Saban to be put up in that category, I don’t know [what would have to happen]. But I think it’s something to look forward to.”

Saban, who turned 61 last Halloween, might not coach long enough to match the number of wins Bryant achieved in his 38 years of coaching (323-85-17). And Saban probably will never be adored by the people of Alabama the way Bryant is.

But with a win in Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game against No.1-ranked Notre Dame (12-0), the man who left Miami for Tuscaloosa in 2006 would cement his status among college football’s coaching legends.

Four crowns in a decade and three titles in four years? However you define greatness and dynasties, such sustained excellence is exceedingly rare.

Nebraska (1994-97) was the last program to win three in four years. And only four other coaches have won at least four titles: Bryant (six), Minnesota’s Bernie Bierman (five), Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy (four) and Tennessee’s Robert Neyland (four).

None of those men had to coach in an era with scholarship limits or during a time when the Southeastern Conference had produced six consecutive national champions. Saban has.

“If he wins Monday, that would put him at four with the one he had at LSU [in 2003] and give him a better case to be with a lot of great people,” said former FAU and University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger, who spent time with Saban in Tuscaloosa in September when the Owls were pounded by the Crimson Tide 40-7.

“As far as Alabama is concerned, Bryant will always be looked at as a favorite son. But what Saban has established there now and going forward, it’s pretty special. It might start to rival what we did at the University of Miami from ’83 to ’91 when we either won or came out second best. I still contend that’s the best dynasty in football.”

Schnellenberger, who calls Saban “the equivalent to the best coach in America,” was the offensive coordinator for Bryant at Alabama when the Tide won three national championships in five seasons from 1961 to 1965. Schnellenberger said he sees many similarities between Saban and Bryant: “great leadership, an insatiable appetite for hard work, discipline and concentration on craft.”

“What a lot people don’t know is that Coach Saban is really a fun guy to be around,” Norwood said. “He laughs and jokes just like any other normal person. Everybody thinks he’s just a headache, but in reality, he’s not.”

As good as the Tide has been rolling under Saban (62-13 since he took over), some believe the coach who is always looking for a challenge could look for a return to the NFL. It would be an opportunity to wipe away the 15-17 record he produced with the Miami Dolphins in two seasons.

Saban, signed through the 2020 season at Alabama and collecting more than $5 million a year to wear Crimson ties on Saturdays, has told the Alabama media this is his last stop. His wife of 41 years, Terry, said the same thing to a Birmingham radio station last month.

But with the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll (USC) and 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh (Stanford) proving recently that success can be taken with them from the college to the pros, one has to wonder if Saban is thinking he can do the same. After all, he told LSU he wasn’t leaving for the Dolphins eight years ago, too.

“I know this much about Coach Saban,” Alabama center Barrett Jones said. “He’s a very competitive guy.”

Could winning three championships in four years Monday remove the sexiness of staying in college football for Saban? Or, could catching the Bear and becoming college football’s undisputed king entice him to stick around?

“I think he’s happy as a lark,” Schnellenberger said. “He’s not going to put his hand over the hot coals and burn his fingers again. I think he’s a smart man.

“That city, that campus is 10 times as big as it was when Coach Bryant and I were there. It’s the hallmark of American football. He can continue to coach there and at his age break all the records.”