The Alabama Crimson Tide won the national title. That makes four in seven seasons for Nick Saban at Alabama, and five in his last 11 years using unpaid labor. Is he the greatest college football coach of all time?
He was already in the discussion. This feat only adds to his résumé. While most similar claims reek of instant historicism, Saban’s case definitely has merit.
The first priority is to define greatness. That’s not an easy task in college football. Comparing Saban’s feat to his peers can be difficult.
Gary Patterson has made three conference jumps with TCU, and won a conference title at each level. Art Briles has won double-digit games four of the past five years at Baylor. Bill Snyder has had a stupid amount of success at Kansas State. Their success isn’t as outstanding, but all three had much less to work with than Alabama.
If greatness is taking a top program to the pinnacle, his only active contemporary in the discussion is Urban Meyer. Both have won national titles at two programs. Both have beaten each other in big spots. We’d give a slight edge to Saban. He inherited worse situations at LSU and Alabama than Meyer did at Florida and Ohio State. He left LSU in a much better place than Meyer did at UF.
Historically, there are a number of names to throw out there. Limiting to the relatively modern era, Bear Bryant won six national titles. Woody Hayes won five. Bobby Bowden only won two titles, but had an absurd stretch of 14-straight top five finishes.
We’d argue Saban’s titles mean more. A “national title” back in the day was winning the bowl game and earning votes. Saban had to beat the second-best team in a title game, at the very least. This year he had to win two playoff games.
Winning a conference, with scholarship limits, coaching innovations and an extra title game, is harder than it used to be. Hayes was coaching against Michigan most years, and no one else. Bryant maybe had Auburn, Georgia, or Tennessee pop up every few years. Bowden’s ACC opposition was garbage. So was the Pac 10 when Pete Carroll made his run.
Consider what Nick Saban has faced. What used to be doormats now have A-plus facilities and strong coaches. Two of Saban’s division opponents have reached multiple National Championship games in the last decade. All six have had at least one Top 10, double-digit win season in the past five years. That’s just the West.
Saban has reached an unprecedented level of year-in, year-out dominance. He has done so against an unprecedented level of competition. We can make a case for other coaches. But, it’s not clear there’s a case against Saban. Arguing that he builds his team so well administratively that it reduces the difficulty of coaching it is not a case.