The Alabama Crimson Tide’s Second Golden Age

I was born the year after Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant retired and died.  I lived through the long droughts between Bryant and Stallings and Stallings to Saban.  Bryant’s tenure as the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide was a golden age.[i]   Bear Bryant started his head coaching at Maryland in 1945.  In 1946, he went to Kentucky but he eventually realized that since Kentucky valued its basketball program over its football program he would never get the recognition he deserved there.  In 1954, the Bear began his tenure at Texas A&M.  His first year was hard and was his only losing season as a head coach because of the offseason training camp where the Junction Boys suffered through a brutal camp through the searing Texas heat.  But for those that survived, they would become loyal adherents to the Bear.  In 1957, Bear Bryant got the call to go back home to Alabama.  He had been a player on the 1934 undefeated national champion team under Frank Thomas and an assistant coach with Alabama after his playing days from 1936-41.  In the 1950s, when Bear began coaching at Alabama, he was given some time to get into the groove.  In his first year, he won five games, lost four, and tied two.  From 1958-60, the Bear improved each year.  In 1961, the Bear got his first national championship.  In 1964 and 1965, he got his second and third championships.  In 1966, despite being the only undefeated team and beating the #6 team, Nebraska, 34-7, in their bowl game, the Crimson Tide was denied a third straight championship; Notre Dame and Michigan State played for a tie to split the national championship.  After 1966, the Bear would fall into a slump.  In the 1970 season, the Tide played their first game against an integrated USC team who had a dominant tailback named Sam Cunningham who ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Bama.  This is the game that finally convinced the University to allow Bear Bryant to integrate the team.  In the 1971 season, a fully integrated Tide using a new offense called the wishbone went 11 and 1; followed by a 10 and 2 season in 1972.  In 1973, Bear got his fourth title.  In 1978 and 1979, Bear won his last two titles.  The 1960s and 1970s were largely dominated by the Crimson Tide because of Bear Bryant.  During his tenure, he not only had six national titles, he also won 14 SEC titles, 29 bowl games, and 13 Coach of the Year awards; he retired as the winningest head coach in college football history at 323-85-17, a 73% winning percentage.

The coaches that took over after Bryant with the exception of Gene Stallings were not up to his standard nor was it really fair to expect that Alabama was going to be able to find another Bear.  They were not given the time to develop.  Bear Bryant was allowed to develop and didn’t win his first championship until his fourth year.  Ray Perkins and Bill Curry who took over in the 1980s after Bryant were not Bear but they won respectively 2/3 and 72% of their games.  Perkins only got four years and Curry three.  Gene Stallings was different; Stallings had played under Bear Bryant at Texas A&M; he was one of his Junction Boys. Stallings brought back that crushing defense and powerful running game that had characterized his mentor Bear Bryant. His second team, the 1991 squad, went 11-1.  In 1992, Bama went undefeated in the regular season, beat a Steve Spurrier-led Florida team in the first SEC Championship, and then beat the University of Miami in the Sugar Bowl for the National Championship team.  Miami was the dominant team of the 1980s and 1990s and Bama squashed them, 34-13, in that Sugar Bowl game.  The rest of Stalling’s tenure was dominated by NCAA sanctions because Antonio Langham, a star cornerback, was ruled retroactively ineligible for the 1993 season even though he had played in all games that season.  These sanctions would cripple the Crimson Tide for about fifteen years.  After Stallings, the Tide would only win eight or more games three times between Stalling’s departure and the hiring of Nick Saban in 2007.  The Tide would suffer three of its four losing seasons between Stallings and Saban.

However, Nick Saban is yet another Golden Age for Alabama.  His record so far is 113 to 18 and a third of those losses came in his first year where he went 7 and 6.  He has won 4 undisputed national titles in the last 7 years.  That is a dynasty that is unprecedented in the modern era.  No other coach or program has come close to that level of dominance. Saban is on track to finish with his 6th national championship this year overall spread among two different teams; Saban was the first coach to do so.  While Bama still has many hurdles left to get to the championship game this year, they just played undefeated through a gauntlet of 8 teams; five of which were ranked in the top 25, and two of which were ranked in the top ten, at the time, a schedule that many analysts called the toughest in the nation.  The Tide still has to beat LSU, who is playing well under interim coach Ed Orgeron; they have to beat Auburn and Mississippi State.  Assuming they can surpass those foes, they also have to contend with the SEC East champion, which could be Florida or Tennessee at this point.  While this is already arguably the greatest dynasty of all time, capping it off with a fifth championship at Alabama this year and a sixth overall for Saban, would probably make him the greatest to ever coach the game.

The only modern coach that seems capable of besting Saban on a consistent basis is Urban Meyer.  In the 2008 season, a Meyer-led Florida squad under the quarterback Tim Tebow beat the Tide in the SEC championship and went on to beat Oklahoma for the national championship.  In 2009, Saban beat Meyer in the SEC Championship and beat Texas in the national championship in an undefeated season, 14-0. In 2014, Saban would face off against Meyer again at Ohio State in the first round of the first College Football Playoff; Ohio State would win 42-35. Ohio State would go on to beat Oregon led by Heisman winner Marcus Mariota; Oregon got embarrassed in a 42-20 loss. That would be Urban Meyer’s third championship split between Florida and Ohio State; only the second coach to ever do that.  The only other coach to compete at an equally high level as Saban and Meyer over his career is Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and he has only garnered one national championship in 2000.  He made it the BCS championship in 2004, 2005 and 2009; in 2004 he lost to Saban at LSU, in 2005 he lost to Pete Carroll’s USC team, and in the 2009 BCS Championship he lost to Urban Meyer’s Florida.  No modern coach has anywhere close to Saban’s record and only Bear Bryant has more championships.[ii]

While the SEC West has been consistently good and competitive top to bottom since Saban joined Alabama in 2007, Saban’s success has driven several coaches to be fired throughout the SEC because they could not beat him.  Houston Nutt resigned in 2008, he had lost to Saban in both 2007 and 2008, making him one of the few coaches to lose to Saban during his inaugural year. Tommy Tuberville resigned in 2009 after he had lost in a 36-0 shutout the previous year. Tennessee has gone through three different coaches since Phil Fulmer retired in 2009.  Alabama has won ten straight games against Tennessee including the 2007 season when Saban went 7-6. Mark Richt and Georgia have their own grievances against Saban. In 2007 and 2008, Georgia played Bama in a home and away series; Georgia won in 2007 and lost in 2008.  In 2012, Saban met Richt in the SEC Championship and Georgia lost on that last play of the game.   Richt committed the unpardonable sin of just not being good enough to win it all; even though objectively he was winningest coach who ever coached there; he is now coaching at the University of Miami. In 2016, LSU fired Les Miles.  While the Saban Bowl, as the annual LSU-Bama game had come to be known, was always competitive, LSU had not won a match with Saban since 2011; and that Game of the Century resulted in a rematch in the national championship in which the Crimson Tide shutdown the LSU Tigers 21-0. While Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M is a fine coach, who with Heisman winner Johnny Manziel at quarterback was able to get a win at Bama in 2012; however since he has yet to win again against Saban, which has put him on the hot seat.

In conclusion, Saban is a second golden age for Alabama.  So when I hear ungrateful fans complain that Saban made a mistake in this or that game and should be fired I can only think of the long drought Alabama underwent from Bear’s tenure to Stalling’s tenure and from Stallings to Saban.  In my humble opinion, Saban should be allowed to retire when he wants to; even if he has a losing season or two. He has done enough for this program to be given that leeway.  If Bryant had coached in the modern era, he would not have gotten his final three championships because he would have been fired before he was given the time to adjust.  In 1969 and 1970, Bryant had seasons of 6-5-0 and 6-5-1; that would not be tolerated today. Given that history of thirteen years from 1979 to 1992 and seventeen years from 1992 to 2009, and the fact that finding another Bear, another Stallings, or another Saban is just not realistic I am reticent to criticize such a successful ball coach.  My question is when he chooses to retire; hopefully many years from now, who will Alabama find to replace him, who will become the next Saban?