BEAR BRYANT IS buried a few miles away amid the live oaks and longleaf pines in the Elmwood Cemetery in downtown Birmingham. There is a simple 18-inch ground marker that denotes his grave:
PAUL WILLIAM BRYANT SR.
SEPT. 11, 1913
JAN. 26, 1983
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But I’m here to tell you as I’m standing in the Hyatt Regency hotel lobby with a bunch of crazy Alabama fans that Bear Bryant is not dead. He has been resurrected and lives within the man these fans have been waiting on for hours just so they can catch a glimpse of him and yell “Roll Tide!” and “We love you, Coach!” and “Woooooo-wooooooo!” as he walks by.
Nick Saban made his royal entrance at SEC Media Days with all the reverence of Napoleon returning from Elba or Johnny Manziel arriving for happy hour. Shannon Villa, a 23-year-old ’Bama fan who took off work at Walmart to be here, says he is “in awe” at the sight of Saban.
“A lot of us younger Alabama fans weren’t alive when Bear Bryant was coaching,” says Villa, who is wearing a hat that is the likeness of a Crimson Tide national championship ring. “In my mind, coach Saban is greater than coach Bryant.”
In my mind, too.
Not long ago, such talk would have been ’Bama blasphemy, but now it is becoming an accepted point of contention.
“I never thought the conversation would even exist, but if Nick Saban wins another national title, I think it’s a very legitimate conversation,” says Paul Finebaum, the nationally recognized Alabama radio host who recently accepted a job with ESPN.
Question: Why does Saban have to win ANOTHER national title before it’s a legitimate conversation? He’s won four championships — three at Alabama, one at LSU — compared to Bryant’s six. Saban’s won two in a row, three of the past four and has done it playing in the most dominant, dynastic era not only in SEC history but also in college football history.
Four programs have won championships in the SEC’s unprecedented run of seven straight national titles. The SEC finished this last regular season with six teams ranked in the top 10.
It’s much harder in today’s world to win four national championships than it was for the Bear to win six in the 1960s and ’70s. There are many more programs in football and basketball capable of winning a national title now than there were 50 years ago.
In the Bear’s day, there weren’t 50 schools that had the resources or desire to compete for national championships. The Bear didn’t have to worry about Boise State or Kansas State or Florida or Oregon. Back in the Bear’s day, there weren’t scholarship limitations and big-money TV deals that evened the playing field and allowed so many schools to compete at the upper echelon of college football.
“I’m not from Alabama and I don’t want to sound like a heretic, but Nick Saban has surpassed Bear Bryant in my opinion,” said former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, now a commentator for Sirius-XM Radio. “There are many more good programs now than there were in Bear Bryant’s day. Bear Bryant coached in a time when you could win a national title before you even played in a bowl game. In terms of what Saban has done coaching in the most competitive era and arena in history, he has no peer.”
When the subject of comparing himself to the Bear is brought up, Saban firmly and humbly side-steps and stiff-arms the questioner.
“I think Bear Bryant is probably the greatest coach in college football in terms of what he accomplished and what his legacy is,” Saban said. “There’s no way we’ve done anything close to what he’s done in terms of consistency over time. I don’t think it’s fair that anyone is compared to what he was able to accomplish, the way he did it, and how he impacted other people.”
Saban’s modesty is admirable but not accurate.
It’s time for the Bear to move over and make room for the Lion.
Nick Saban is the new king of college football.