Yes there is the winning and national championships, but do you know the striking similarities between Saban and Bryant? Read and get caught up.
Striking Similarities Between Saban and “Bear” Bryant
By: Larry Burton
Someone recently asked me where Saban was from and did he have anything in common with Alabama’s other legendary head coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. I told them the few things I did know, but the question left me wanting to learn if there were others, hence this article.
Both were born in small towns without a lot to offer a young man. Bryant came from Moro Bottom, Arkansas a town that’s still just a dot on the map today. Saban came from Fairmont, West Virginia, a town so small when Saban was born, didn’t even have 700 people living there. Both men were heavily impacted by their fathers, yet neither father lived long enough to see their son claim greatness in coaching.
Saban’s father scratched out what was a good living in the area by owning and running a gas station and later added burger joint to the family enterprise. Nick pumped gas, washed and waxed cars and did anthing he could in the business since he was in elementary school. Bryant’s father spent his life with a lot of physical difficulties and injuries and this meant that Bryant and his four brothers and sisters had to work like adults to keep the family farm going. Both young men knew work from the time they just young boys and this ingrained in both of them that putting in long hours and doing whatever you had to was the one way to survive.
Both were natural athletes. Saban’s father was a Pop Warner football coach, so of course football was a family thing, but Saban also played all the other sports and unlike Bryant, who had a 6’1” – 180 pound frame starting high school and later filled out to a 6’4” figure full of muscle, was a much sought out college player. Saban relied and quickness, stamina and brains to earn his way in a football scholarship, his options were a little more limited.
Neither would be a standout star on their college team and neither one had professional football in their futures, although Bryant was drafted to play pro ball. But each was known by their teammates as a player who was determined. Bryant once played with a broken leg and Saban refused to be helped off the field his senior year after a bad ankle injury and literally crawled off on his hands and good foot. Bryant was known for his toughness, unafraid to go over the middle against any player and Saban, all 5’6” of him, who quickly became known as a “hitter”, would play safety and take on the biggest running backs with the mentality that it was them who was going to get the rough end of any tackle. Both practiced the same way they played and were not problems for their coaches on or off the field. Jack Lambert, All pro and Hall of Fame member of the NFL was a teammate of Saban’s at Kent State and has said of Saban that even though he was one of smallest guys on the team, he’d give you a lick as good as any of the bigger men. He played much bigger than he was.
Bryant’s father would die before his son finished college at Alabama, Saban’s father passed away during his first year coaching as a graduate assistant at the college where he played, Kent State. Neither would ever know that their son would become one of the most famous men in the country and shape a generation of college football greatness. Both men took their college head coaches in their hearts as surrogate fathers, Bryant to Frank Thomas, who won national championships and helped put the Tide on the map and for Saban it was Don James, who Saban remained lifelong friends with.
Both Bryant and Saban felt “lucky” to have had the chance to go to college by playing football and giving them the chance to become what they did. Both wanted to pass along that opportunity to others. Bryant gave money to scholarship funds and started a program at Alabama that former players would be allowed to send their kids to college there with scholarships provided. Nick and his wife Terry founded “Nick’s Kids” to help children and have also donated heavily to scholarship activities. Both feel lucky to have used football not only to get that all important education, but also to have had great coaches in their lives as players that directed them into the profession which in turn made them both successful and famous.
Both coaches have a stubborn streak in them, both are men who have strong principals in their professional lives and both expect their players to have a strong sense of right and wrong to point them morally and as players. Both left jobs for greener pastures, neither has ever been terminated as a head coach. Both men see themselves as the head guy in charge and leave no doubt with subordinates who has the power, but each see themselves as managers, not dictators.
Bryant was once being praised by a reporter as the smartest man in football and he stopped the reporter and told him he wasn’t even the smartest man on his staff at Alabama, much less in the country. He told that reporter that he wouldn’t hire anybody who wasn’t smarter than him. If he did, what could he possibly teach the team that he couldn’t himself? Likewise Saban has said that he surrounds himself with coaches who can bring in new ideas and a fresh set of eyes. Neither was afraid to hire ex former head coaches or the hottest assistants around, they weren’t job scared, they just wanted the best coaches they could get to help them prepare their teams for the next season.
Because of that, both men, despite their stubborn nature, knew that they didn’t know everything and had to adapt when it became apparent that what they thought was best wasn’t working as well as it used to. Both men were basicly men who believed in hard nosed defense first and an offense that just didn’t make dumb mistakes, but scored enough to win. Both loved the pro style offense built on run first.
But Bryant mid career saw that times were changing and that his offense was too predictable and totally scrapped everything he’d ever done on offense and went to the wishbone type offense. The result was many more national championships and a re-birth of Alabama football dominance. Saban was very similar, a pro style offense built around running a bland but near mistake proof offense which worked by simply overpowering their opponents.
But like Bryant, Saban saw the landscape changing and brought in Lane Kiffin to teach him and the team, the up-tempo offense Alabama needed, not just to put points on the board, but mostly to have his defense see it everyday in practice and become used to anticipating the way it played out and how to stop it. Like Bryant, Saban’s willingness to change has resulted in more Alabama success.
Both men are and were devoted to their wives and thought of them as partners in their work as well as their spouse. Mary Harmon Bryant, just like Terry Saban helped sway parents to let their boys come to Alabama and both did things to keep the assistant coaches wives feeling like “part of the family”. Mary Harmon told me once in her home when I asked if she was ever jealous of the time his job took away from her? And she told me, “It’s really the only life I’ve ever known, so no, I’m not upset. I’ve always thought of many of those boys as my boys too. I had to hide Joe (Namath) in the basement when Paul (Bear) kicked him out of the athletic dorm. I’ve had to mama a lot of these boys, so it’s always been a part of my life too.”
And at Alabama, both men, who had coached at many places, finally found a home. Bryant once told me that he had been asked to go into professional football and be a head coach, but he said nothing could pry him away from Alabama. Similarly Saban has finally found a place where he says he wants to end his career. “This is it. My next stop will be Lake Burton” Saban has told reporters many times. Both have developed business interests outside football in the area and became content to spread their roots in Alabama.
Today, both men have statues outside the stadium, a lasting memorial to what one man meant and one man still means to this fanbase. Both are unarguably the best coaches of their generation and both came from outside the state to become the beloved son of all things Alabama. Both may have records that the other won’t break and perhaps records that no coach will ever break. But in the end, both men are humble in their accomplishments and feel like they were lucky to have been a part of great players, great coaches and a great school.
There are differences in the two men to be sure, but the fundementals of each man is their greatest similarity. Hard work and attention to detail can overcome raw talent and luck and no man is more important than the team pulling in one direction. The two men never met, but something tells me they would have enjoyed each others company and recognized the other for what and who they are. I’d like to think that years from now when they finally meet in heaven, Coach Bryant will come up to Saban and say something like, “Thanks coach, you did great with my boys at Alabama.” And Saban might reply, “Well thank you coach for leaving me such a foundation to build on. It sure helped a lot.”
Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter