BCS Title Game Analysis: The Bear & The Hound

Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 8, 2013

Matt Zemek's Reaction to the BCS National Championship Game.

By Matt Zemek
E-mail Matt Zemek

Fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide have rightly and justifiably viewed Paul W. "Bear" Bryant – their foremost football hero – as the greatest head coach in college football history. Few would argue with the contention. The Bear set a very high standard in Tuscaloosa after his coaching stops at Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, cranking out 10- and 11-win seasons in decades when college football played 10-or 11-game regular seasons. The Bear stood atop the mountain for two whole decades (1961 through 1980), doing what Tom Landry did with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys from 1966 through 1983… only better. Alabama won repeat national championships in the mid-1960s and the late 1970s, showing a level of staying power that few programs have ever been able to equal.

Barry Switzer had the mid-1970s at Oklahoma, but he never quite pulled off the same second act in the mid-1980s (though he came close). Tom Osborne had the mid-1990s at Nebraska, but he struggled in the 1980s against the Miamis and Florida States of the world. Bud Wilkinson's career at Oklahoma was a brilliant yet comparatively brief one, bursting into light in 1948 but running out of steam in 1959. Only a few men have come close to Bryant's combination of quality and longevity. Joe Paterno is one such man (say what you want about JoePa as a person; as a coach, he was pretty darn good on an historical scale), but most other mortals failed to match that kind of standard.

The point is plain: Bear Bryant occupies a unique place in the college football pantheon, and he made his name most centrally at the University of Alabama.

How amazing is it, then, that the Crimson Tide can now present to the world another all-time college football coaching legend?

In order to properly express the superabundance of riches found at the feet of the Capstone, it must now be said that Alabama football boasts another member of the sport's Mount Rushmore. Yes, Nick Saban – with four national titles, three of them won at Alabama – joins the foremost icons of the sport.

If there was any doubt about the matter before the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, Saban has now passed recent greats such as Urban Meyer and Pete Carroll in terms of career accomplishments. In the past 60 years of college football, the Bear has won the most national titles (six). With this championship victory over Notre Dame, Saban joins USC's John McKay as the winner of four national titles in that same 60-year span. (Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy won four titles in the 1940s.)

Saban can point to a body of achievement that stacks up favorably with almost every other coach in the post-World War II era. The only thing missing from Saban's portfolio is longevity, and yet, with that having been said, Saban seems poised to win more titles in Tuscaloosa if he's willing to stick around for a decade. The Bear is arguably the only coach whose legacy stands head and shoulders above Saban's at this point. Note the use of the word "arguably," often a throwaway word but in this case a term that is presented with sincerity. You could make a legitimate argument that Saban – much like Mike Krzyzewski in relationship to John Wooden in college basketball – has already become the second-best coach in modern-era college football. Yet, while Coach K and Wooden plied their trades at different schools, Saban and the Bear produced the bulk of their achievements at the same school, the one where Dixie's Football Pride resides. How much of a jackpot is that for wearers of the Houndstooth hat?

It's true that Saban needed a lot of help to win each of his past two titles. (Heck, every college football season, with the exception of Nebraska's 1995 romp and a few other historically great teams, requires some luck on the road to the title.) Yet, each time he's gained a BCS title game berth, Saban has mastered the moment. A 4-0 record in these pressure cookers speaks for itself. This level of sustained excellence doesn't happen by accident. When given a team that's healthy and whole after four or five weeks off, Saban has never failed to coax a top-shelf performance from his defense. LSU smothered Oklahoma in the 2004 Sugar Bowl. Alabama's defense lost focus for about 20 minutes but still made game-defining plays against Texas in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game. The Tide shut out LSU in the 2012 natty, and they pulverized Notre Dame on Monday night in South Florida.

Alabama will always have The Bear, the imposing and gravelly-faced figure who quietly walked the sidelines for more than two decades in Tuscaloosa. Now, on the occasion of his historic fourth title – and his third in four years at Alabama – it's time to give the Crimson Tide's other legendary coach a nickname of his own: The Hound.

Nick Saban has relentlessly pursued victory and perfection in a town where college football is king – emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, culturally. The anger that Saban displays even when his team is leading by 28 points – magnified by the heated exchange between Barrett Jones and A.J. McCarron in the fourth quarter – is reflective of a football obsessive with an unmatched degree of tunnel vision. All coaches strive to acquire such tunnel vision, and many of the greats in the profession are able to capture it, but none in the past 25 years, with the possible exception of Urban Meyer, have retained it for very long. Saban is exceptional in this regard; his joylessness owns Bill Belichikian dimensions. (It's no idle coincidence that Belichick won three NFL football championships in four years, from 2001 through 2004, before Saban replicated the feat in the college game.) This joylessness is not endearing, but it sure is successful, and it has hounded the rest of college football in three of the past four seasons. It has hounded the rest of the SEC in both Baton Rouge and now Tuscaloosa.

Alabama had The Bear. In the present tense, Alabama now holds The Hound, Nick Saban. Two coaching legends, one elite football school. January 7, 2013, became the night when Dixie's Football Pride, Crimson Tide, acquired a new and even more elevated place in college football's 144-year history.