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Please Don’t Make Me Compare Bryant and Saban

By Buddy Martin
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They say disagreements inspire horse races, and so it goes with the competitiveness of sport. However, it’s futile to argue the greatness of coaches or players of different eras, given the differing variables.

Lebron or Michael? Chamberlain or Russell? Nicklaus or Tiger?  Brady or Bradshaw?

They say disagreements inspire horse races, and so it goes with the competitiveness of sport. However, it’s futile to argue the greatness of coaches or players of different eras, given the differing variables.

I really don’t want to tee up this debate over Alabama football coaches Paul “Bear” Bryant and Nick Saban. Unfortunately this is the thing done by people who keep score, measure and compare accomplishments.

One reason that this discussion comes back around today is the recent huge contract that made Saban the highest paid American coach in all of sports. He will make $11,125,000 this season under a three-year contract extension that will pay him a total of $65 million through Jan. 31, 2025. The new contract, approved recently, also includes incentive bonuses that net Saban another $700,000 a year.

According to USA Today, "He makes more than San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s $11 million, Bill Belichick’s $7.5 million a year with New England, and the San Francisco Giants’ Bruce Bochy’s $6 million annual salary."

Money is no barometer of greatness at all, of course, because escalating salaries skew the value. But when those salaries in a sport have reached epic proportion, sometimes they can serve as a measuring stick of how popular the sport has become and how valuable the men or women are who are playing or coaching the game.

At the same time there is no doubt that Saban has virtually pulled even with the legendary Bryant in almost any standard and it would be easy to build a numbers portfolio to argue he is already ahead of Bryant.

Don’t ask me to break down national championships, wins and losses and comparative competition, however, because I’m in no mood to do numbers. Although I will concede Bryant had an advantage on his competition because there was no rotating SEC schedule and he was never penalized for some of his cupcakes.

For right now, let’s stick with the impact as a coach and person, the pioneering mission at hand and the longevity of achievements. For now, I’m going with Bear. Get back to me in another football season and I may change my mind.

Paraphrasing, that famous “You’re no Jack Kennedy” comment made in the 1988 Democratic vice-presidential debate between Democratic candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas and Republican Candidate Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana. (The actual Bentsen quote was, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”)

Memo to Saban: I knew Bear Bryant. Bear Bryant was an acquaintance of mine. You’re no Bear Bryant.

There is a huge difference, however, between Bentsen-Quayle and the Saban-Bryant debate because Saban makes no claim or inference to have been better than Bear Bryant and has never addressed the issue. But plenty of his constituents contend that Alabama’s coach has now eclipsed Bryant as the greatest of all time.

As someone who observed Bryant close up on several occasions, saw plenty of his teams play, sat in some of his interviews, attended his practice and even sat down at the table for a late-night poker game with several writers, coaches and wife Mary Harmon Bryant at an SEC spring meeting, I’d be reluctant to dismiss him as the paragon of coaching greatness. On the other hand, I really don’t know Saban at all and have only spoken to him in group settings.

Likeability and familiarity should not figure in the equation, but it always does and respect also shapes our opinion. So I started thinking about those attributes.

In the final analysis shouldn’t it also be about the measure of the man?

I also wondered just how much a large amount of money would affect a person. Is $65 million going to change Nick Saban? He’s already a bit of a bully with some of his assistant coaches (Lane Kiffin) and the media. But in the end I couldn’t really say he would become any worse just because of a few more million bucks.

I began wondering about any behavior modification due to wealth. So I asked the man who was once the highest paid coach in all of football. First, Steve Spurrier broke the $1 million barrier for college coaches at Florida. Then he busted the $5 million mark as coach of the Washington Redskins (even though he did give a big chunk back when he resigned).

Did the money change Spurrier?

“No, I hope not,” Spurrier told me. “I didn’t drive a fancy car, or buy a private jet – although sometimes when I have to wait in line at the Orlando Airport I wish I did!”

Did it change Saban?

“I doubt it,” Spurrier added. “Nick has always been a more reserved guy. He plays very little golf. I don’t think he works out. Doesn’t take long vacations. That’s just Nick. I’ve always gotten along with him fine. He’s said some very nice things about me.”

As for rating coaches, Spurrier doesn’t play that game. But he has great respect for Saban and has always had great admiration for Bear Bryant, whose team he competed against as a Florida quarterback. He also quoted Bryant’s coaching philosophy in his autobiography “Head Ball Coach.”

As for Saban and Bryant comparisons, I wanted some insights from people who knew them both and worked closely with them. Paul Finebaum of ESPN probably knows Saban better than anybody in the media. He also covered Bryant.

Finebaum and Saban have had their share of dustups and Finebaum did not jump to the defense of Saban’s bad behavior. And when I asked him for a comparison of Bryant and Saban, Finebaum quickly stated: “I will say this: In all the years I have covered Alabama football and known players and coaches, I have never heard one person say anything bad about Coach Bryant. Never.” He did not say the same about Saban and all but implied that wasn’t the case. However, Finebaum also acknowledges the remarkable feats of Saban and his greatness at Alabama.

“What kind of person is Nick Saban?” Finebaum asked rhetorically. “I think we’ve seen that. He’s the kind of person who will humiliate an assistant coach on the sideline. But (he) also will work tirelessly to help his players win a national championship and to get drafted by the NFL.”

On the other hand, Finebaum noted that Saban “is no Joan of Arc – but he is the best football coach I’ve known in my lifetime."

Rachel Baribeau of XM Sirius College Nation and knows the Alabama coach personally. She spent two years living in Tuscaloosa covering the Crimson Tide and befriended Nick’s wife Terry and “she allowed me to tell their love story.”

Rachel doesn’t side with those who ripped Saban for exploding on the sideline in the face of Lane Kiffin. “When your record is 114-19 or whatever, you are going to be a polarizing figure,” she said.

As for his berating of Lane Kiffin on national TV? “I say this with all due respect, but Lane Kiffin is a total yahoo and a lot of that Kiffin brought on himself,” Baribeau said.

Most of all, Baribeau emphasized the humanitarian side of Saban, especially after how he responded to the devastating E-4 tornado on April 27, 2011 that killed 52 and destroyed 5,300 homes around Tuscaloosa.  She thinks that was the defining moment for Saban as a man and as a coach at Alabama.

Saban was one of the first people out that April 28 morning after the tornado. He didn’t know exactly what to do, but he started handing out water. People began to follow him like the Pied Piper. He wanted to show compassion. Not being a hugger, or someone who necessarily likes being touched by strangers, Saban had a breakthrough and began hugging people.

“People needed him,” Baribeau said. “He began shaking hands. He reached out. And I truly think that’s where the tornado shaped him.”

How much is that worth? How much does it count as a man? And how many sins of rude behavior or bullying does that wipe away?

“Before the tornado I think he had wanderlust and hadn’t settled down, maybe for Texas or someplace else,” Baribeau continued. “Things happened. Things were born and things died. And one thing that died was his wanderlust. And the thing that was born was his roots and connection to Tuscaloosa.”

Finebaum disagrees somewhat. As pointed out in the book, “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football,” Finebaum co-wrote with’s Gene Wojciechowski, Texas came back 18 months later with a $100 million offer that couldn’t be tendered because the Longhorns couldn’t get Mack Brown to resign in time.

“And if it had been seamless, I think Saban might have taken it,” Finebaum speculated.

One thing for certain: Alabama can lay claim to the greatest coaching quinella of all time: Bear Bryant and Nick Saban. Florida has a pretty good one with Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. But the difference between them is that both Bryant and Saban will likely wind up having coached their last games for Alabama.

Now, that ship has sailed or that horse is out of the barn – or whatever cliche you choose.

It also appears this will be the final contract Saban will sign.

And on that count, nobody has ever done better.

Buddy Martin - Buddy Martin is a veteran columnist, talk show host and author. A longtime observer of college football, Martin is heard weeknights on the Buddy Martin Show on ESPN Coastal Georgia and WMOP/WGGG in Ocala/Gainesville Fla. and the Southern Pigskin Radio Network, where he also co-hosts The Terry Bradshaw Show. Buddy won an Emmy while he was with Terry at CBS as an associate producer. More of Buddy's work can be found at where his show is streamed live. Buddy's most recent book is Steve Spurrier's autobiography "Head Ball Coach: My Life in Football" published by Blue Rider Press. He also wrote Urban Meyer's authorized biography, "Urban's Way," and Terry Bradshaw's autobiography "Looking Deep." Contact him at, Facebook/The Buddy Martin Show and @Buddyshow on Twitter.