Commentary

Nick Saban joins elite company

Originally Published: July 13, 2012
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

It was treated as an act of blasphemy in the state of Alabama when he said it, but Steve Spurrier raised an interesting point this past spring.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiAs the coach at LSU, Nick Saban (left) turned around a program that had fallen on hard times.

The Head Ball Coach, who could set the all-time wins mark at his second SEC school if South Carolina reaches the 10-win plateau this season, was rambling about the challenge of taking a school with little or no tradition and making it a consistent winner.

Invariably, the subject turned to the best coach in the SEC right now, and Spurrier didn't hesitate.

Nick Saban.

"You're as good as your record, and his record speaks for itself," Spurrier said.

There was a bit of a caveat, though, and it sent a ripple through the Crimson Tide Nation.

Spurrier said if Saban wanted to be known as the greatest coach of all time, he'd have to go somewhere besides Alabama and win.

Spurrier's rationale was that Alabama had a history of winning and that four other coaches before Saban had won national championships at Alabama.

For the record, Spurrier was just being Spurrier. He wasn't dissing Saban. He was simply speaking his mind.

The bigger question, though, as we near the start of the 2012 season -- Saban's 11th in the SEC as a head coach -- is where he stands among the greats who have coached the college game.

At the rate he's going, it's difficult to imagine that he will have few, if any, peers when he's done.

Saban, who turned 60 in October, already owns the distinction of being the only coach in the Associated Press poll era (dating to 1936) to win national championships at two schools.

This past January, Saban added his second national title in the past three years at Alabama to go with the one he won at LSU in 2003.

That's a total of three rings, putting Saban in the same exclusive company as Tom Osborne, Barry Switzer, Bud Wilkinson and Knute Rockne.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesSaban and crystal footballs go together like the Tide and titles.

Of course, the gold standard is Bear Bryant's six national championships. Granted, Bryant carved out his legendary career in a different era when polls and wire services determined the national champion each year.

But there's still little debate as to who currently sits on the throne as the SEC's greatest coach. Bryant, in addition to winning his six national titles, won 159 SEC games -- 137 at Alabama and 22 at Kentucky.

That's a record that might never be broken, especially considering how coaches come and go now in the SEC at a blistering pace.

Saban won't get close to 159 SEC wins. He enters the 2012 season with 63 SEC wins, placing him ninth on the all-time list.

They don't build statues in Alabama's Walk of Champions, though, for coaches who win a lot of games. They build statues for coaches who win championships. Saban already has his statue, and it sits two down from Bryant's just outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Plus, it's difficult to imagine that Saban is finished winning championships at Alabama.

The Crimson Tide keep stockpiling talent, and there's a reason that Saban in his 10 seasons as an SEC head coach has recruited and signed 19 players who've become first-round NFL draft choices. He was responsible for signing all nine of LSU's first-round selections from 2004 to '09, and he signed 10 of Alabama's 11 first-rounders over the past three years.

So, yes, the guy can recruit, but he also can develop. Just ask the NFL general managers and coaches who are clamoring to get Saban-coached players on their rosters.

And with more bling (as in championship rings), where would Saban rank among the greatest coaches in history?

He'd certainly be right in the middle of the conversation.

There's no doubt that coming to the SEC took Saban's career to another level. He had good teams at Michigan State in the 1990s and accomplished some things there that hadn't been accomplished in a long time, but he never won more than nine games in a season.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kelly Lambert/US PresswireAlabama unveiled a 9-foot, student-designed statue of Saban in 2011.

Even during his five-year stay at LSU, Saban never won 10 games in back-to-back seasons. But he did win it all there in 2003, LSU's first national title since 1958.

And at Alabama, Saban has gone 48-6 in his past four seasons and won 10 or more games in each of those seasons, including 12 or more three times.

The other thing to keep in mind when comparing Saban to some of college football's immortals is that he arrived at LSU and Alabama at times when both of those proud programs were floundering.

Maybe they were sleeping giants, but it took somebody like Saban to wake them up.

More importantly, it took somebody -- like Saban -- who could handle the pressure once they did awaken.

When Saban was hired at LSU before the 2000 season, the Tigers were coming off back-to-back losing seasons and had not won an SEC championship since 1988. In fact, from 1989 through 1999, LSU had eight losing seasons.

Saban, in his five seasons on the Bayou, won two SEC titles and the national title in '03. He also recruited most of the key players on the Tigers' 2007 national championship team.

It was a similar situation when Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa before the 2007 season. Alabama was seen as a has-been in a lot of quarters around the league. The Crimson Tide had been on NCAA probation earlier that decade and managed just three winning seasons in 2000-06.

Those days are but a faint memory.

Saban, whose passion for the game is surpassed only by his disdain for complacency, has retooled Alabama into the football machine it was decades ago, and there's no end in sight in terms of where this dizzying run may end.

He's had so much success so quickly at Alabama that he's done what most of us once thought was impossible.

That ominous shadow cast by Bryant, the same shadow that has lingered for more than a quarter century, has actually started to disappear.

In fact, Saban is well on his way to casting his own shadow, one that will only grow longer as the Crimson Tide continue to rack up championships.

Chris Low | email

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