By Christopher Walsh
Second of 10 Parts
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Rece Davis had the right answer to the question.
It was just before Texas A&M visited his alma mater last season, when the host of ESPN College GameDay was asked if the 2016 Alabama football team could already be considered among the best in history.
“Not yet,” he said because the Crimson Tide had only played seven games at that point. “There are categories of teams at Alabama, ones that won championships and ones that didn’t. The ones that didn’t don’t get compared, or should be compared, to the ones that did.
“We have to wait until the end to have that type of conversation. To me, all that talk is premature.”
Because championships represent the pinnacle in major team sports, they’re also the most important measuring stick in terms of gauging coaching greatness.
With five national titles, four at Alabama and one at LSU, Nick Saban is already at the highest of levels. He came within a second of winning another last season and has the Crimson Tide poised to continue challenging for more championships.
The College Football Playoff should just go ahead and name the trophy after him, like the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the Super Bowl winner in the NFL. No one’s been so adept at continually competing for it.
With Bob Stoops recently stepping down at Oklahoma, Saban is one of just four active coaches to have won a national title, including Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher. It takes all three combined to match Saban’s five.
“I find it hard to believe Alabama would have been as dominant as it has been under Saban with some other coach, even Urban Meyer (who I think is No. 2),” said Scott Rabalais, columnist for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. “Clearly, he is the best coach in college football, and no one else is close to that. Even LSU fans who hate him now believe that deep down.”
Paul “Bear” Bryant is recognized as having won the most national titles with six. That includes three split and three when the final polls were conducted before bowl games. Saban’s five were secured during a tougher era.
In addition to scholarship limits and a brighter spotlight, major college football now includes more regular-season games, conference championships and the Bowl Championship Series/College Football Playoff.
Saban is 12-2 in title games — 7-1 SEC and 5-1 BCS/CFP after the loss to Clemson in January. The only SEC Championship Game loss came in 2008 to Tim Tebow’s Florida team that won the national championship.
Bryant also never won more than three national titles during any 10-year period. Saban’s notched four since 2009, which fellow ESPN announcer Todd Blackledge called “the finest display of coaching in college football that we’ve ever seen.”
Most national championships in a decade
|Alabama||4||2009, 2011, 2012, 2015|
|Miami (Fla.)||4||1983, 1987, 1989, 1991 (AP)|
|Notre Dame||4||1943, 1946, 1947, 1949|
|Nebraska||3||1994, 1995, 1997 (Coaches)|
|Notre Dame||3||1973 (AP), 1977, 1988|
|Alabama||3||1973 (Coaches), 1978 (AP), 1979|
|USC||3||1972, 1974 (Coaches), 1978 (Coaches)|
|Texas||3||1963, 1969, 1970 (Coaches)|
|Alabama||3||1961, 1964, 1965 (AP)|
|Oklahoma||3||1950, 1955, 1956|
|Minnesota||3||1936, 1940, 1941|
Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy was the first to win four in a decade during the poll era (1934), but he didn’t coach the Fighting Irish for 10 straight years. After he went into the Navy during World War II, Ed McKeever took over the program in 1944 (8-2), and Hugh Devore filled in for the 1945 season (7-2-1). Leahy returned and won three of the next four national titles while compiling an amazing record of 36-0-2.
The Fighting Irish were voted No. 2 in 1948, and only went 4-4-1 in 1950.
Miami also had three different coaches during its dynasty, but each won a national championship. Howard Schnellenberger did it first, followed by Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson won two.
Meanwhile, Meyer also won national championships at two different schools, and all within a 10-year span: Two at Florida (2006 and 2008), and one at Ohio State in 2014.
Alabama’s ‘greatest era ever’
But Saban’s unparalleled success is reflected in numerous other ways, like Alabama having been ranked No. 1 at some point of the season a record nine consecutive years. Leahy’s teams did it five straight seasons (1946-50), and Miami reached seven (1986-92).
“He’s been obviously the most consistent coach that we’ve had in our profession in a lot of years,” said College Football Hall of Fame coach and former executive director of the American Football Coaches Association Grant Teaff. “Year after year, after year, after year, he’s there.”
Consequently, College GameDay has become a regular fixture around the Crimson Tide. The Texas A&M game was its 37th broadcast before an Alabama kickoff, and 28th since Saban arrived in 2007.
That was seven more than any other team over the past decade (Oregon) even before it followed the Crimson Tide to LSU two weeks later, and then to the College Football Playoff title game. Moreover, ESPN’s GameDay has already announced that it will open the 2017 season in Atlanta for Alabama vs. Florida State.
It might be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, with the Crimson Tide possibly extending the No. 1 streak to an unparalleled 10th year in a row.
“I know with some of the older guard at Alabama this is not particularly popular,” Davis said, “but this is the greatest era of Alabama football ever.”