As a boy growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Walt Maddox stood along Route 82 in 1983 to watch a white hearse pass with the body of Bear Bryant, the revered University of Alabama football coach.
Almost 24 years later, Maddox was Tuscaloosa’s mayor when a City Hall meeting about prekindergarten paused so people could crowd a balcony to gawk at the convoy that heralded the arrival of Alabama’s new coach, Nick Saban.
“When Coach Saban came,” Maddox said the other day, “I don’t think anyone who was being honest with themselves would say he would replicate Bryant, or that he would exceed Bryant. You couldn’t imagine anyone being able to do that.”
But Saban is now at least his equal. With Alabama’s 52-24 victory over Ohio State on Monday night in the College Football Playoff’s title game, Saban has won six national championships as the Crimson Tide coach, just like Bryant. Add Saban’s 2003 title at Louisiana State, which he left after the following season to try his hand in the N.F.L., and no coach in major college football has won more.
Not Woody Hayes. Not Walter Camp. Not Tom Osborne. Not Knute Rockne, Darrell K Royal or Barry Switzer. And not Bryant, now second on the list.
It has been a project — and Saban, 69, forever preaching against looking too far ahead, might shudder at that word. He has morphed with the sport, one he very nearly never coached, having needed to be talked into a stint as a graduate assistant coach at Kent State, where he played defensive back.
He has been a champion with defenses that were arguably more stirring to watch than their offensive counterparts. He is, for this moment, a disciple of tempo and run-pass options and air power so daunting that an Alabama wideout, DeVonta Smith, this month became the first wide receiver in nearly three decades to win the Heisman Trophy.
“He adapts with the game, whatever it takes to be successful, whatever it takes to be the best, whatever it takes to be elite,” Mark Ingram, who won the Heisman when he played for Saban at Alabama in 2009, said in an interview last week.
Indeed, the through line — Saban’s status as a standard-bearer for rigor and discipline — is best traced not to a football office but to a service station in West Virginia, where the boy who would become a big name scorned washing dark cars because Big Nick, as his father and coach in Pop Warner football was known, demanded he try again if he found even a single streak.
“The biggest thing that I learned and started to learn at 11 years old was how important it was to do things correctly,” Saban recalled in 2013. “There was a standard of excellence, a perfection.”
That sense has lasted close to 60 years.
And for about 14 of them, no small amount of energy around Tuscaloosa has gone toward deconstructing Saban’s psyche, toward endless comparisons to Bryant, toward figuring out the point at which Saban would go from competing against that week’s opponent to competing more with himself and history.
The country has watched him win and lose big games. The sports world has seen him glower and gripe, as when he made plain his displeasure that he could not coach remotely because he had tested positive for the coronavirus. And on Monday night, college football saw Saban ascend to a spot that almost made him squirm.
It is a given that counting up college football titles can be a tricky task given the peculiarities of the sport and the time when polls carried the day. Alabama backers, for instance, will declare loudly that their program now has 18 national championships, but detractors question five because of how Alabama justified them. But Bryant clearly dominated in his time, a wholly different era than one in which computers and committees help figure out champions.
Whether Saban will ever admit it, he has similarly dominated his era.
Early on Tuesday, Saban deflected comparisons to Bryant, whose six championships came across 25 seasons atop Alabama.
“I think Coach Bryant is sort of in a class of his own in terms of what he was able to accomplish, what his record is, the longevity that he had and the tradition he established,” Saban said. “If it wasn’t for Coach Bryant, we would never be able to do what we did. I mean, he’s the one that made Alabama and the tradition at Alabama a place where lots of players wanted to come. We’ve been able to build on that with great support.”
All of that can be true.
But this is, too: Saban’s praise of Bryant — “in the era that he coached, the era that he won, he won a lot of different ways” — bordered on the autobiographical.
Later on Tuesday, Saban confessed that he had been back at work in the hours after the championship.
“It’s an ongoing process, building a team,” he said. “I don’t think you can fall asleep at the switch for a minute if you want to try to do it the right way for your players and your program.”
He is, after all, under contract at Alabama for another five seasons — five more tries for the perfection Big Nick taught him around the time Bryant won his first title at Alabama.