SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If you coach Alabama to a national championship, you get a statue outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Even if it’s a lame national championship, like the one Alabama claims in 1941 from something called the Houlgate System for a Frank Thomas team that went 9-2 and finished No. 20 in the AP poll.
Oh, come now. You mean you don’t have the Houlgate System app?
Nick Saban already has a statue, just a couple of first downs from the one for Paul “Bear” Bryant. The rumor someone started — OK, me — was that Saban’s statue is just a couple of inches taller than Bryant’s.
That’s not true, but in a very real sense, Saban is going after Bryant’s legacy as college football’s greatest coach in a very big way.
History is hanging in the chilly desert air above University of Phoenix Stadium in nearby Glendale. Bryant’s Bama teams won six wire service (AP or the old UPI coaches poll) titles. If Saban’s Crimson Tide squad beats Clemson as predicted Monday night, it will be his fifth title — the one at LSU in 2003 and a fourth at Alabama. Only Bryant has more.
That would be four national championships in seven years. The only school to accomplish that feat was Notre Dame from 1943-49. The Fighting Irish won those titles all under Frank Leahy, like Saban an intense man and a devout Catholic, once given the last rites in the locker room when he collapsed during a game.
Like Bryant’s day, Leahy’s was a much different era. It is tremendously more difficult to win national championships today. Bryant didn’t have most of the SEC pouring millions into coaches’ salaries and facilities to contend with. He didn’t have social media commenting on his every move and a 24-hour sports news cycle that needed constant feeding. In an age of deep-pocketed parity and molecular-level scrutiny, Saban not only wins, he dominates.
For former LSU All-America defensive end Marcus Spears, who scored the winning touchdown in that 2003 BCS title game with an interception against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, the question already has an answer.
“To me, he’s the best coach ever,” said Spears, here covering the national championship game for the SEC Network. “Not just for winning national championships, but in the other years he’s just one game away.
“It’s tough to get to this game. This is not normal. It’s considered failure in Tuscaloosa if you don’t get to this game. He’s going for something not a lot of coaches will be able to say they’ve done.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who played on Alabama’s 1992 national championship team, is amazed by Saban’s achievement.
“He’s already won four national championships,” Swinney said Sunday. “This is the first one I’ve sniffed as a coach, and he’s going for his fifth. It’s incredible.
“People sometimes will say, ‘Well, anybody can go win at Alabama.’ Well, no, that’s not the case. Not everybody can coach a great team. Not everybody can coach a great player. I think that he has a gift to be able to do that.”
The only coach in Saban’s constellation has been Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. He’s the only coach besides Saban to win wire-service-era national titles (since 1936) at two different schools.
Meyer has three titles — two BCS crowns at Florida and last year’s inaugural CFP title at Ohio State. Because of the newness of the CFP system, you could say Meyer has one over on ol’ Nick.
But that may not last long. Like not past the end of Monday night’s game, in which Alabama has become entrenched as a solid touchdown favorite.
Saban, as expected, deferred to Bryant when asked about the legacy thing, essentially saying that, as Alabama’s current coach, he stands on the shoulders of giants.
“Bear Bryant has to be the greatest coach ever in college football, and in no way do I try to be considered anything like him,” Saban said. “Alabama would not be what it is — the job I have would not be what it is — if it wasn’t for Bear Bryant and all that he did. The success that they have, the tradition, the expectations, the national image, the national pride, I mean, there’s so many things that I don’t even touch that his presence had tremendous significance in establishing.”
Saban may not want to wrestle Bryant’s invisible mantle away from him, but it’s there for the taking. And who’s to say if he wins another national title Monday, even at 64, one year shy of the age John Wooden retired at, that he’s done winning?
If there’s any solace LSU or the rest of the SEC can take, it is this: When Saban finally does step away, it will be impossible for Alabama to replace him with someone better.
That’s because there is no one better. Not now. Not then. And maybe not ever.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.