TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s an odd sensation standing in the middle of the Walk of Champions on the University of Alabama campus. There ought to be velvet ropes surrounding all the reminders of the past. At the very least, a tour guide. But the brick plaza adjacent to Bryant-Denny Stadium is essentially an outdoor museum where students walk past statues and step over plaques on their way to class without so much as a second glance. You can literally trip over history on a bright summer day during the first full week of the fall semester.
It’s here where you first feel the tug-of-war between the past and the present. Because there on the right, closest to the stadium, is a bronze statue of the current head football coach: Nick Saban. He being the architect of the modern college football dynasty, owner of five national championships and seven SEC titles, the man who returned Alabama to its rightful place atop college football. But a few doors down is the statue of the man whose very records Saban is chasing: Paul W. Bryant. He being the man who put Alabama at the top of the pedestal to begin with, the only coach to ever win six national championships, the G.O.A.T. Or, as he’s known better here, The Bear.
When three underclassmen are stopped taking a shortcut through the Walk of Champions in the middle of the afternoon and asked which coach they prefer, Saban or Bryant, it elicits a visceral, almost painful reaction. Braden Faulk, a business marketing major from Dallas, goes blank and stares into the distance, while his buddy, Jonathan Bush, who is from Tuscaloosa and is studying finance, winces in pain. Cole Crawford, from Montgomery, wants nothing to do with this debate. He looks absolutely lost for words.
“Uhh,” says Faulk, stammering. “Maybe ask in the next few years.”
Bush praises Saban and rips his predecessor — we’ll leave the expletives out and say there’s no love lost for Mike Shula here — but he doesn’t have an answer either. It’s clear that these millennials aren’t plagued with the recency bias you might expect. If anything, they’re struggling with the grip the past still holds on them and almost everyone in this state.
“He’s just … the god,” Faulk says of Bryant.
“There was always a lot of respect for Bear Bryant,” Bush says. “Growing up an Alabama fan, you wear Bryant’s checkered cap and everything. It was all you ever knew. When I was younger and I was an Alabama fan and we sucked, it was like, ‘This is what we used to be. This guy’s the legend.’ He brought us to our glory days, and now Nick Saban is like the reincarnation of him — almost.”
Almost, but not quite.
It doesn’t matter that today’s game is arguably more competitive than it has ever been. Nor does it matter that Saban’s winning percentage at Alabama is five points higher than Bryant’s or that he has won one more national championship during his first 10 years in Tuscaloosa than Bryant did during that same time. It’s less about numbers mystique. All these years later — more than four decades after people lined Interstate 20 just to watch the funeral procession that took Bryant’s body from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to be laid to rest — his presence lingers.
Head west down Paul W. Bryant Drive, hang a left on Greensboro Avenue and turn right when you hit train tracks. It’s there, when you ease into the back parking lot of Waysider restaurant, that you get a real feel for the way history sticks to this place. Inside the single-story red-and-white-trim home that was converted into a breakfast joint long ago, past the old church pew in the sagging old covered porch, is another one of those living museums. Painted illustrations of great moments in Alabama football history fill every available inch of wall space. The hostess will tell you to pick your own table, but be sure to choose the one with Bryant’s bust on it, if it’s available. It’s just to the right when you enter, in the corner in front of a boarded-up fireplace.
On an unusually cool, overcast weekday in August, a middle-aged couple is sipping on coffee and sweet tea at the very same table Bryant ate at when he dined there multiple times each week. It’s nondescript — an old laminate table with old wooden chairs — but when they cleaned up the restaurant years ago, they made sure to mark the set so it could go back just the way it was before. It’s barely big enough for two when the couple’s grits and pancakes show up, and the bust of Bryant with a houndstooth hat hanging atop it doesn’t make matters any easier. Still, no one complains about it being inconvenient. The table is rarely empty.
“… I mean, they won championships running the wishbone, they won them with quarterbacks that can throw the ball, they won with little guys playing defense, they won with big guys playing defense. I mean, he just sort of changed however he had to change.”
Nick Saban on Bear Bryant
For Saban, his appreciation of Bryant may stop short of paying homage with biscuits and coffee, but it certainly runs deep, all the way back to when he was a 12-year-old kid in West Virginia watching his favorite college football player ever, Joe Namath, starting at quarterback for Bryant at Alabama.
“Phenomenal,” Saban said. “I never met Coach Bryant, always had a tremendous amount of respect for him. But I really had a tremendous amount of appreciation for him before I ever came to Alabama — who he was, what he accomplished and, even more significant, the fact that after he left it didn’t sustain. It didn’t sustain like what he’d done for so many years.
“But the thing I always respected about him was that he did it in different ways, which I think speaks volumes of what kind of coach he was to be able to adapt and adjust. I mean, they won championships running the wishbone, they won them with quarterbacks that can throw the ball, they won with little guys playing defense, they won with big guys playing defense. I mean, he just sort of changed however he had to change.”
When Taylor Watson, the longtime curator of the Paul W. Bryant Museum, attempts to explain the Bryant phenomenon to outsiders, he first tries to find each person’s reference point to give them an idea of the impact the former coach had on the state. If they know sports, he says he’ll call Bryant college football’s version of Vince Lombardi. But if they’re not football people, he’ll say that he was the General Patton of college football.
“What Coach Bryant meant to Alabamians, he’s bigger than life,” Watson says. “Between 1958-70, there were s—-y times in the state and a lot of it was self-inflicted: George Wallace, Bull Connor, the list goes on. But you could look toward Alabama football and Coach Bryant, and that was something to be proud of. We weren’t on the news for hoses and dogs and beating poor children. Here was somebody who was showing the state in a better light.”
When Bryant died and Alabama struggled to consistently win, Watson says that “the myth of Bryant continued to grow.” It hasn’t stopped, either. There are so many children named after the former coach now that a woman at the museum keeps a database on the computer of all the names, ages and hometowns. She added four names this week alone, she says. All told, she estimates that there are about 600 variations of Paul, Bear and Bryant accounted for in the document. And that’s only the people who called or wrote in.
Every year before the first home football game of the season, all of Bryant’s namesakes are invited back to campus for a party and Watson says they always draw a good crowd. It’s just another way Bryant remains omnipresent here, little Pauls and Bears and Bryants sitting in the stands in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturdays, some in his patented houndstooth.
One day there might be a Saban namesake database, but it isn’t in the works just yet. Today, Bryant takes up half the museum’s space, Taylor estimates, and Saban almost 20 percent with mementos, such as his trademark straw cap and the Gatorade-stained shirt he wore when Alabama beat Texas to win the national championship in 2009. But the more Saban wins, the more those percentages will change. “Hopefully we’ll have a Nick Saban museum,” Watson says.
While Tide fans’ hearts are with Bryant, their heads may be being slowly pulled in a different direction. Take brothers Mike and Dale Richardson, for instance. The two men in their 50s took off work one Thursday in Indiana and drove 12 hours to get to Bryant-Denny Stadium by 6 a.m. Friday to be one of the first in line when the doors opened on the next day. Only they weren’t camping out for a game. Instead, they sat on lumpy foldout chairs inside the bowels of the stadium just so they could get Saban’s autograph.
It was the third year in a row they made the trip. They said they haven’t missed watching an Alabama game in years.
“Before Saban, maybe,” Dale said.
When the dreaded question came up — Bryant or Saban: Who ya got? — they had the same pained expression as those three 20-somethings at the Walk of Champions.
“Oh, that’s a tough question,” Mike said. “That’s tough.”
“I’m going to go with Saban,” Dale said.
“I’m going to go with Bear,” Mike replied.
Mike and Dale looked at one another as if suddenly they hadn’t been brothers their whole lives. It was a sit-down standoff. Dale said that the players are tougher now, that the game has evolved and advancements had been made, while Mike rebutted that Bryant didn’t have all those same advancements to work with, that didn’t have a top-notch training staff and still dominated.
“If Nick wins this year,” Mike said, “if he wins the next championship, yeah he’s better.”
“One more would put icing on the cake,” Dale said. “Both of them belong on coaching’s Mount Rushmore.”
If it were up to Ray Perkins, that’s exactly how it would be. Not one coach overshadowing the other, but two all-timers sharing space.
Perkins, who played for Bryant and shouldered the heavy burden of being his successor in 1983, thinks it’s impossible to compare the job the two coaches have done. Maybe Saban is the better promoter. Maybe Bryant was the better motivator. Different eras, he said.
But pin him down, and he’ll go with Bryant every single time.
“If I have to jump off one side,” Perkins said, “I’m going to jump off Coach Bryant’s side. And I think Nick Saban understands that. I like him. I think he’s done one hell of a job.”
Like so many others, Perkins goes with his gut. All these years later, he gets goosebumps recounting Bryant’s impact on him.
“Hey, you know what you just caught me doing?” Perkins said. “I’m filling out some forms to buy a condo. I’m going to buy a condo in Tuscaloosa, and guess who’s going to give me the money? Bryant Bank.”
He’s everywhere: on street signs, on the name of a local high school, on birth certificates, on restaurants, on the very checks people sign.
How do you compete with that?
How does another championship or two or three from Saban begin to put a dent in Bryant’s stronghold when it exists well beyond football?
The only real challenge to Bryant’s legacy — in fact, all legacies — is time.
As a word of caution, Taylor, Alabama’s resident football historian, brought up another coach who won three national championships there and isn’t remembered in nearly the same way either of his successors are despite his statue being just as big and just as well done on the Walk of Champions.
“I’m a huge Wallace Wade fan,” Taylor said, harkening back to the man who went 61-13-3 at Alabama nearly three decades before Bryant coached in Tuscaloosa. “I think he’s as good as anyone we had. But I bet if you talked to those three kids and asked them who Wallace Wade was, they may have known, ‘Oh, he was a coach here or something,’ but they wouldn’t have known everything. And it’s going to happen to Coach Bryant in some form or fashion. Time just does that. And it will happen to Saban.”
Maybe they won’t remember the numbers decades from now. Maybe it will be just the names, the faces, the straw hat and the houndstooth.
Maybe then, when the emotional connection has faded and all that’s left is numbers to judge them on, we’ll get the real answer for the best coach of all time: Saban or Bear?