When I was a kid, there was a character nicknamed “Bear” who ruled college football. He was already old and gray by then, and when he walked the sidelines there was almost a roll of thunder that accompanied his every move.
He wore a funny looking hat, a loud jacket, and when I saw him on television he had a bag of Golden Flake potato chips on the table. He was right out of a Hollywood script, but you just couldn’t make him up if you tried.
Bear Bryant’s death was even right out of a movie. He retired after the 1982 season, and after his last game was asked what he was going to do in retirement. Bryant reportedly said, “Probably croak in a week.”
Well, it took four weeks. Twenty-nine days later Bryant had a massive heart attack and died. Even as a 12-year-old I found that scary and ironic. It was as if his life was over the day he stopped doing the one thing he really loved.
I was just learning about college football back then, and all I knew was this legendary figure was the epitome of a winner. Bryant won six national championships in a span of 18 years, and Alabama was the team everybody looked up to in the SEC.
Thirty years later we can say the same exact thing. Alabama is the epitome of greatness in the sport. The Crimson Tide has won two of the last three national championships and look like the clear favorite this year.
They are the Yankees, Celtics and Cowboys of college football. You probably either love them or hate them. But you can’t deny how good this football program is right now. It is the best in the sport.
And once again, all these years later, it’s because of the head coach. Nick Saban is eerily similar to Bryant. He’s gruff and has a tough exterior, and yet you hear of how much he loves his players. He’s like that tough coach you never want to disappoint, because that would just get in the way of the goal he has for his team.
Saban is the most perfect fit as a coach for any team in any sport. It’s like he slides into Bear’s shoes and just leaves the checkerboard fedora in the office. He’s got the program in such a great place that most around the country wonder how you can actually slow Saban down.
Not that he’ll win every season, but Saban has the Alabama program in such a lofty position that you know with him at the helm this program is going to be in the hunt every year.
Even in a season when Alabama didn’t win and its state rival (Auburn) did win the national title, you never believed it was a changing of the guard. Two years later, look where Alabama is (back on top) and look where the Auburn program is (circling the drain).
How can Auburn even think about competing with Alabama and Saban? They are inevitably going to fire Gene Chizik and try to find their own Saban, but is that even possible?
Every program in the SEC has to look to Saban as the standard-bearer. They get the best talent, regardless of how stacked the depth chart is each and every year. And if you are a top recruit, how could you not be interested in playing for Saban right now? He wins championships and gets players to the NFL, which is all most high school kids care about anyway.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said it best last week, when he admitted, “They draft, we recruit. They just change jersey numbers every year but the guys all look the same.”
Who knows how long this success will last, but it will probably coincide with the time Saban spends as head coach. He’s just that good. And after trying for 25 years to find someone to fill Bryant’s shoes, Alabama may have found someone even better.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill on twitter @BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.