Saturday Morning Quarterback

Saban better than Bear? Following a Wilson Central basketball game at Lincoln County more than a decade ago, I was waiting to interview girls' coach Bud Brandon, who was having a conversation with one of his Lebanon High football coaches, Louis Thompson. Thompson was a Lebanon foot...
Jul 19, 2013

Saban better than Bear?

Following a Wilson Central basketball game at Lincoln County more than a decade ago, I was waiting to interview girls' coach Bud Brandon, who was having a conversation with one of his Lebanon High football coaches, Louis Thompson.

Thompson was a Lebanon football star in the early 1960s who went on to play at Alabama for the legendary Paul [Bear] Bryant. After spending a year on the New York Giants taxi squad, he embarked on a coaching career which returned him to LHS for a season [1978] and eventually landed him at Lincoln County, where he became a legend himself with a couple of state championships and a spot in the TSSAA Hall of Fame.

On this night, he was lamenting the football state of his other alma mater, whose coach, Dennis Franchione, unexpectedly bolted Tuscaloosa for Texas A&M, a reversal of the move Bryant himself had made in 1958.

"I'm so mad, I can't even say his name [don't worry Coach, spelling it isn't easy either]," Thompson fumed. "Alabama's only had two coaches, Coach Bryant and Coach [Gene] Stallings."

No doubt, Thompson, who retired from coaching a few years ago but remains athletic director at Lincoln County, would say now Bama's had three coaches, adding Nick Saban to the list.

Saban, who guided LSU to a BCS crown before coming to Alabama via the Miami Dolphins in 2007, has coached the Crimson Tide to two straight championships and three of the last four. He's so successful, some writers and pundits are making the case he's more successful than Bryant, who coached Bama to six national titles in 25 seasons and retired as college football's winningest coach.

Friday's Democrat ran one such story and I saw another online making a similar claim. Those stories suggest it's harder to win a championship, let along multiple titles, today than during the '60s and '70s when Thompson played on back-to-back championship teams at the height of Bryant's career. Back then, there were no scholarship limits, meaning the relatively few powerhouses could sign as many great players as they wanted. With all FBS schools now limited to 85 scholarships, more good players are scattered around, making other schools, even less prominent ones like Boise State, players in the national picture.

Like many others in this area, whether they were Bama fans or not, I grew up believing Bryant was the greatest college football coach of all time. And in Alabama, it would have been considered blasphemy to suggest otherwise.

Now, there's a new generation of fans who revere Saban, but think of Bryant as just the statue outside of the stadium which bears his name.

That's a generation, like even the ones which played for the Bear, which thinks history started with them. Contrary to Thompson's belief a decade ago, Bama had more than two coaches. They came BB [Before Bryant]. The origin of Alabama's football greatness had Tennessee roots.

Wallace Wade was born in Trenton, Tenn., and, after playing at Brown University [which later became Joe Paterno's alma mater], he began his coaching career at Fitzgerald and Clarke Military School, a forerunner of Tullahoma High School, where he went 16-3 and a state prep school championship in 1920. One of his players was Lynn Bomar, who became an All-American at Vanderbilt, where Wade had been hired as an assistant coach.

Wade went to Alabama in 1923 and won three Rose Bowls ['25, '26 and '30], which then served as the national championship game, before he made the curious move [even then] of going to Duke, where he coached until 1950 and where the stadium is named in his honor. The '25 team which beat Washington 20-19 was the first from the South to play in Pasadena and established the Tide as a national powerhouse which proved teams from the South could compete with those from the rest of the country.

Wade was followed by Frank Thomas, who coached Bryant in the mid-'30s and won two titles [in '34 and '41] over a 14-season span.

Next was Harold [Red] Drew, who compares with Ray Perkins, Bill Curry, Mike DuBose, Franchione and Mike Shula – coaches who didn't win a national championship but claimed a conference crown or two and generally won more than they lost, though not without a hiccup season here or there.

The only real dud among Bama coaches since '23 was J.B. [Ears] Whitworth, who won just four games in three seasons before "Mamma called" Bryant home from A&M.

The Bear restored winning at Alabama and raised the bar. Question is, is Saban raising it even further?

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