Spurrier vs Saban
Earlier this year Steve Spurrier made headlines when he said this about Nick Saban “He’s got a nice little gig going, a little bit like (John) Calipari. He tells guys, ‘Hey, three years from now, you’re going to be a first-round pick and go.’ If he wants to be the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they’ve always won there at Alabama.” It took four months, but Saban responded back to Spurrier yesterday stating “LSU wasn’t winning when I went there. Michigan State wasn’t winning when I went there. Toledo wasn’t winning when I went there. And Alabama really wasn’t winning when I came here. I guess I gotta go someplace else. I don’t know".
Since Bear Bryant retired from the SEC in 1982 there is little doubt that the two men that have dominated the SEC are Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban. These two men have combined for 4 National Championships, 9 SEC Championships, an 13 division championships. While succesful, both men took different paths to get to their succes. Spurrier has been known for his play calling ability on offense and Saban known for his development of defensive powerhouses. Sure, other men have come into the conference and had success like Fulmer, Tuberville, Petrino, and Richt but none have done what these two have.
Saban and Spurrier also failed to win as head coaches in the NFL. Spurrier went 12-20 in two years at Washington, while Saban was slightly better with a 15-17. Personally, I believe the two men could have won in the NFL had they been with better franchises. The Redskins have only 2 playoff appearances since Spurrier left and the Dolphins only have 1 appearance since Saban left. While Miami and Washington both have historical teams, both have been 2 of the worst run franchises in the NFL over the last decade.
The two men have only met 4 times in their careers. Spurrier holds a 3-1 advantage, with his first two wins coming in the first two seasons Saban coached in the SEC. Spurrier whipped Saban in the two LSU-Florida meetings by scores of 41-9 and 44-15. The two have met twice since taking their new jobs. In 2009 Alabama won an ugly game on a chilly night in Tuscaloosa 20-6, but in 2010 South Carolina upset #1 Alabama 35-21.
It seems that Spurrier's belief is that in order for a coach to truly be considered great that coach needs to accomplish something that has never been done before. Spurrier obviously has been a master of this in his career. Spurrier took over Duke in 1987 and by year three had become the first coach to win an ACC Championship at Duke in 27 years. Spurrier's back to back winning seasons at Duke are impressive when you consider the Blue Devils have only had 1 winning season since Spurrier left 23 years ago.
Spurrier continued to accomplish firsts at Florida. He won the first SEC Championship for the Gators in 1991 and won the school's first National Championship in 1996. Spurrier even became the first Heisman Trophy Winner to coach another Heisman Trophy Winner in 1996. Florida not only won the SEC 6 times in Spurrier's tenure, but they dominated teams in doing so. From 1990-2001 Spurrier's Florida teams had an amazing 87-12 record in SEC play and outscored its SEC opposition by an average of 38-17. At one time Florida won 25 consecutive SEC games by an average score of 44-15! Spurrier not only dominated the SEC, but he completely changed the league from a conference that liked to grind it out with running backs like Bo and Walker to a conference that showed it could throw the ball.
In his 7 years at South Carolina, Spurrier is 10 wins away from becoming South Carolina's all time winningest coach. What Spurrier is likely to accomplish in 8 years, took Rex Enright 15 years to accomplish with the Gamecocks. The South Carolina Gamecocks have only won 9 games or more in a single season 4 times in their 120 year history, two of those seasons were under Spurrier. The Gamecocks won their first division championship as a member of the SEC in 2010. South Carolina fans had been used to finishing behind Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee each year but Spurrier is 6-0 against those schools since 2010. At his third college stop Spurrier certainly is accomplishing more firsts.
Nick Saban was born into coaching. His father Lou Saban was head coach for several NFL teams and was the coach at Miami prior to Howard Scnellenberger. Saban's first head coach job was at Toledo where he went 9-2 and won the MAC Championship. It's hard to judge Saban's short tenure at Toledo. Obviously it was a great year 1, but Toledo didn't exactly struggle after Saban. Current Missouri coach Gary Pinkel replaced Saban and won 4 MAC Championships with the Rockets, including an 11-0-1 season in 1994 and a 10-1 season in 2000.
After spending 4 years in the NFL as defensive coordinator at Cleveland, Saban took over as head coach at Michigan State. Michigan State was 5 years removed from a Big 10 Championship prior to Saban, but this was not a good program by the time Saban took over in 1995. Saban only posted a 34-24-1 record in East Lansing and only had 1 season where he won more than 7 games(his final year in 99). Saban certainly left a better program than he inherited, but Michigan State had been a program with some success in its past. Prior to Saban the Spartans had won 4 National Championships and 8 Big 10 Championships. Certainly most would consider MSU to be behind Michigan and Ohio State historically in the Big 10, but after that the Spartans could lay claim to being the 3rd best program in Big 10 History. Saban improved the program from where it was, but unlike Spurrier he didn't accomplish any firsts at Michigan State.
Saban's next stop was at a LSU program that had underachieved more than any program nationally in the 90s with the exception of maybe Oklahoma. Curley Hallman didn't have Brett Favre to make him look good like he did at Southern Miss and was fired after a 16-28 record at LSU. Gerry Dinardo had a couple decent teams, but had some awful ones too and finished with a 32-24-1 record with the Tigers. Saban inherited a 3-8 LSU team and by year two won the SEC Championship with the Tigers. While LSU had won 7 SEC Championships and 1 National Championship prior to Saban, the program has never been on top of College Football like it has been for the last decade. While Les Miles certainly deserves credit for keeping the monster alive, Nick Saban has to be given credit for nurturing that monster at its early stages.
There is little doubt that the program Saban inherited at Alabama is one of the most historic in College Football History. Alabama lays claim to 14 National Championships and has more conference championships than any SEC school. No fan base in the SEC has more pride and passion for its football program than the Crimson Tide does. Outside of Bryant Denny Stadium is a statue of Nick Saban, but he is joined by other National Championship coaches at the school like Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant, and Gene Stallings. Nick Saban himself will admit he isn't accomplishing a bunch of firsts at Alabama, he's just restoring a proud football program back to the top of the College Football World. Still, you have to give Saban credit for taking a program that lost its luster through periods of NCAA probation and mediocre coaches and putting it back on top. Alabama has been the best program in College Football over the last 5 years and really, no one else has been close.
Nick Saban's 3 national championships puts him in elite company. Only 8 men have ever won 3 National Championships as a NCAA Football coach. Spurrier has only won 1 championship, but how many would he have had if he stayed at Florida? Urban Meyer went on to win 2 National Championships with the Gators, but Meyer did this at a time when both Miami and Florida State were down. Spurrier never had the advantage of competing against a mediocre FSU for instate talent. Spurrier also had the disadvantage of going head to head against what many consider the greatest football team in College Football History, 1995 Nebraska. In 2004 when Spurrier was out of coaching he was the hottest coach on the market and could have had any elite job that opened(including LSU) that he wanted, but he wanted a challenge and chose South Carolina.
I find it very impressive that Saban has been able to win multiple National Championships despite being in the same division as the monster he created and against one of the best offensive playcallers in the last decade(Bobby Petrino). It's almost as impressive that Steve Spurrier have completely reinvented himself from a pass-happy coach to a guy who features a physical running game and great defense. Great coaches over come obstacles and these two men have been able to do this in their time in the SEC.
Deciding the better of the two coaches is nearly an impossible task. Spurrier is the man who created programs, while Saban is the man that brought life back to previously established programs. Spurrier certainly dominated the SEC like no other in the 90s, but Saban is the top man in the game today. A century from now these two men will join the Bear and General Neyland on the top of everyone's "Greatest SEC Football Coaches" lists.
These two men aren't scheduled to meet again for several more seasons. Fortunately, for College Football Fans I think we'll see these two masterminds of the game meet for the 5th time in Atlanta, Georgia this December.