Bear vs. Saban sparks the great Alabama dynasty debate

Nick Saban and Bear Bryant carved out legendary careers on the Alabama sidelines.

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When the Ogilvie family of Birmingham, Ala., gets together for holidays, a good-natured argument usually ensues.

Major, the patriarch, was a star running back for Bear Bryant at Alabama from 1977-80.  Those teams went 44-4 and won two national championships.

Morgan is the son. He was a backup quarterback for Nick Saban from 2008-2011. Those teams went 48-6 and won two national championships.

"He likes to point out that only one of our national championships was unanimous," Major said.

So goes a debate that will probably rage around dinner tables in Alabama until the sun fizzles out. Bear Bryant vs. Nick Saban: Who built the stronger football dynasty?

There is no definitive answer. The mere fact Saban is being mentioned in the same sentence as The Bear shows how dynamic he’s been.

There is no definitive answer. The mere fact Saban is being mentioned in the same sentence as The Bear shows how dynamic he’s been.

Bryant reached mythological status about his third or fourth national championship. It went far beyond football, witness the quarter-million people who lined the 55-mile route his funeral cortege from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. Thirty-two years later, many still can’t let go of the man in the houndstooth hat.

Scott Walston is president of Collegiate Memorials, a Georgia company that makes university-themed caskets. He said some ‘Bama fans not only want Crimson boxes, "they want to add a houndstooth interior. That’s how connected they are."

Longtime NFL quarterback George Blanda said the first time he saw Bryant in 1945, it was like gazing upon "the face of God."

How did Nick Satan, as his critics call him, get in such company?

For one thing, Alabama fans have seen beyond the caricature of tyrannical robo-coach. More importantly, Saban’s record has been heavenly.

Throw out his first season of rebuilding in 2007, and he was 72-8 going into this season. That includes three BCS national championships and three SEC titles.

Bryant arrived in1958 and won his first of six national championships four years later. His best six-year run was 1973-79, when Alabama went 76-8, win six SEC titles and three national championships.

This is where the debate at the Ogilvie house and elsewhere gets tricky. Numbers may not lie, but they hardly tell the entire truth.

The football worlds Bryant and Saban conquered were totally different. Major Ogilvie can point out the challenges of 40 and 50 years ago. For every challenge Bryant overcame, Morgan Ogilvie can throw back two that make Tide fans ponder the heretical:

Is Saban greater than the Bear?

His competition is tougher. From the time Bryant won his first national title in 1961, no other SEC team won one until Georgia in 1980.

From1998 until last season, five different SEC teams won nine BCS titles. Saban’s 2009 team went 14-0 and reduced Tim Tebow to tears in the SEC Championship Game.

Bryant never had to deal with a season-defining SEC title game before the bowls. For much of his career, teams could sign as many players as they wanted.

Imagine if Saban didn’t have any recruiting limits. Alabama would have five-star linemen working as parking valets at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

So is it Advantage, Morgan?

Major won’t go there. Instead of the differences, he likes to talk about the traits Saban and Bryant share.

"The intensity they bring and the standard they set," he said. "Both of them had extremely strong personalities."

Both of them had extremely strong personalities.

Major Ogilvie

Bryant evolved into a humble, mumbling grandfatherly figure. But he showed up at work at 5:30 a.m. and stayed until 8 or 9 p.m. He was detail-driven and obsessed with winning. Maybe too obsessed.

"In my lifetime, I may have put too much emphasis on winning," he said in a 1979 TIME magazine story. "Because here I am, an old man and the only fun I’ve had is winning, and that’s ridiculous. In 30 minutes, it’s over and I’m looking to the next game."

Fast forward to 2012. Alabama had just beaten LSU for the BCS title. Golf is one of Saban’s’ few non-football interests. His regular partner is Steve Rumsey, a Tuscaloosa businessman who, strangely enough, doesn’t care much about football.

According to a story in GQ, Saban called Rumsey to set up a game. Rumsey thought he should say something about the national championship, so he congratulated his golfing buddy on his recent success.

"That damn game cost me a week of recruiting," Saban said.

A younger Bryant could relate. If he could return and have dinner with Saban, they could also talk about their fleeting connection to the NFL.

Alabama hired Saban from Miami. After the 1969 season, the Dolphins tried to hire Bryant. He was tempted by the five-year, $1.7 million offer. But Bryant said he’d never leave Alabama just for the money.

He went there in 1958 for $17,500 a year. Bryant built wealth through investments, but reportedly made $45,000 a year toward the end of his career.

"He told the board of trustees to pay him whatever it wants," Major Ogilvie said. "But it should always be a dollar less than the president of the University of Alabama makes."

The current president, Judy Bonner, makes $535,000 a year.

Saban makes $6.9 million.

So when it comes to bang for the buck, Advantage, Major.

Not that it settles the debate. Even if the 62-year-old Saban sticks around another decade and wins three or four more national championships, the Majors will hold out for their coach.

The Morgans will have to admit that Saban will probably never have a museum on campus, and that a quarter-million people probably won’t line up along an interstate highway to pay him last respects.

 But when that day comes, every fan will agree on one thing. When it comes to dynasties, the face of God has smiled on Alabama.