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Alabama’s Nick Saban chasing Bear Bryant’s legacy, achievements

Associated Press

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.  — Bobby Bowden never thought he’d see the day when someone would challenge Bear Bryant as Alabama’s greatest coach.

But it’s happened. Nick Saban has bellied up to the Bear with one of the best runs in major college football history, and he’s already passed the rest of his predecessors in the category that turns coaching greats into coaching legends.

Saban’s latest Crimson Tide team seems ready-made to challenge for the sixth national title of his career, which would match Bryant’s longstanding record. The once-nomadic coach enters his 10th season in Tuscaloosa fresh off claiming No. 4 in seven years.

As the Bear might say of his successor, he “ain’t nothin’ but a winner.” Like Muhammed Ali in boxing, it had long seemed there could only be one Greatest at ‘Bama.

“Never thought it could happen,” said Bowden, a Birmingham native who was coaching at Howard (now Samford) when Bryant hit his stride at Alabama starting in the late 1950s. “Gosh, it’s like lightning striking twice in the same place, which they say it doesn’t do. For him to come in there and do what he does, and now they’re comparing who’s the greatest. Who would have thought that 20 years ago?”

Twenty years ago, Saban was having his second straight six-win season at Michigan State. Alabama was in the final season of Gene Stallings’ tenure, easily the most successful of the seven head coaches bridging the Bryant and Saban eras. (Mike Price was fired without coaching a game).

Saban, who also won a championship at LSU, has gone 98-12 over the past eight seasons. Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy and Southern California’s John McKay join Bryant and Saban as the only coaches with at least four national championships in The Associated Press poll era, dating to 1936. Leahy also won his four titles in a seven-year span but he didn’t actually coach in 1944 or 1945 because of World War II.

Then there was Bowden, who had a run of 14 consecutive top-5 finishes at Florida State. Who knows if Saban will stick around long enough to match that, but he’s been nearly unbeatable with a title on the line. He’s 11-1 in conference or national championship games, with the only loss coming to eventual national champ Florida in the 2008 SEC title tilt his second year at Alabama.

“There were runs something like this, but this may be the best of all of them so far in the history of foot ball,” Bowden said.