The Statistical Case For Nick Saban Being The Greatest Coach Of All Time
Feel free to go directly to the tables below where the statistics conclusively show that Nick Saban is not only the greatest college football coach, but also the greatest coach of all time across all sports. The numbers back up that heady claim. And numbers, after all, are the basis for differentiating and ranking football teams. Before getting into the data and my observations related to it, my lifetime journey in getting to this unexpected point is outlined. Spoiler alert: my bias is massive, but it is laid out in the open for all to see.
It was as an 8-year-old growing up in Alabama that I first realized you had to be for one team or the other. My boyhood pals and I all had our favorite pro football teams that ran the gamut (mine being the Los Angeles Rams), but when it came to college football, there was only two choices. My sense of the college football universe then was that people were split 50%/50% between Alabama and Auburn. For me, it wasn’t a tough choice. I liked Alabama’s uniform, the same criteria I used in selecting the earlier mentioned Rams. That the team was led by someone named Bear who had won the national championship the year before also helped in making that decision. But I would learn that the real bragging rights would come to the fans whose team won the Iron Bowl played between Alabama and Auburn at the end of each season. My team would bring home two more national championships in the mid-sixties and dominate Auburn in the Iron Bowl for much of that decade. The coach known as Bear would grow in stature each year, with his gravelly voice and gentleman like demeanor giving him an authority that seemed to be linked with wisdom from mountains on high.
In the 1970’s Coach Bryant would bring home to Alabama three more national championships, along with eight SEC championships and an equal number of Iron Bowl victories. The latter were typically either teams game to win given the passions that went into that game. With annual contests going back to 1893, it had become one of the most heated rivalries in college football. In 1976 my professional goals brought me to NYC and as it turned out my life would remain rooted in the North. But the back to back national championships by Alabama in 1978 and 1979 were a welcome linkage that reinforced my affection for my home team.
My allegiance to the team and pride in its accomplishments only grew with time and distance. It’s fair to say my friends tired of hearing me reference statistics on both the team and the coach. Bear would retire in 1982, broadly acknowledged as the greatest college football coach ever based on the data. The numbers spoke for themselves as he held the record for the most wins (323), the most national championships (6) and the most SEC championships (13) of any coach in college football history. He was thrice formally recognized as national coach of the year and a dozen times as SEC coach of the year. Alabama’s Denny Stadium, truly a house that Bear more than doubled in size, was renamed Bryant-Denny Stadium and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. If Alabama had a Mt. Rushmore, there would have been no doubt that his oversized visage would have been chiseled into that mountain. On his retirement, everyone in the state recognized him as the gridiron giant that he was, including even the folks on the Auburn side of the aisle. Among fellow coaches and the sports media, there was even a stronger consensus that Bear Bryant was the best college football coach in the history of the game.
The next twenty-five years saw six different coaches lead Alabama, all of them with winning records. While there would be a national championship (in 1992 under Gene Stallings when Alabama went 11–1) along with three SEC championships, winning just two-thirds of the games over that period was a noticeable step down from the 83.5% win ratio in the preceding twenty- five years of the Bryant era. The Bear had set a high bar. As time went on, it began to look like the real glory days of the Crimson Tide were fading into the past. Worse yet, over those twenty-five years, Auburn won 60% of the Iron Bowl games.
To mark one of those victories, an Auburn neighbor adjacent to our family home in Mobile poured ryegrass seed in a pattern duplicating that score on the bluegrass front lawn of an Alabama neighbor. The vivid reminder that sprung up in the Spring was part of a series of chest thumping actions between those friends. Neighborhoods across the state would all experience examples of a spirited rivalry between folks who were the closest of friends, except for who they loudly cheered for during the all important Iron Bowl.
And then Nick Saban came to Alabama in 2007. The table below compares Nick Saban’s record at Alabama so far to Bear Bryant’s record across several of the most relevant measures of actual on the field performance. It also shows some of the same measures over their entire career including head-coaching positions prior to coming to Alabama.
Saban’s winning percentage of 87.7% is materially above Bryant’s 83.5% and he has won the same number of national championships in 40% less time. His teams have resulted in four players winning the Heisman Trophy, something Bryant never achieved. Coach Saban’s overall winning percentage goes to 92.2% when Alabama is playing at home. There is a reason no team likes to play Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Indeed, if you exclude his first year in 2007 before his recruiting efforts would begin to take hold his record at home goes to an incredible 90–5 for a 94.7% winning percentage.
Saban’s six national championships are augmented by three times where his team was ranked #2 in the final poll. In addition to his accomplishments so far at Alabama, prior to that he had another national championship, bringing his career total to seven and more than any college football coach in history. His other national championship was in 2003 when he coached LSU. Did I mention that I have an undergraduate degree from LSU? That is a complication and point of confusion at times among friends who know of my allegiance to the Crimson Tide. It has particularly been the case during the Saban era since LSU has been a tough adversary. His record versus LSU is 12–4 for just a 75.0% winning percentage. Keep in mind that LSU was national champion twice during the Saban era and ranked in the Top 5 in half their meetings, with lower rankings in almost all the other games. Make no mistake, I cheer loudly for LSU when it is playing, except for that one game. Rather than view this as a fundamental character flaw, I’d prefer that folks remember that my one and a half years at LSU came after eighteen years in Alabama. Home will always be home, and Lynyrd Skynyrd says it best when he sings Sweet Home Alabama.
It wasn’t my alma mater, however, that would give Coach Saban his smallest winning percentage to date. That crown would go to arch rival Auburn where the Iron Bowl record during the Saban era is 10–5 for a paltry (for Saban) winning percentage of only 66.7%. Note that Auburn also had a national championship in 2010 when its Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton led it. That game and others over the period were memorable. None was more so than the 2013 game. With the scored tied and only seconds left in regular play, Auburn ran back a missed field goal 100 yards to score and win. That game, to be forever known as Kick Six by Auburn fans, was reminiscent of an Iron Bowl contest 41 years earlier known as Punt Bama Punt by those same partisans. In that game, Auburn blocked two Alabama punts and ran them both back for touchdowns, beating an undefeated Alabama and thereby derailing its chances for a national championship that year. In testimony to how elated Auburn was about that lucky victory, it renamed its home facility Jordan-Hare Stadium, the first time a major stadium was named after an active coach.
The SEC is without any doubt the strongest football conference and it isn’t unusual for five or more SEC teams to be ranked in the key polls. Despite that strength, LSU and Auburn are the only SEC teams to have more than two victories in the fifteen year Saban era. Historically strong teams like Tennessee and Arkansas have been defeated each year with Alabama 15–0. In its fewer meetings with SEC East leaders Georgia and Florida, Saban is 7–2 and 8–1, respectively. The list goes on and on. There has simply not been a team or a coach that has figured out how to beat a Saban coached Alabama team with any consistency.
Coach Saban’s overall statistics at Alabama exceed Coach Bryant at every turn. Six out of his fifteen years have resulted in national championships, a 40.0% ratio. As illustrious as Bryant’s career at Alabama was, his six national championships over twenty five years was a ratio only 60% of Saban’s. In addition, Saban achieved that under playoff systems that clearly made the path to being the national champion more difficult.
Another metric that underscores the consistency of Saban’s performance is that in each of the last fourteen years, his entire tenure at Alabama excluding the first rebuilding year, Alabama has been ranked #1 in the country in the polls at some time during the year. Over that same period, Alabama was ranked #1 in 47% of what were more than two hundred separate polls during that period.
An even more granular metric that underscores the football dynasty that Alabama football has been under Saban is the average ranking at the end of the year. In each of the last fourteen years, his teams were in the year-end ranking, with an average ranking of 3.36 among all teams. Both in terms of the percent of total years ending with a ranking and the average ranking in those years, Saban outperformed Bryant. When those two measures are combined, in something akin to the slugging percentage in baseball to adjust the hitting percentage by how many bases the hit achieved, the resulting metric showed an even wider performance gap. That statistical comparison is shown in the table below.
Coach Saban’s statistics demonstrate coaching skills resulting in a consistent performance that is unmatched by any other college football coach. Nick Saban’s performance is driven in part by a straightforward approach he refers to as The Process. He and others have written books on what it involves. In summary, this approach is a Zen-like focus by players on the individual task they are assigned. Coach Saban does not want his players thinking about the past or the future and to concentrate on doing the right thing, at the right time, all the time. It is fundamentally applying the concept of mindfulness to sports and it is one of the principles that have resulted in Saban’s unprecedented level of success in college football. It’s not rocket science as everyone could likely benefit from more in the moment focus, but Saban has obviously found a way to instill this in both his players and staff.
The development of skills by talented players who come into the Alabama football program is evident by the progression of many of those players into professional football. Those skills are enhanced by the exceptional staff Saban has surrounded himself with throughout his time at Alabama. Many of the assistant coaches he has had have gone on to head coaching positions of their own in testimony to what they learned under Saban. It is clear that he is also viewed as an extraordinary coach by other coaches. A current example of that is that he presently has two assistant coaches who were former NFL head coaches. Whether its players or staff, they all appear to recognize that their skills will improve under Nick Saban and that by itself is a strong and tangible endorsement of his coaching skills.
In the Saban era, 97 of his players have been selected in the NFL draft. Every single pro team has selected a player from Alabama during that period. The upcoming draft will likely match or even exceed the 10 players drafted last year, bringing the total to 107 over 15 years. That works out, on average, to some one-third of the 22 players in the starting line-up being drafted each year. Saban’s Alabama players have won four Heisman Trophies representing the single best player in college football, including three out of the last seven years and the last two years. Saban’s record of producing professional football players and Heisman Trophy winners is remarkable. They speak volumes about the training and skill improvement players receive under the Saban process.
When you look closely at Alabama’s football program under Coach Saban, you begin to realize its one big virtuous circle. His success begets additional success, from recruiting (both players and staff) to skill development (both players and staff) to performance statistics on the field that is the linchpin to keeping that virtuous circle moving. That is how sports dynasties are built and how they continue.
The numbers demonstrate that Nick Saban has surpassed Bear Bryant in team performance. As the latter is the only other reasonable candidate for best college coach, it is irrefutable that Nick Saban can be recognized as the greatest college football coach of all time. When we widen the lens to compare his performance across college sports to other coaches, there is only one potential candidate that comes to mind. The table below compares Saban’s school and career record to the same numbers achieved by John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach at UCLA.
While Wooden’s 10 national championships are more, both Saban’s percent of years at Alabama that he was at the top along with his overall winning percentage are better than Wooden’s respective numbers. As impressive as Wooden’s record was and the dynasty it represented for the later part of his tenure at UCLA, he had mediocre years prior to that where his teams were unranked. Saban has never had a mediocre year and his teams have all been ranked in the Top 10 for the last 14 years, with an average ranking near the top during that entire period. Looking at all the numbers, the dynasty that Saban has represented in college football so far is just as impressive as the dynasty Wooden had in college football and the overall win percentage and the higher percent of national championships favor Saban in any comparison between the two. In addition, I think it can be analytically demonstrated that coaching a football team has more complexities and inherently requires more skills than coaching a basketball team.
My bride has observed that I like football because it has lots of numbers. I think she may be on to something there, although its not clear how much Kathleen’s right-brain bias or indifference to football played a role in her observation. To put the latter into perspective, when she worked in public relations three decades ago for a large corporation, she was tasked with meeting its new sports spokesperson. Because everyone was excited at the prospect, Kathleen was also but had to ask me when she got home who exactly Joe Montana was. When I explained that he was a football player, arguably the greatest quarterback ever, her eyes rolled. But as it turned out, when she met Joe Montana she liked him, although it had little to do with his football accomplishments or his four Super Bowl wins. For my part, however, I did get a football signed by Joe Montana.
Building on Kathleen’s astute observation regarding analytical measures, there are in fact more numbers and metrics in football than other sports because there are more variations and complexities to it than other sports. The endless array of individual player and team statistics in football results in part from fundamental differences in it compared to other sports. Football has from two to five times more player positions than the two other major sports of basketball and baseball. It has separate offensive and defensive squads, while the same players do both in the other sports. Some would say football has three squads if you include special teams, but I want my analytical comparisons to remain conservative.
Those quantifiable differences mean that bringing all those elements together, both for the individual players and the team as a whole, requires a broader array of skills by a coach. The differences and complexities in football are a key factor driving an in person attendance for it that is well ahead of other sports. The table below details selected differences among all of the major college sports. If you take the three quantifiable differences, with game attendance based on millions of fans, and multiply them all together you arrive at an overall factor that can be used to rank the sports.
Okay, I can see eyes rolling with that overall factor as a precise measure of the relative differences in complexity across those sports. Coaching football might not actually be 32 times more difficult than baseball or 13 times more difficult than basketball. However, I do stand by that ordinal ranking with football at the top followed by basketball and then baseball.
So, with the statistics now proving that Nick Saban is the greatest college football coach ever, and the degree of difficulty in that sport making him the greatest college coach across all sports, we can now turn our attention to whether he is the GOAT coach without exception. The only area where any potential competitors exist is among professional NFL football coaches.
I’m hearing all the names that come to mind. Many excellent, even great, coaches. But there is not a single one of them that can match Coach Saban’s 15-year record of an 87.7% winning percentage with 40.0% of those years being national championships. Indeed, there are none that even come close to his winning percentage. The highest career winning percentage for any NFL coach is 75.9% achieved by John Madden over a relatively short ten year career with only one NFL championship. While Vince Lombardi did have five NFL championships in his nine years at Green Bay, his career winning percentage is still just 73.8%. The only coach with six NFL championships to equal Saban’s six national championships at Alabama is Bill Belichick. His career winning percentage is 66.9% over 26 years, with 23.1% of those years resulting in championships. The actual performance gap widens when comparisons are made across key statistics to other excellent NFL coaches.
As if the cold hard numbers aren’t enough to close the door on any NFL coach being considered the GOAT coach, that left-brain conclusion is augmented by a right-brain conclusion that can be arrived at by reflecting on the actual definition of and synonyms for the word “coach”.
Merriam-Webster defines coach as “one who instructs players in the fundamentals of a sport and directs team strategy”. Oxford Languages lists the top three synonyms as “instructor”, “trainer” and “teacher”. While those apply in varying degrees at all levels of any sport, its hard not to recognize that athletes learn and develop more at the college level based on the skills imparted to them by the coach and his staff. That seems irrefutable to me. Yes, the players a college like Alabama recruits are gifted athletes, but they are developed and trained and molded into even better athletes by coaches and staff that instruct and teach them in what is for them typically the most formative period of their life. The process that occurs at Alabama isn’t a particularly well kept secret and it is why each year it ranks at or near the top in the athletes it recruits from across the country. They come because they know they will learn, which is the most basic thing a player gets from a coach. By the time an athlete reaches the professional level, their skills and what they can get from a coach are largely complete. At that level, the coaches role is more relegated to directing team strategy. As such, I think it is fair to say that a college coach is a more complete coach in the meaning of the word as it is typically used.
Nick Saban is therefore the GOAT coach without exception based on the numbers and observations above.
My surprise in reaching this unexpected point relates to my own early skepticism on the hiring of Nick Saban. Over lunch in early 2007 with a friend who was involved in getting Saban to Alabama, I groused that the compensation package would be a catalyst for negative stories about our home state having the wrong priorities. My friend defended the action and emphasized his strong belief that it will turn out to be an excellent return on investment.
Based on the numbers, my friend’s prediction was completely on the mark. The direct returns from investing in Nick Saban have been extraordinary. Alabama’s athletic programs, of which football is the most dominant, generated $189 million in revenue last year, producing a considerable surplus for the university. Enrollment is up and applications are up even more, with the performance of Saban’s teams recognized as a clear catalyst for both. With a broader pool of students to select, the entering grade point average has also consistently moved up during the Saban era. Higher entering GPA’s result in higher rankings, which itself improves the applicant pool. Today, 57.9% of the 38,320 students at the university come from states other than Alabama as well as from 92 foreign countries. That well above average out of state enrollment has been even more influenced by the success of the football program. In addition to the diversity benefits, there is a direct financial benefit as out of state tuition of $30,250 annually is almost three times in state tuition of $10,780 annually. That’s hundreds of millions annually going to the university that in considerable part can be credited to the performance of the football team. So my friend couldn’t have been more right about what he said in 2007. While Nick Saban is the most highly compensated public employee in the country, he can point to the delivery of tangible returns resulting in extraordinary returns over a fifteen year period that one would be hard pressed to duplicate with any other public official.
My view is that steps should be taken to change the name of the stadium in Tuscaloosa to Saban-Bryant-Denny Stadium. That or some version of that renaming will occur at some point anyway and it might as well be done now to recognize what Saban has already done. Yes, it’s a bit cumbersome but southerners are accustomed to putting surnames of treasured family folk in the first and middle names of their children, so doing so with a stadium is fine. Nobody’s name should be dropped, but that order certainly seems to be the most appropriate.
Such a renaming will also one-up our Auburn friends who until now have the only major stadium that was renamed after a coach while he was still active. With a capacity of 100,077, Saban-Bryant-Denny Stadium is the tenth largest stadium in the world. More importantly, with a capacity 14.3% higher than Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, it becomes the largest stadium ever renamed for an active coach.
There is nothing quite like watching an Alabama football game with over one hundred thousand in attendance. The passion and excitement on and off the field are palpable. It’s a chemistry that simply doesn’t exist outside of college football. Yes, I know that players have a goal of making it into the NFL and everything that means, but in the moment that isn’t the primary driver. In that moment, they are playing for the love of the game, for their teammates, for their school and yes for their coaches. That makes Saturday football much more magical than Sunday football.
So that’s my take on Nick Saban specifically and Alabama and college football in general. There is an interesting bookend to my introduction to the Crimson Tide over five decades ago when I first learned that it really all comes down to the Iron Bowl. Living in Pound Ridge, New York more than one thousand miles away from Alabama, it turns out that right next door to us is a man who is a diehard Auburn fan. Worse yet, his son has developed an affliction that I’ve warned will result in unneeded disappointment. Our Iron Bowl discourses have been civil and limited to chest thumping and wait till next year invocations. But then again, if I hear too much more about Kick Six from my neighbor, one of these Iron Bowls I just might have to look into the ryegrass seed reminder…
John D. McCown has four decades of experience in the maritime sector including serving as CEO of a U.S. flag container shipping company he co-founded and leading transportation investments at a $20 billion hedge fund. He was mentored by Malcom McLean, the inventor of containerization who he worked with for twenty years. Mr. McCown is the holder of two maritime related patents as well as a MBA from Harvard Business School and is the author of the recently published book “Giants Of The Sea: Ships & Men Who Changed The World”. Loaded with information and statistics, the large format hardcover book has 330 pages divided into 30 discreet chapters that tell the story of the development of the modern cargo shipping industry, the pioneers most responsible for developing it and what it consists of and does today. A book made more timely by recent news coverage related to the largely invisible but massive industry that comprises the worldwide maritime supply chain, it is available on Amazon.