Where Does Saban Rank Among the Coaching Elite

In the wake of Monday night’s dramatic National Championship game, the talk quickly shifted from one entity or one game to the legacies and futures of various individuals. The crimson chatter moved from Jalen Hurts to Tua Tagovailoa and years ago moved from Alabama as a university to Nick Saban as a legend. It’s what we do in media, and for that matter it’s what we do to a much less precise degree in bars and gyms. We spend an awful lot of free time ranking people, ranking teams, ranking sports, ranking movies, ranking television shows, and arguing over comparisons that often shouldn’t be made, because the times and rules were different.

Nothing is better beer-infused conversation than who the best team of all-time is, or whether LeBron James could reach Michael Jordan’s greatness, or whether Jessica Chastain is the most beautiful woman alive. She is, but I digress. Now that we’ve talked about how often we compile lists in this culture, let’s do something truly novel and put together a list.

Nick Saban has won six National Championships in college football, including five in nine years at the University of Alabama. His career record is 218-62-1, including an insane 127-20 at Alabama. In his time with the Crimson Tide, he’s lost just 13 SEC conference games. Four of those came in his first season, when his system was still being implemented. In order to accomplish these feats, he’s had to turn his program into a football factory, a marvel of pigskin engineering that can convince the best young athletes in the country to come to Tuscaloosa for a chance not just at collegiate success, but also of reaching the NFL. Like him or loathe him, his accolades are undeniable. Saban was one play away from a sixth championship in 2016, thwarted only by the all-time greatness of Deshaun Watson, the hands of Hunter Renfrow, and a no doubt pick play the officials appeared in awe of as the whistle never blew.

Don’t forget, Saban has a chance to play in yet another title game in 2013 if not for the infamous “Kick Six” against Auburn. If you’re unfamiliar with that particular moment in college football history, I have no idea how you found yourself on this website. So, he was awfully close to six, and not far off from seven championships in a nine year span at Alabama. He’s managed to do it with an inadequacy at the most important position in all of team sports as well, winning titles coaching quarterbacks with names like Coker, Sims, McElroy, McCarron, and however you pronounce Tagovailoa.

He’s also had to reconfigure his coaching staff rather frequently, as his coordinators and assistants become hot commodities for their proximity to Saban, which leads to head coaching opportunities for many of them. This includes Kirby Smart, who faced off with his former boss two nights ago in Atlanta. Saban is a ridiculous 12-0 against his former assistants. He has to contend not just with every other school (ahem, and booster) for recruits, but knows he may lose a coordinator every season. He can always reload, but the program is always in a state of flux because of what a juggernaut it’s become. While Mike Daboll is staying put, Saban’s defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt…

…is no longer Saban’s defensive coordinator. He’s the head coach at the University of Tennessee.

He’s now tied with Paul “Bear” Bryant at six National Championships, but the Bear did it in an era without scholarship restrictions, and in a college football landscape that was far less competitive. With that said, he’s generally regarded as the gold standard of the sport, at least until Monday night, when Saban arguably surpassed him. Unless he retires, it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” Saban wins number seven, and the question may soon become how soon he gets to ten. It sounds unfathomable, but it’s not. That’s how good the Nicktator is in his chosen profession.

Yes, Saban left campus life for the glitz of the NFL, and it didn’t go well in Miami. There, he had no quarterback either, but his methods and presence were often questioned. If you want to say Alabama wins because they always have the best players, all you have to do is look to John Calipari at Kentucky to see that coaching with talent, molding that talent, and having it prepared to play on the highest level isn’t as easy as it appears. Kentucky has had EVERYBODY, yet Cal has exactly one National Championship not just in Lexington, but in his entire career.

Let’s gaze beyond college football, and I hear you Irish fans, you can go with Knute Rockne if you choose, but you’re arguing five titles for Notre Dame during the rough and tumble, high recruitin’ days of 1918-1930. That’s too difficult for me. If your fan base is curious if dancing the Charleston is a little too risque, I have to move a little further in time to begin my classifications. Rockne was great. I didn’t know him. It was an era that can’t be put against present day competition.

Here’s our Outkick qualifier: If you didn’t win at least five championships in your sport, you’re eliminated. That’s not to say Bill Walsh isn’t one of the great coaches in history, as he won three titles in ten years with the San Francisco 49ers. He was terrific, of that there’s no doubt, but he’s pushed out the side door in these rankings. There has to be a cut off line, because we could list really good coaches for hours. Also, because of the relative length involved, this is going to be a two part article. Today, we look at active head coaches in American sports. Early next week, we’ll look at Saban’s place in history.

ACTIVE MOUNT RUSHMORE

Bill Belichick (250-118, Five Championships)
He’s unanimously viewed as the greatest NFL coach of the century, if not all-time. In addition to five Super Bowl titles, his New England Patriots teams have played in two others, losing both times to Eli Manning and the New York Giants. Prior to Belichick’s arrival in New England, the Patriots had found themselves in two Super Bowls, losing in 1985 to the dominant Chicago Bears and in 1996 to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.

If you want to take points off, accept that he hasn’t won a title without Tom Brady, but he also hasn’t had the best running backs, and with the exception of Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski, and a good run with Wes Welker, he also hasn’t had the best receivers. Generally, the best individual players in the NFL are not found in Foxboro, but the best teams in the NFL are. That’s a product of Belichick’s leadership.

He has coached up virtually everyone that has worn a Patriots uniform, but some will always disqualify him for Spygate, Deflategate, and a few other shady occurrences. That said, the next time his team isn’t well-prepared in the clutch will be the first time. No one takes advantage of shaky coaching like Belichick, who makes everyone else pay for every sin. Ask Pete Carroll, or just a few weeks ago, ask Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin.

In his first stint at the helm of the Cleveland Browns, he was 36-44. With New England, he’s 214-74 with five Super Bowls. He’s never had to prove in playoff situations whether he could win without Tom Brady. However, reaching seven Super Bowls since 2001 is stunning, and may never be duplicated again.

Gregg Popovich (1178-520, Five Championships)
Like Belichick, Popovich has done much of his damage with returning stars, the benefits of the professional vs. college model. Like both Belichick and Saban, and also sometimes Krzyzewski, Popovich has toyed and treated the media as an adversary. And, like those three gentlemen, Gregg Popovich is a ridiculously talented coach.

It’s difficult to compare Popovich or Belichick to their college counterparts, because of the difference in the structure of those sports. Recruiting doesn’t exist for the pros, so they’re left to deal with the difficulties of free agency, trades, and other more managerial methods. While you can give the college guys credit for doing it with so many casts of characters, when you look at either the Spurs or the Patriots, you can also give those franchises credit for how they’ve maximized the potential of players that wouldn’t have been particularly special under lesser leadership.

Also similar between Belichick and Popovich is the quality of management above them. Robert Kraft and RC Buford, for example, are names widely respected in sports, and they’ve done a great job, at times, of staying in the background and allowing the coaches to run these franchises during the season. Five titles for Popovich is impressive, but he’s also a three time NBA Coach of the Year, an award that’s hard for the best coach to win because a young upstart that turns a dumpster fire into a seven seed often supplants the consistent winner. The Spurs have been the steadiest franchise in the league for quite some time, and although the game has changed, San Antonio still plays like San Antonio.

And they win. At the time of this article, the Spurs, who have been without Kawhi Leonard for virtually the entire season, are 28-14. It’s because the system works. The “system” appears like it will always work, even if success is now relative to whether you’re willing to exclude the three words, “Golden” “State” “Warriors” from any expectations.

Past the titles, under Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs have had a staggering 19 50 win regular seasons, and six 60 win campaigns. In the NBA Finals, Popovich has only been defeated once, and it took a miraculous corner three pointer from Ray Allen to extend the lone blemish, the 2013 Finals, to a seventh game, where LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh got the job done for the Miami Heat.

Mike Krzyzewski (1084-332, Five Championships, Three Gold Medals)
Another thing about virtually every coach on this list is the reaction each one of you has as you read about these men. You read “Coach K” and your immediate move is an eye roll and a sigh. Yes, it’s Duke basketball, and that’s a dirty word. You can argue Duke has become an easy place to land recruits, but that’s solely because of what Krzyzewki has done since leaving Army and taking the job in the 1980 season. Long before there was a one and done, Coach K was winning basketball games.

His wins in Durham have come alongside controversial figures like Christian Laettner and Grayson Allen, but regardless of who’s been on the floor in that uniform, the Duke program succeeds. Five championships is impressive, but how about 14 seasons of at least 30 wins, 12 Final Fours, and 12 ACC Regular Season Championships. He also has 14 ACC Tournament titles. Outside of Duke, Coach K won three gold medals as the head coach of Team USA in the Olympic Games, which came after the United States had only managed the bronze in 2004 and struggled in 2000.

College basketball is a double edged sword in a list such as this, because of the number of teams that qualify for the NCAA Tournament. It leads to upsets, but also to opportunities. In the case of Duke, Krzyzewski often sees a “1” next to his team’s seed, and Duke always enters the big dance as the hunted. What that means is SOMETIMES, Duke under performs. For instance, Mercer defeated them in the first round in 2014, Lehigh got them in the 2012 opener, and VCU beat them by two in 2007. But his numbers are undeniable.

The Outlier: Geno Auriemma
Some of you won’t like that there’s a caveat for Auriemma, but it has to be done. Geno has won 11 National Championships, was the fastest college coach (men or women) to win 1000 games, his UCONN teams have had six perfect seasons, and he’s won 21 conference tournament titles and 20 conference championships. UCONN hasn’t lost back-to-back games since 1993. He has an .881 winning percentage. Until the Mississippi State shocker last March, the Huskies had won 111 consecutive games. He’s coached many of the best players ever to step on a court, and many of them became far better players under his tutelage. He’s also controversial, both in public and media perception.

So why is he not fully included here? It’s not because it’s a women’s sport. It’s because throughout much of his tenure, it’s been a non-competitive sport. UCONN has dominated a bland landscape. There are solid programs out there, including Notre Dame, Stanford, Baylor, and others, but UCONN has been on a completely different level. The sheer point differentials and margins of victory indicate the top heaviest of top heavy sports. What Auriemma has done is utterly mind blowing, and even looking at an inferior level of competition, he’s still mentioned here.

The other four coaches listed, despite never being surprised when they win, step onto a much more level playing field and we still expect them to win, write stories when they lose, but recognize it as a possibility. Very few times have I watched an Auriemma-coached UCONN team and even considered those young women could lose. So maybe I’m unfairly penalizing him, but this is my list. You make your own. That’s the beauty of this entire process. It’s entirely subjective.

RANKING THE ELITE
How would I rank the four. It’s so tough, because the last is still incredible, but I do have Nick Saban in the top spot. Before he arrived in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide fan base continually longed for the days of Gene Stallings and Jay Barker. A fleet of guys walked into that pressure cooker and couldn’t come close to handling it. Saban takes every school’s best shot every week, deals with staff turnover unlike anyone else in sports (though Belichick has dealt with plenty as well), and has still won five titles in nine years and six overall. The reload and do it again with completely new personalities angle places him above the two pros, and more competition pushes him above his hoops brethren.

Finally, it’s harder to win in college football than in any other major American sport. The sheer quantity of young, immature, headstrong players and the incredible level of competition place it above the pro sports. Even though the NFL is by no means a cake walk, being this good on campus is an untouchable achievement. So many things can go wrong. So many younger players make mistakes, because they’re still learning. It’s the most unpredictable sport in America on a week to week basis, because it can be the most erratic or imperfect on the field, which is also why it’s the most exciting.

Bill Belichick comes in second, because the consistency in a sport famous for absolutely none of it really works in his favor. He’s also been able to win, albeit in the regular season, with guys like Matt freaking Cassel, Jacoby Brissett, and of course the new wunderkind, Jimmy Garoppolo. With Tom Brady, well, we know how that’s gone. Plus, a football team requires better performances from more guys. Being a CEO of a five man basketball team is certainly impressive, but Belichick has to manage gigantic staffs and over fifty players, once he whittles down what he has in the offseason from 90 plus names. Thus, he gets the nod over Popovich in the professional ranks.

Coach K is third on my list, because of how long he’s been able to dominate his profession. No one remotely cared about Duke before he got there. Also, the Olympic resurgence after Team USA was on the verge of missing the medal stand in 2004 cannot be overstated. Duke has churned out some of the best players in college history, and you see just how great the coach is when you see the fleeting success of Duke’s elite on the NBA level. These guys crush it in college, then go to the NBA and very few have been superstars. For every Grant Hill, there’s about 20 Cherokee Parks. Recall how great Danny Ferry was in Durham, compared to what he became in the NBA. Or Jay Williams. Or Bobby Hurley. Or Antonio Lang. Or…

Fourth is Pop, who is unreal at his job, but had the benefit of not just one, but three likely Hall of Famers throughout much of his tenure. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and the best power forward of all-time in Tim Duncan has given him a nucleus with which to build upon. That was the foundation for such a long period of time, and consider that’s 60% of a lineup. Manu became a bench contributor, but in crunch time, he had three all-star caliber players on a five man team. Now, he’s showing his true brilliance, winning while undermanned and currently dealing with the tenuous health of his one superstar. He’s more impressive to me now than at any point in the past.

In answer to the question atop this piece, Nick Saban stands above the rest. You may disagree, so have your say in the comments, on the message board, or attack me viciously on Twitter @JMartOutkick. Early next week, we’ll place Nick Saban in the list of all-time great coaches, which still includes everyone mentioned today, but also brings in guys (and one lady) with at least eight titles, and another with 11 to join Geno Auriemma that won’t have that competition caveat attached to his name.

Lists are always fun, so that’s something to look forward to right here at Outkick next week. Now, where do you rank these four (or five) and did I miss anybody? I’m sure you’ll tell me if I did.

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