Twenty-five years separate the tenures of Bear Bryant and Nick Saban as head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide. The two are responsible for 11 of Alabama’s 17 national titles and Saban, who has five with Alabama plus a sixth at LSU, is still seeking a seventh title to put him ahead of Bryant, who won all six of his titles at Alabama. That race to surpass Bryant is at the centre of Lars Anderson’s book, which serves as biography of both men.
There are considerable similarities between the two, in their backgrounds and in their approach to coaching. Both have humble, working class origins that taught them the importance of discipline and hard work from an early age, for example. The two men never met but Anderson says that many people who have known them both told him that “from the shoulders up, they are identical”.
Though both coaches are known for toughness and discipline, Anderson shows that both demonstrated flexibility when necessary, changing their approach or tactics as the situation demanded. And the two share an absolute obsession with football. Bryant famously joked that he would “probably croak in a week” after he retired from football. In fact, he died four weeks after his final game, aged 69. Saban, at the time of writing, is 68 and shows no signs of planning to walk away from the game.
A longtime writer at Sports Illustrated, Lars Anderson teaches journalism at the University of Alabama and is the author of 10 books – nine of which are about football. His NFL books include The Quarterback Whisperer, with Bruce Arians, and The Mannings, about Peyton, Eli and their father, Archie. His college football titles include Carlisle Vs Army, which has been optioned for a movie, and The All Americans, which follows four players from the 1941 Army vs Navy game, who found themselves at war just days later. Anderson is also the author The Proving Ground, of one of the few books about NFL Europe.
“Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, like all of Bryant’s players, feared his coach during his playing days at Alabama. One afternoon after meeting Bryant for the first time, Jordan was walking across campus hand-in-hand with his college sweetheart, Biddie Banks, when he spotted Bryant coming toward them. Knowing that his coach didn’t approve of his players having girlfriends—Bryant thought they were an unnecessary distraction—Jordan gently nudged his girl into the bushes.”
“Bryant had felt slighted for much of his football life. When he played at Alabama from 1933 to 1935, he bemoaned- that he had been ‘the other end,’ the one who lined up opposite of future NFL Hall of Famer Don Hutson. When he coached at Kentucky from 1946 to 1953, he joked that he had been ‘the other coach’ at the school, the one who was overshadowed by Wildcats basketball legend Adolph Rupp. But now there was no one at Alabama who could rival Bryant’s power or influence or hegemony. This was his team—and his team alone.”
The fact that two contenders for the title of college football’s greatest-ever coach have led the Crimson Tide makes an ideal topic for a book. Lars Anderson – whose work is always very readable – does a good job of showing how the links between the two are more than coincidental. Anyone who has read previous biographies of either man will find little here that they don’t already know and, at 300 pages, there’s little space for an in-depth examination of either man’s life. However, plenty of readers will want to know what makes these two men so successful and how they brought glory to Alabama. This book does that job very well.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
The basic biographical information about these two men is well established. But veteran sports writer Lars Anderson, in dealing with the lives together, has taken a different angle. This book is beautifully written, unlike most sports writing, and the pairing device really works.
Alabama Public Radio
Anderson tells the story of how Bear Bryant and Nick Saban created college football’s most successful dynasty, but rather than provide a season-by-season account, he illuminates the uncanny similarities in character between the two men who created the titan of Alabama football.