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Saban vs. Osborne vs. Snyder: NO CONTEST!

For those who have been buried under a rock today, Alabama is the champion of major college football AGAIN.

The Crimson Tide won its fifth title in nine seasons last night, rallying from a 13-point deficit to defeat Southeastern Conference rival Georgia 26-23 in overtime.

Nick Saban has coached at Alabama 11 seasons, which happens to be the exact same length as his combined tenures at Toledo (one season), Michigan State (five) and LSU (five). He has won 127 games at Alabama and 218 overall as a head coach. Saban has now coached six national championship teams, tying him with Bear Bryant for most by any coach. The first was at LSU in 2003.

The 66-year old Saban has an excellent chance to winning more games in 25 seasons as a head coach than Tom Osborne did at Nebraska from 1973-97. Saban needs 33 to surpass “Dr. Tom”, and barring something calamitous, Saban will make it with room to spare. Saban will get to 300 barring something unforeseen, and I would bet on him passing Bryant’s mark of 323, which was the major college record until broken by the disgraced Joe Paterno and later Bobby Bowden.

I am well aware Osborne is revered in the Heartland, but I cannot accept he belongs on college football coaching’s Mount Rushmore ahead of the man in charge in Tuscaloosa.

Sorry,  Husker nation, but Saban runs circles around Osborne in most every way you cut it.

Alabama rarely gets to play weaklings in the SEC like Nebraska did in the Big Eight, and Saban will usually challenge the Tide with a very difficult non-conference game at a neutral site, whereas Osborne loaded up on lesser teams, especially later in his career. Nebraska could pencil in Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State as sure-fire victories nearly every year before the first day of practice. Osborne never lost to KU or K-State, and very rarely bowed to the Cyclones. Missouri was terrible during most of Osborne’s last 14 years in Lincoln. Colorado had a very dark period in the late ’70s and early ’80s before Bill McCartney arrived. Oklahoma State sank to the bottom after it was hit hard by NCAA probation after the departure of Barry Sanders in 1989. Even Oklahoma fell off its perch following Barry Switzer’s resignation.

The SEC is not 14 powerhouses, but the Crimson Tide has to play three of the stronger programs in the conference every year: Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M. And the Tide will have to play a hard game to win the SEC championship, save for 2011 and ’17, when they won the national title without playing in the SEC championship game.

Saban has learned to do more with less. Coaches cannot work with student-athletes more than 20 hours a week during the season, a restriction which wasn’t in place until Osborne’s last years in Lincoln. Osborne was notorious for three-hour, full pads practices during the season and during bowl preparation, and I have to believe that was a big reason the Cornhuskers often bombed in bowl games. Saban knows when to back off and save his players’ bodies. His practices are fast-paced, but much shorter, and there is nowhere near the hitting Osborne had.

Saban has to deal with strict scholarship limits. When Osborne succeeded Bob Devaney, the NCAA was in its second year of scholarship limits, but it was 105. It was reduced to 95 in the 1980s and 85 in the ’90s. Saban has always had to deal with the 85 limit, except his one year at Toledo in 1990.

Osborne could get any player he wanted in Nebraska, even though Nebraska’s population is so small he had to go out of state. Not only that, but there are no major programs in North and South Dakota, and the two Kansas schools were usually so pitiful that the top players there wanted to escape, either to Lincoln or Norman.

Saban on the other hand has to deal with Auburn within the Yellowhammer State. Whenever he goes recruiting in the south, he’s battling Florida, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M, Florida State, Miami and others for the big names.

Osborne rarely had turnover on his coaching staff. Saban, meanwhile, has constant turnover, mostly because his assistant coaches are in high demand. Last night, he beat Kirby Smart, who was the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator for nine seasons before returning to Georgia, his alma mater. Jeremy Pruitt, Smart’s successor at Alabama, will be coaching Tennessee next season. Jimbo Fisher, Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU, moved from Florida State to Texas A&M. Will Muschamp, who coached with Saban at LSU and the Miami Dolphins, is at South Carolina after four seasons at Florida. Jim McElwain, the offensive coordinator on Saban’s first two national championship teams at Alabama, coached the Gators for nearly three seasons before being canned last October.

Osborne never wanted to change his offense or defense, until he finally realized the old 5-2 defense he ran was no match for the speed of Florida State and Miami in bowl games. It wasn’t until the Huskers went to the 4-3 that Osborne won a national championship.

Saban, meanwhile, adapts nicely to his personnel. He ran the 4-3 at Michigan State and LSU, but is running mostly a 3-4 at Alabama, although the Tide presents multiple looks which give offensive coordinators nightmares. Offensively, Saban would prefer to play smashmouth, but if he has a gifted quarterback, he won’t be afraid to open it up, like he did with Rohan Davey at LSU and A.J. McCarron at Alabama.

Osborne is one of two college football coaches who is revered like the Almighty Himself in this part of the United States.

Time to compare Saban to the other one.

Bill Snyder, who has coached at Kansas State since 1989, save for a three-year retirement between 2006-08, is already in the Hall of Fame, since there is a rule an active coach can be inducted once he turns 75. Saban will most certainly be inducted five years after he retires or turns 75, whichever comes first.

Nobody will deny Snyder has performed near-miracles at K-State, given how putrid the Wildcats were prior to his arrival. K-State was the only major college program to lose 500 games when Snyder arrived. Since then, Wake Forest has assumed the mantle of the lowest winning percentage among Power Five schools (surprising given how bad Kansas has often been), but the worry is

However, I cannot, will not, must not rate Snyder ahead of Saban. No way.

Saban and Snyder are diametrically opposed as far as scheduling philosophies.

Saban would rather the Tide play all Power Five non-conference opponents, but realizes he does not call the shots in scheduling, and thus has to take on teams from outside the Power Five in order for Alabama to keep its athletic department in the black. Saban is not afraid to take on the big games away from Tuscaloosa, such as facing Florida State in 2017 at Atlanta, or USC in 2016 at Arlington.

Snyder, on the other hand, loves cupcakes so much he could get sponsorship deals from Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines. His scheduling formula is a source of constant ridicule outside of Kansas, as it should be. He attempted to buy his way out of a home game with Auburn after the Wildcats played at Jordan-Hare under Ron Prince, but Jay Jacobs made the buyout financially prohibitive. Snyder tried the same with Miami and couldn’t get out of it. Yes, K-State is starting to schedule SEC schools, but it’s Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Missouri. I’m not saying it has to be Alabama and Georgia, but LSU and Texas A&M would be a major upgrade.

Saban recruits mostly high school players, young men he can mold and shape over four or five years. Snyder wants the “mature” player, and that’s why K-State almost always signs more junior college players than any other Power Five program. It may be a quick fix, but Saban’s methods have been far more effective.

Outside of recruiting, Snyder’s are so unorthodox that they would never work in Tuscaloosa. Saban is not known as a media-friendly coach in the mold of Mack Brown, Pete Carroll or Steve Spurrier, but Snyder is far worse with the press than Saban. Snyder was the first college football coach to completely shut the media out of practice, tightly limit access to players (there is only a very small window each week to contact players at K-State), and not allow the media to talk to assistant coaches at all. Saban has done that, too, but Snyder was the first and took it to an extreme in a time when there was more open access.

Saban and Snyder are very similar in that they put in very long hours at the office. That’s one regard where Spurrier had it right: work smart, not long.

K-State is dreading the day Snyder retires or dies. It knows it will be an also-ran in the Big 12 once that happens.

Would Snyder have won big at Iowa had he been Hayden Fry’s successor instead of leaving for Manhattan? I doubt it. You can’t argue with the results at K-State, but Snyder’s program is not for everyone.

Saban, meanwhile, won big at two SEC schools, and if he had stayed longer at Michigan State and not been hamstrung with severe penalties early in his tenure at East Lansing, the Spartans would have been elite under his watch. Toledo went 9-2 in Saban’s only season there, so that’s another notch in his belt.

Osborne and Snyder did it at one place. It’s impressive yes, but for Saban to do it wherever he’s been makes him one of the greats.

Bowled over at age 7

In the years when January 1 falls on a Sunday–as will be the case for 2017–the major college football bowl games are shifted to Monday, January 2.

It so happens my first memories of college football bowl games was on January 2, 1984. I was a little less than three months removed from my 7th birthday. I was in second grade.

I began to seriously follow college football–and the other major sports–throughout 1983. The salient points of 1983:

  • LSU had a terrible 4-7 season and fired coach Jerry Stovall, hiring Bill Arnsparger, the architect of the Miami Dolphins’ “No-Name” and “Killer Bees” defenses, as his replacement.
  • Tulane was 4-7 under first year coach Wally English, but there were storm clouds brewing around the Green Wave. Tulane was forced to forfeit two victories, one over then-No. 9 Florida State, for playing Jon English, the son of the coach, even though he was ineligible.
  • Nebraska, meanwhile, was at the other end of the spectrum from LSU and Tulane. The Cornhuskers steamrolled their way to a 12-0 regular season and were primed to win their first national championship since 1971, and first for coach Tom Osborne, who succeeded Bob Devaney in 1973. Led by Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, quarterback Turner Gill, and All-America tackle Dean Steinkuhler, Nebraska held the No. 1 ranking in the polls throughout the season, averaging over 400 yards rushing and 52 points per game.
  • Nebraska’s opponent in the Orange Bowl, which was committed to the Big Eight Conference champion, would be the school which played its home games in the eponymous stadium. The Miami Hurricanes were the new kid on the block, bouncing back from a 28-3 loss to Florida at Gainesville in the season opener to win 10 in a row, ending with a 17-16 victory over Florida State in Tallahassee. In five seasons, Howard Schnellenberger, who played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky, served as an assistant to Bryant at Kentucky, and was on the same staff with Arnsparger with the Dolphins, had rescued the Hurricanes from near-extinction, building a program which was fearless, reflecting the confident attitude of its coach.
  • Southwest Conference champion Texas was 11-0 and ranked No. 2. The Longhorns were slated to play Georgia in the Cotton Bowl, and with a win, could ascend to No. 1 if the Cornhuskers were upset by Miami. Ironically, Texas went into the Cotton Bowl following the 1977 season 11-0 and ranked No. 1, but lost 38-10 to Notre Dame, which vaulted from No. 5 to No. 1 in the final poll following No. 2 Oklahoma’s 31-6 loss in the Orange Bowl to Arkansas.
  • No. 3 Auburn lost in September to Texas at home, but had won its other 10 games against a brutal schedule which included Florida, Georgia, ACC champion Maryland, and a strong Alabama team in its first season under Ray Perkins, who was Bryant’s chosen successor in December 1982 (Bryant died January 26, 1983). The Tigers of the Plains featured sophomore sensation Bo Jackson and Lionel “Little Train” James, who helped quarterback Randy Campbell run Pat Dye’s Wishbone to perfection. Auburn also had one of the nation’s best kickers, Al Del Greco, and a stout defense led by All-America linebacker Greg Carr. Auburn would play Michigan in the Sugar Bowl.
  • Illinois went 9-0 in the Big Ten, overcoming an early loss to Missouri. The Illini headed to the Rose Bowl ranked No. 4. Their opponent was 6-4-1 UCLA, which not only had home field advantage, but an elite quarterback, Rick Neuheisel.
  • Notre Dame? Who cared? The Irish were 6-5 in their third season under Gerry Faust. They defeated Doug Flutie and Boston College in the Liberty Bowl, but who really gave a darn?

The Cotton Bowl kicked off at 12:30 that Monday afternoon. In a defensive battle, Georgia took advantage of a fumbled punt to score the game’s lone touchdown, a 17-yard run by quarterback John Lastinger, with 3:22 to go. The Bulldogs, who were in line to win their fourth consecutive SEC championship before falling to Auburn in November, prevailed 10-9 to finish 11-1, a remarkable accomplishment given the loss of Herschel Walker, who surprisingly left Georgia in February 1983 to sign with the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Georgia coach Vince Dooley fully expected to have Walker for his senior season, to win a second Heisman Trophy, and to get the Bulldogs back to New Orleans.

Texas would not be a serious national championship contender for the next two decades. Coach Fred Akers was fired in 1986 despite winning 86 games in 10 seasons after succeeding the legendary Darrell Royal. The Longhorns struggled badly under David McWilliams (1987-91) and John Mackovic (1992-97) before Mack Brown finally returned the Longhorns to elite status.

Illinois was blasted 45-9 by UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The Illini have not been ranked in the top five since, and their only major bowl appearances resulted in losses to LSU (Sugar Bowl following 2001 season) and USC (Rose Bowl following 2007 season).

Auburn struggled vs. Michigan, but won 9-7.

Meanwhile, Miami jumped to a 17-0 lead over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Cornhuskers got on the board int he second quarter when Steinkuhler ran the fumblerooski for a touchdown, but the Hurricanes still led 31-17 in the fourth quarter.

Jeff Smith’s touchdown run with 48 seconds to go narrowed the gap to 31-30. There was no overtime in college football in that era (and would not be any until 1996), so Osborne could kick the extra point to tie, which would have left Nebraska atop the polls, but subject him to a great deal of ridicule; or he could play for the win by opting for the 2-point conversion, which, if unsuccessful, would cost the Cornhuskers the championship.

Osborne chose to play for the win. Gill’s pass for Smith was broken up by Miami safety Ken Calhoun. The Hurricanes recovered Nebraska’s onside kick. The 31-30 victory was enough to push Miami past Auburn and Nebraska and to the top of the polls.

Nebraska wouldn’t get its national championship for Osborne until 1994, then won two more in 1995 and 1997. Schnellenberger left MIami in late April and was succeeded by Oklahoma State coach Jimmy Johnson, who led the Hurricanes to the 1987 national championship and a 52-9 record over five seasons before leaving for the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. Miami won titles in 1989 and 1991 under Dennis Erickson, and again in 2001 under Larry Coker.

Pat Dye complained vociferously that Auburn was screwed in the final polls, and he had a legitimate point then and still does now. Auburn’s schedule was far tougher than Miami’s, and let’s not forget while the Hurricanes lost to Florida, the Tigers defeated the Gators. Would Miami gone 10-0 against the likes of Texas, Georgia, Maryland and Alabama? Probably not. Then again, Miami defeating a Nebraska team considered one of the greatest in college football history–which I thought was misguided, considering this wasn’t even the best team in Nebraska history–carried a lot of weight.

For better or worse, my life changed noticeably on the second day of 1984.