Senior College Football Columnist

Who's better -- Saban or Spurrier? It's closer than you might think


Away from these words, out of sight, light years from any tailgate or news conference, the race is on. The participants themselves would demur, but Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier must now be spoken of in the same breath.

They have to be, as we near this weekend's halfway point of the season. One, (Saban) has won three national championships at two SEC schools. The other (Spurrier) has coached in the conference almost twice as long, having changed the SEC at one school -- and then himself at the other.

At Bear's school, Saban got himself a statue in the shadow of Bryant-Denny Stadium in his third year. Spurrier is 39 victories short of Bryant's SEC record. The old man in the houndstooth hat might be watching somewhere anticipating a photo finish.

That's a standard to judge them by, at least in the South, where such things matter more. Who has been better in the SEC almost 30 years after the great Bear's death? Who's better now that Spurrier is back reminding us that he never left? South Carolina's coach won his 200th game last month and has the Gamecocks up to No. 3 in the country.

Saban just coached the 206th game of his career. Who's better considering his three titles in eight years? It's a race the numbers say Saban is winning, but is he?

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"If he wants to be the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they've always won there at Alabama," Spurrier said during the offseason.

Who's better?

Both had NFL affairs they would like to forget. Both have taken a pair of SEC programs and raised them from mediocrity. They are separated by seven years and more than 400 miles (between their campuses). But heading to the halfway point, the discussion (argument?) about their abilities, legacies and accomplishments could program your average afternoon drive-time talk show into the next decade.

They are within two spots of each other in the polls, destined, perhaps, to meet in the SEC Championship Game. Alabama is the reigning champ. South Carolina has never been better. The two best teams, at the moment, in the best conference.

But how do you measure all those metrics when the coaches themselves are so disparate? Fortunately, we have witnesses.

You first have to view Spurrier's career as a bell curve of sorts. It peaked with the 1996 championship at Florida and waned during the NFL dalliance with the Redskins. Then, eight years into his South Carolina comeback, Spur Dog is back shucking, jiving, cackling -- and winning. Bell Curve II.

"If you ask people the turning point at South Carolina, it's when it put into position where luck is a factor," said Eric Hyman.

Hyman is the current AD at Texas A&M. But for six seasons he was Spurrier's boss at a place they said could never win big. Lou Holtz tried and achieved some modest success. So did Spurrier, losing an average of 5.6 games in his first five seasons.

What turned it around -- Spurrier has won 17 games in the past 412 days -- is what always turns it around. Recruiting. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore (Class of 2009) was a No. 1 draft choice of Buffalo. In the same class was receiver Alshon Jeffrey, a second-round pick of the Bears in April. Linebacker DeVonte Holloman and defensive back D.J. Swearinger are still with the Gamecocks.

In 2010, along came tailback Marcus Lattimore, who was one of the most coveted players in the country. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, perhaps the best defensive player in the country at the moment, arrived in 2011.

All of them are from South Carolina, a state that now produces the sixth-most NFL players per capita.

Who knew?

"They helped recruit other guys," Spurrier said. "It was a chain-reaction type thing."

South Carolina is 6-0 for the first time since 1988. Its 10-game winning streak is the school's longest. That's part of the appeal for the 67-year-old Spurrier. Every triumph at South Carolina seems to be preceded by various, wonderful adjectives -- best, longest, first.

Saban vs. Spurrier: Tale of the Tape
Win Pct.735.729
Rec. at School60-1261-35
Bowl Record7-68-10
SEC Championships36
National Titles31

Who knew?

NFL personnel consultant Gil Brandt, for one. He remembers talking to former Duke AD Tom Butters in 1986. That's when Butters was looking for a replacement for Steve Sloan.

"What about Steve's [Spurrier] work habits?" Butters asked Brandt. "Doesn't he play too much golf?"

Spurrier likes golf. He doesn't play too much golf. That's an urban myth. One supported by the fact that Spurrier is one of the most efficient coaches in the business.

"Some coaches feel that they have work 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Hyman said. "You become counterproductive. You can get to the point of diminishing returns. It doesn't have to be football 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

To this day, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops has families to the football facilities one night a week during the season to socialize. Kids and everything. Spurrier's former Florida defensive coordinator learned that directly from his mentor.

To believe that South Carolina could get to No. 3, Spurrier had to know that the Fun 'n' Gun would have been shot down in the modern-day day SEC. Jesse Palmer, Shane Matthews, Doug Johnson? Let current Florida coach Will Muschamp describe their predicament in 2012.

"I know you like all those points being scored," Muschamp told reporters Saturday, "but the quarterback won't make it through the season playing in our league."

Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley has covered Spurrier for years. He believes the coach may have flipped the switch when he saw Tim Tebow run all over the Gamecocks in 2007. Florida won 51-31. Tebow ran for 120 yards and accounted for seven touchdowns and 324 yards in total offense.

"I really think Tebow changed him," Dooley said.

Spurrier hasn't found a Tebow, but he did find a way to win in this SEC era. The Fun 'n' Gun transformed into the Ground 'n' Pound. Connor Shaw threw only 10 passes Saturday. Lattimore had 109 yards. Clowney came off the edge with fellow end Devin Taylor.

The Head Ball Coach is back with a new way to win. This time he didn't change the league, it changed him. Ask Georgia after Saturday's physical beat-down.

"They can't say they own us anymore, that's for sure," said Spurrier, who is 15-5 against the Dawgs.

The two most-asked questions Hyman gets these days are about the renovation of Texas A&M's Kyle Field and what it's like to work with Spurrier.

"I tell people and they just don't believe me," he said. "I've worked with some great coaches -- Gary Patterson, Dennis Franchione, Randy Walker, Sean Payton, Dick Sheridan -- Steve is as low-maintenance as anybody I've ever worked for. He's humble. He's genuine."

Hyman tells the story of Spurrier phoning him up the night before signing day in February and suggesting a Thursday night trip to watch the women's basketball team play at Tennessee. The Gamecocks beat the Vols that night for the first time since 1980.

"After the game, the team was hugging him," Hyman said. "Steve said, "I didn't deserve any of that.'"

LSU had its own inferiority issues. Its fans had been living off Billy Cannon's Heisman year in 1959 for decades. Forty years later then-school president Mark Emmert assembled a search committee that was given freedom in contacting candidates to replace Gerry DiNardo. They settled on Saban, a Belichick disciple who had won 43 games in six seasons at Toledo and Michigan State.

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"It was November, right around Thanksgiving at Michigan State," said Brandt, who LSU used as a consultant. "I asked him if he had interest in the job. There was no hesitation. He recognized what the challenge was in the SEC."

Saban's decision transformed LSU, later Alabama, the SEC and himself. He was paid the then-generous salary of $1.2 million by LSU, double what DiNardo made. The blowback from the LSU faculty senate on Emmert was substantial. Can you imagine such a thing today, anywhere in the SEC, for Saban, who makes more than $5 million per year?

The hiring remains one of the crowning achievements of Emmert's career. All he is doing these days is running the NCAA.

Saban has proved himself to be the perfect coach to walk in Bear's shadow. He shrugged off the silly cries of "traitor" from LSU when he took the Alabama job. Only in the SEC would a coach get harassed even though he had separated the two jobs by working two years in the NFL.

Saban was also the perfect coach to survive the cloying masses at Alabama. They had driven Franchione and others out. Saban basically walked into his office the first day and said, "This is the way things are going to be."

The Process -- Saban's way -- rules the college football world. Part of the system comes from Saban's days with the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s. Head coach Bill Belichick relied on a grading system devised by Brandt when he was with the Cowboys. Players had to fit certain height, weight and speed criteria.

"Belichick could see the team not only through the eyes of the coach but as a GM," said Phil Savage, the current Senior Bowl executive director and Alabama color man who was on that Cleveland staff with Saban.

"Nick is very similar to that. He is the CEO of Alabama football, but as head coach he is his own personnel director. He's got a system in place and people in place."

Recruiting, as you might have heard, is absolutely rolling. Saban can tell five stars they may never catch 1,000 yards in passes but they will be on TV, compete for national championships and get the absolute best preparation for the NFL there is.

"They're recruiting to a standard for defensive backs, they're recruiting to a standard for outside linebackers," Savage said. "It gives the whole coaching staff and recruiting people one sheet of music to operate from."

How, then, do you measure greatness? Which is the best coach? Which will leave the greatest legacy? Saban, 60, has time on his side. If he stays long enough he could take a realistic shot at Bryant's six national championships.

What a race that would be.

What would the old man in houndstooth do then -- with the checkered flag?

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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