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Besting the Bear? Saban in hot pursuit of Alabama icon
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Bobby Bowden never thought he'd see the day when someone would challenge Bear Bryant as Alabama's greatest coach.

But it's happened. Nick Saban has bellied up to the Bear with one of the best runs in major college football history, and he's already passed the rest of his predecessors in the category that turns coaching greats into coaching legends.

Saban's latest Crimson Tide team seems ready-made to challenge for the sixth national title of his career, which would match Bryant's longstanding record. The once-nomadic coach enters his 10th season in Tuscaloosa fresh off claiming No. 4 in seven years.

As the Bear might say of his successor, he "ain't nothin' but a winner." Like Muhammed Ali in boxing, it had long seemed there could only be one Greatest at 'Bama.

"Never thought it could happen," said Bowden, a Birmingham native who was coaching at Howard (now Samford) when Bryant hit his stride at Alabama starting in the late 1950s. "Gosh, it's like lightning striking twice in the same place, which they say it doesn't do. For him to come in there and do what he does, and now they're comparing who's the greatest. Who would have thought that 20 years ago?"

Twenty years ago, Saban was having his second straight six-win season at Michigan State. Alabama was in the final season of Gene Stallings' tenure, easily the most successful of the seven head coaches bridging the Bryant and Saban eras. (Mike Price was fired without coaching a game).

Saban, who also won a championship at LSU, has gone 98-12 over the past eight seasons. Notre Dame's Frank Leahy and Southern California's John McKay join Bryant and Saban as the only coaches with at least four national championships in The Associated Press poll era, dating to 1936. Leahy also won his four titles in a seven-year span but he didn't actually coach in 1944 or 1945 because of World War II.

Then there was Bowden, who had a run of 14 consecutive top-5 finishes at Florida State. Who knows if Saban will stick around long enough to match that, but he's been nearly unbeatable with a title on the line. He's 11-1 in conference or national championship games, with the only loss coming to eventual national champ Florida in the 2008 SEC title tilt his second year at Alabama.

"There were runs something like this, but this may be the best of all of them so far in the history of football," Bowden said.

The Alabama coach turns 65 on Oct. 31 and shows no sign of slowing down. He continued his string of No. 1-ranked recruiting classes in February. About a month earlier, he led the Tide to a shootout victory over Clemson in the national championship game, making the call for a game-changing onside kick early in the fourth quarter.

Steve Spurrier, who had three straight 11-2 seasons at South Carolina after turning 65, visited with Saban after speaking at a high school clinic over the summer. He said Saban joked that he was starting to hear of opposing coaches telling recruits he wouldn't be around much longer.

"He's got a good six to eight years or more, depending on what he wants, really," said Spurrier, who stepped down during the 2015 season. "If he keeps winning at a high level, which he certainly can the way they recruit. The question is if he gets to 8-4, I think he said, 'All hell will break loose around here if I go 8-4.' It's really hard to go out on top. It's hard to say you've had enough unless you start losing. That's what happened to me, is we started losing."

Saban still takes care of himself physically. He eats a salad daily for lunch, plays basketball with his assistants during the offseason and tosses passes with a nice touch during drills with the defensive backs.

"He's stayed the same weight probably since he was 30 or 35," said Spurrier, fresh from one of his own daily workouts.

Plenty of other coaches have had high levels of success after 65. Bowden won two national titles and 12 ACC championships before stepping down not long after his 80th birthday. Penn State's Joe Paterno won 169 games and had seven top-10 finishes.

Bryant won championships in 1978 and 1979 and was 49-9-1 at 65-plus.

Bowden said the biggest challenge in sustaining that kind of enduring success is keeping the players as focused and motivated after they reach the top as they were in getting there.

"So your biggest enemy becomes yourself," Bowden said. "Keeping your players hungry is a very key ingredient, and I really don't know anybody that does a better job of that than Coach Saban."

Enter "The Process," Saban's philosophy of focusing on the task at hand and not getting distracted by past results or future ambitions. Saban says it's "the human condition" to relax and feel a sense of entitlement after great success, though he never seems to suffer from it.

"We've had to deal with this with some of our teams in the past," Saban said. "They start questioning and judging, 'Why are we practicing this hard? Why are we doing conditioning this way?' Well, it's the same thing we did that helped you be successful last year."

Saban's footprint on college football and the SEC has spread to the sidelines in a big way.

Former assistants Jim McElwain, Will Muschamp and Kirby Smart are all head coaches in the SEC East, Jimbo Fisher won a national title at Florida State and Mark Dantonio led Michigan State to a playoff matchup with his former boss last season.

"I think he can go forever," McElwain, Florida's head coach, said of Saban. "That's just the way he's wired. And I haven't seen one thing, when we were around each other that week of the SEC Championship game, I didn't see one less bounce in his step, anything like that. And, you know what? The guy's something special."

Smart took over at Georgia this season after serving on Saban's Alabama staff for all four national championships. He's pretty well qualified to answer: What drives Saban?

"Well, that's an easy question," Smart said. "He's driven to be the best. And I think that's what makes him different. Because everybody is driven for their different purpose and everybody has their 'why.' And for Coach Saban, I think he wants to be the best."

At Alabama, that means topping the Bear.