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How Large is the Gap Separating the Georgia Bulldogs' Mark Richt and the Alabama Crimson Tide's Nick Saban as Head Coaches?

A persistent meme holds that the Georgia Bulldogs' Mark Richt "can't win the big one," while the Alabama Crimson Tide's Nick Saban is a master tactician. How do the two coaches' resumes compare?

Why, yes, Coach, that is an impressive number of SEC Championship Game appearances!
Why, yes, Coach, that is an impressive number of SEC Championship Game appearances!
Scott Cunningham

Yesterday, we looked at the paired SEC championship histories of Georgia and Alabama, and we learned that it isn’t all that uncommon for the teams from the Classic City and the Capstone to end up as the top two teams in the league in any given year. Now, I’d like to look at another area where the disparity between the two clubs is not as great as commonly is perceived to be the case; namely, by comparing and contrasting the two head coaches, Mark Richt and Nick Saban.

The knock on Coach Richt, of course, is that he “can’t win the big one,” which came as a surprise to those of us who thought he’d won a big one or two along the way. No such criticism may be offered of Coach Saban, of course, as the ‘Bama skipper is rightly hailed as one of the outstanding college coaches of our era. Accordingly, while acknowledging Coach Saban’s undeniable excellence as a head coach, I would like to compare the two men’s records side by side, to see how great the divide between them is.

In doing so, I have looked only at their respective collegiate careers, as the NFL is a decidedly different animal, and, therefore, it seemed unfair to hang Coach Saban’s short and subpar stint with the Miami Dolphins around his neck. Therefore, I have confined my analysis solely to Coach Richt’s twelve years as the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs (2001-2012) and Coach Saban’s 17 years as the head coach of the Toledo Rockets (1990), the Michigan St. Spartans (1995-1999), the LSU Tigers (2000-2004), and the Alabama Crimson Tide (2007-2012). Here is the tale of the tape when we compare apples to apples:

Mark Richt .750 5 6 2 0 7-4 8 2-3 124-131
Nick Saban .739 5 6 3 3 7-6 7 3-2 131-124

W% = career winning percentage; SECCG = SEC Championship Game appearances; DC = division championships (includes first-place ties); SECC = Southeastern Conference championships; NC = national championships; BR = bowl record; 10WS = ten-win seasons; HTHR = head-to-head record; HTHP = head-to-head points scored

Naturally, the first twelve games of the Bulldogs’ and the Crimson Tide’s respective 2012 seasons are included for purposes of calculating each coach’s winning percentage, SEC Championship Game appearances, division championships, and ten-win seasons, but not for purposes of calculating either coach’s Southeastern Conference championships, national championships, bowl record, head-to-head record, or head-to-head points scored.

Do those numbers surprise you? Coach Richt and Coach Saban have equal numbers of SEC Championship Game appearances and division championships. Coach Saban has one more Southeastern Conference championship, one more head-to-head win, and seven more head-to-head points scored. Coach Richt has an equal number of bowl wins and two fewer bowl losses, one more season with a double-digit win total, and a slightly higher winning percentage. According to eight of those nine measures, Mark Richt and Nick Saban are almost exactly equally successful as college head coaches, with the two men being indistinguishable in two categories, Coach Saban having a slight edge in three categories, and Coach Richt having a slight edge in three others.

The only way to argue that there is any meaningful difference in the rates of success of Mark Richt and Nick Saban as college head coaches is to contend---as a few obsessive souls, bless their little hearts, appear determined, against all reason, to do---that national championships, and only national championships, matter.

Certainly, there is an argument for that proposition, as the national championship is the ultimate objective in any sport. I would contend---as, I believe, would many others---that it is far from the only consequential goal (division and conference championships, for instance, count for something, as well), but one may, if one is so inclined, insist that national championships are the be-all and end-all of college football, and, therefore, it matters not one whit what a fellow’s winning percentage is, or how many conference championships he has captured, or how many bowl games he has won. (Bear Bryant, for instance, went 0-7-1 in bowl games between the 1967 and 1974 seasons . . . but he still won a UPI national championship in 1973, so, really, what does that matter?)

Maybe national championships count, and nothing else does. If so, of course, that makes Larry Coker a better head coach than Frank Beamer, and it makes Gene Chizik exactly as good a head coach as Gene Stallings. I suppose a fellow could argue that proposition, if he so chose. Here in the world I inhabit, though, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that national championships are but one of many meaningful measures, and that, by every basis for comparison other than crystal footballs attained, Mark Richt has been the equal of Nick Saban, not just in their respective teams’ highly comparable 2012 seasons, but over the entirety of the courses of both men’s collegiate careers.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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