NCAAF
July 14, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

Dabo Swinney is a Better Coach than Nick Saban

With four head-to-head meetings against one another in the last five seasons, it’s safe to say that Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and Alabama head coach Nick Saban are slowly becoming acquainted with one another.

It’s only fitting that be the case because years from now when the greatest college football coaches of this era are debated, the two highest-paid coaches in the NCAA are bound to be front and center in the debate.

In terms of games and championships won, Saban has a clear advantage over Swinney. Alas, numbers don’t always tell the whole story.

In fact, there is sufficient evidence that Swinney is a better coach than Saban. 

Swinney Started From Scratch

On the surface, the biggest difference between Saban and Swinney is age. And as Aaliyah beautifully said, age ain't nothing but a number. It’s so much more than that for these two coaching heavyweights. Swinney is 50, which is considered young in the coaching profession. Saban, meanwhile, is 68, which means his long-term future is uncertain at best. He’s more than accomplished enough to retire without any regrets. On the other hand, a coach of his age going for another 10 or 15 years is not without precedent. 

The point is that Swinney has reached the same level as Saban despite a nearly two-decade difference in age. This is because Swinney has accomplished something that Saban never has, which is building a program from scratch.

To be fair, Swinney didn’t exactly build Clemson from the ground up. The program he inherited from Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season went to a bowl game in eight of the previous nine seasons. The Tigers also finished in the top 25 four times in the previous decade.

However, Swinney didn’t inherit a traditional power with coast-to-coast name recognition. He took over a program with just one National Championship to its name and a program that hadn’t won an ACC title since 1991.

In other words, Clemson was a good but not great college football program when Swinney took over, doing so under great skepticism after being nothing more than a wide receiver coach prior to the 2008 campaign.

At the time, Swinney became the head coach at Clemson, nobody could have predicted what the Tigers would become a decade later. Even the most optimistic Clemson fans wouldn’t have thought Swinney would lead the Tigers to five straight ACC titles and two National Championships with the chance to win more a distinct possibility.  

What Swinney's accomplished at such a young age is all but unprecedented in college football history. 

It’s what sets him apart from other coaches, including Saban, especially because Swinney and Clemson have a lot more winning ahead of them.

Walking Into Winning Programs

While nobody can doubt Saban’s prowess or success as a head coach, he’s never quite built a program the way Swinney has at Clemson. He spent only one season at Toledo, albeit a successful one, before leaving to become the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns. He later had a five-year stint at Michigan State, but he was just 25-22-1 in his first four seasons before a breakout season in 1999 that allowed him to take off once again by moving to LSU.

To his credit, Saban inherited a team at LSU that went 3-8 and 1-7 inside the SEC the year before this arrival. In his fourth season, Saban led the Tigers to a National Championship. However, the LSU program that Saban inherited was in a better spot than what Swinney took over at Clemson. The Bayou Bengals had four previous National Championships and were a top-15 team as recently as two years before Saban’s arrival.

Finally, there is Saban’s magnificent run at Alabama that one could argue tops the accomplishments of Bear Bryant during his tenure with the Crimson Tide. 

Saban undoubtedly deserves credit for accomplishing what he has at Alabama knowing that he will always be compared to Bryant’s legacy. Alas, it’s that legacy that made Saban’s job with the Crimson Tide a little easier than Swinney’s at Clemson. 

From Day 1 of Saban’s time in Tuscaloosa, he coached one of the proudest programs in college football history. No matter how you slice it, recruiting elite players to Alabama in 2008 was a lot easier than recruiting them to Clemson at the same time.

Even though Swinney was still rebuilding at Clemson while Saban was winning national titles at Alabama in 2009, 2011 and 2012, the job Swinney did to get Clemson to the level where the Tigers could compete with and against Alabama on the biggest stage is far more impressive than Saban’s run of titles.

Swinney Surpasses Saban

By 2015, in his seventh full season at Clemson, it’s safe to say that Swinney had elevated the Tigers to the same level as Saban’s Crimson Tide. That season ended with Saban and Alabama surviving a 45-40 clash against Clemson in the College Football Playoff Championship Game. 

However, since Swinney put himself on level ground with Saban, he’s won two of the last three head-to-head meetings. That includes the infamous 44-16 thrashing in the CFP Championship Game to close out the 2018 college football season.

When Saban and Alabama took a step back in 2019 by being left out of the CFP, Swinney and Clemson kept on rolling, matching the Crimson Tide by reaching the CFP championship game for the fourth time in five years.

If nothing else, Swinney and Saban should be considered on level ground at the current moment. Saban may have more wins and championships overall, but at the current moment, anything he can do, Swinney can do. The only real difference at the moment is their age.

While Saban is likely approaching the twilight of his career and hoping to remain at the top a little while longer, Swinney’s best days could still be ahead of him.

Saban was surely the best college coach of the 2010s, but the next decade is likely to belong to Swinney, who has surpassed Saban as the best college football coach in the nation.

Photo: Getty Images