Nick Saban vs. Kirby Smart is only the latest in a line of high-stakes coaching matchups between mentors and mentees over the history of college football.
In 1938, with Heisman Trophy winner Davey O’Brien leading the team, TCU’s Dutch Meyer beat old boss Matty Bell of SMU to finish a 10-0 regular season. The Horned Frogs moved from No. 2 to No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll.
In the 1950s, Bud Wilkinson’s dominant Oklahoma teams won two Orange Bowls over ex-Sooners coach Jim Tatum’s Maryland Terrapins, not to mention a regular-season game over Tatum when he was at North Carolina. Wilkinson said his national champion Sooners’ 20-6 win in the 1956 Orange Bowl was “the most satisfying victory we’ve ever had.”
From 1969-78, fans across the nation were captivated by the “Ten Year War” between Michigan’s Bo Schembechler and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes.
Alabama’s Saban will be coaching against one of his former assistants for the 12th time since 2010, and second time this season, when his Crimson Tide plays Georgia for the national championship in Atlanta.
Saban is 11-0, including a season-opening 24-7 win over the Florida State team coached by Jimbo Fisher .
“Well, I don’t think the game is about the coaches. I think it’s about the players,” Saban said this week. “And I think in most of those games, if the other guy had the players that we had, they might have beat us. You prepare the players the best you can, but we’ve had pretty good teams around here. Most of the guys were going to rebuild programs, so maybe we’re a little bit ahead of them, and if they had had our team, they’d have probably beat us.”
Barry Alvarez, former Wisconsin coach and now the school’s athletic director, was on Hayden Fry’s Iowa staff from 1979-86 and lost his first five meetings with Fry. Alvarez broke through against a 12th-ranked Iowa team 13-10 in 1997. The next year the Badgers won 31-0 on their way to the Rose Bowl.
“Once the game starts you’re into the game. It’s not about you and the person,” Alvarez said. “You try to possibly think like that person in preparation — put yourself in their situation behind the scenes on how they think, how they game plan and whatever you could pull from that to help you design your own game plan.”
Alvarez downplayed the significance of beating the old boss, to a point.
“You always respect a person who mentored you and many times gave you a break, but as you move on, you move on,” Alvarez said. But, “Like playing your brother in the driveway, you want to beat him.”
A look at some other notable mentor-vs,-mentee matchups:
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State, vs. Saban, Alabama, 2015 College Football Playoff semifinal.
Dantonio was Saban’s defensive backs coach at Michigan State from 1995-99 and became the Spartans’ head coach in 2007. Alabama won 38-0 in the most lopsided shutout in Cotton Bowl history. The Tide went on to beat Clemson for the national championship.
Steve Sarkisian, Washington, vs. Pete Carroll, Southern California, 2009.
Sarkisian had worked seven of the previous eight years for Carroll, the last four as offensive coordinator, before taking over a Huskies team that went 0-12 in 2008. Erik Folk kicked a 22-yard field goal with 3 seconds left as the Huskies won 16-13 over the third-ranked and seven-time defending Pac-10 champion Trojans.
Mark Richt, Georgia, vs. Bobby Bowden, Florida State, 2003.
Richt was Bowden’s offensive coordinator for 14 years until he took the Georgia job in 2001. The two met in the Sugar Bowl following the 2002 season, with the Bulldogs capitalizing on three FSU turnovers and winning 26-13 to finish 13-1 and ranked No. 3.
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, vs. Bill Snyder, Kansas State, 1999-2005 and 2009-2016.
Stoops had been Snyder’s defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator from 1989-95. Stoops won 10 of 13 meetings and split a pair of Big 12 title games over Snyder’s two stints at K-State, with the 2000 conference title the second-to-last win in a national championship season.
Bruce Snyder, Arizona State, vs. John Robinson, Southern California, 1996.
Snyder was an assistant on Robinson’s Los Angeles Rams staff from 1983-86, and the two met three times when Snyder was at Arizona State and Robinson at USC. The ‘96 game was a classic, a 48-35 double-overtime win that helped carry Jake Plummer-led Arizona State to the Rose Bowl and No. 4 final rating.