Stephen Tsai: Time will tell if Belichick and Saban are GOATs

Jan. 16—When I was a 110-pound sophomore, I learned a lesson in perspective.

While positioned in front of a urinal, I was lifted by Roosevelt High's biggest and most intimidating football player.

"Would you like to donate to my Christmas fund?" the Hulk politely asked.

"Oh, sure, yes, of course," I said in my Pee-wee-Herman-on-helium voice.

The Hulk did not take my "donation" — "nah, nah, nah, just jokin'— and, as I realized years later, at about 6 feet 1 and 220 pounds, he might not have been the biggest player, certainly not by today's standard, when many quarterbacks have larger frames.

But in the moment, well ... it's all about context.

It is why we have fonder views of sports stars soon after they retire or depart their programs than we do after the passing of time.

During the apexes of their coaching careers, Bill Belichick and Nick Saban were infuriatingly successful. They had the best teams, the best players, and won the most titles. Last week, Belichick and Saban deservedly received unabashed adulation when they departed the New England Patriots and Alabama Crimson Tide. But greatest of all time?

New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, whose career spanned from 1981 to 1993, is widely regarded as the greatest pass rusher in NFL history. He was fast off the edge, disruptive and a nightmare to quarterbacks and blind-side blockers. But it also should be noted that sacks did not become an official NFL statistic until 1982, making it difficult to evaluate the comparative effectiveness of pass rushers in the 1950s through 1970s. Then again, offenses have expanded passing in the past two decades, with three-receiver sets replacing two-back attacks. More passing and fewer blockers equate to more sack opportunities.

In baseball, it appeared to be more challenging for an American League starting pitcher until 2022, when the National League added the designated hitter.

Major League Baseball has more analytical categories to measure a player's effectiveness. Analytics certainly have advanced since 1969, when saves became an official statistic, or when Bob Feller's fastball was measured against a speeding motorcycle. Are starting pitchers greater with longer breaks and shorter outings but more powerful pitches?

Should Barry Bonds be a goat instead of the GOAT because of his cranium appearance? In 2001, the season Bonds belted 73 home runs, he drew 177 walks, including 35 intentionally. He might have been chemically aided, but he still commanded respect, and that's a measurement of respect, although not a qualification for the Hall of Fame.

Today's NBA is not the same as it was decades earlier. The 3-point shot added scoring. But back in the day, the smaller-sized league meant talent was condensed.

NFL statistics have been diluted because of the increase of regular-season games, from 14 to 16 and now 17.

In 2002, college football began counting postseason statistics in totals for the season. That was a statistical boost for Hawaii, which is allowed a 13th regular-season game each year. In 2019, the Rainbow Warriors played 15 games because of their participation in the Mountain West title game and Hawaii Bowl.

Belichick won a record six Super Bowls as Patriots head coach, all with Tom Brady as the starting quarterback. Is Belichick's GOAT candidacy tarnished because he was 29-39 after Brady departed? (Or conversely, is Brady's greatness sealed because he also won a Super Bowl with the Bucs?)

Saban was at the top in leading LSU to the BCS National Championship in 2003 and Alabama to six national titles. But he retired ahead of the SEC's latest expansion and this coming season's growth of the College Football Playoff from four to 12 teams.

Will his greatness status endure? Only time will tell.