10 January 2010
After spending about an hour and a half post game on the field at the Rose Bowl and in the Tide locker room, I took my time walking the mile or so back to my car. I puffed lightly on a cigar, and walked alone in complete silence, relishing in what had happened.
Alabama had just beaten Texas 37-21 to claim National Championship #13 in the storied history of Alabama football.
I wasn’t just thinking about the last five hours, either. I was thinking about everything that has happened to this Alabama program since November 18, 2006. That was the day that Auburn walked into Bryant-Denny Stadium and beat a flat and uninspired Alabama football team.
There have been some good things happen to the Alabama football program since it won national title #12 in 1992. Sadly, though, every one of those good things seemed to be followed by something equally bad – if not worse. The great year in 2005 was followed by the terrible year in 2006. Of all of the terrible days for Bama football in 2006, November 18 was the worst for me.
That was the day that I realized that Mike Shula was not going to make it as Alabama’s head coach. I was slow to that party, no doubt, but that was when I got there.
Walking to the car, I remembered the feeling I had when I got home from that Auburn game. I didn’t think that Mal Moore was going to fire Shula, and I knew that Mike was just not capable of creating a championship program. It was an incredibly sad few hours, as I lay awake, unable to go to sleep. I just didn’t see any way that the Alabama football program had a chance to be nationally relevant again in the near future. And that made me profoundly sad. Sure, there are more important things in the world than college football. But when you love a team and that team simply has no hope… well, it’s pretty damn sad.
The funny thing is, that sadness was compounded a bit when it was announced that Mal Moore had, in fact, fired Mike Shula. I know that sounds dumber than Auburn fan in an adult conversation, but it’s how I felt. I genuinely like Mike Shula, and I still held a glimmer of hope that some miracle would beset the program, and allow him to succeed. His firing was necessary, there’s no question about that. But even though I knew it was in the best interest of the program’s long-term success, I was tired of the coaching carousel, and hoped that something might happen to help Mike turn things around.
I didn’t want to hear that Alabama was once again searching for a head coach. I didn’t want to hear that Alabama’s coach in 2007 would be the Tide’s eighth in 23 years. I was simply tired of the fact that only time Bama football was being talked about was when the story was negative. And that didn’t exactly change over the next month and a half. As media outlets continued to report coach after coach turning Bama down, it actually got worse. It looked as though we were on the verge of becoming the laughing stock of college football.
I was watching the Alabama basketball team lose to Notre Dame on national television when media outlets began reporting that Rich Rodriguez had been hired. There was a brief respite from the negative, as it looked as though Bama had hired a good football coach.
And then that fell apart.
In hindsight it was a blessing in disguise that Rich-Rod ended up staying in West Virginia. But it sure as hell didn’t feel like at that time. It felt like another slap in the face to the Alabama fan base. And it felt like Bama had no chance of landing a quality football coach. Once again the media outlets began to trash Alabama. We were the school that couldn’t hire a coach. We were, in their eyes, the football program that has ceased being relevant. There was no way that any coach worth having would come to Tuscaloosa.
But then it happened. Nick Saban got on a plane and headed to Tuscaloosa.
To an outsider it might have looked like there was another negative following the positive. The national media was outraged, and took every opportunity to tear down the Tide and its new coach. But, for some reason, that didn’t matter. Alabama fans seemed, almost unilaterally, to know that this hire was the right hire. And all of the negative talk was simply ignored. Instead, we united behind the idea of what Coach Saban called “The Process.” He told us that we had a role as fans, that we could do our part to help build a championship program.
And we did. We showed up 90,000+ for A-Day, in what might very well be the most important fan accomplishment in the last ten years of Alabama football. That might sound like hyperbole, but check out this quotation from Coach Saban:
Probably the day that I felt like something special could be sort of accomplished was the first spring game we had, and there were 92,000 people there and probably 10,000 or 12,000 more that couldn't get in. I think that kind of passion, that kind of support, that kind of positive energy certainly contributes greatly to having a chance to be successful. It makes me feel very proud to add to the great tradition of the University of Alabama (with) something significant in this time.
Coach Saban said that this past Friday, the day after he led the Tide to a national title, and nearly three years removed from the event.
That sent a resounding message to the country… that Alabama fans fully supported our coach. That’s not to say that there were no negatives after that day. The 2007 season was mostly a forgettable one, with the exception of a whipping of Tennessee. It was also a necessary season, sending the message to the players that they had to truly buy in to “The Process.”
And that’s what we’ve seen the last two years… a group of players that totally bought into what Coach Saban was telling them. A group of guys that worked together to accomplish a goal. A group of guys willing to put egos aside and to do whatever it took to win games. It didn’t quite come to fruition in 2008, and so they went back to work. This time they worked harder. They found the inner resolve to push beyond what they thought capable. And they accomplished everything that they set out to accomplish.
Do you want to know the best part? They also get how it was possible.
I had a chance to talk to Javier Arenas after the game, and his comment was a profound one – “All of that hard work… It was worth it!”
Understand that I didn’t have a microphone in my hand. I wasn’t conducting an interview. A patted him on the back and said congratulations, and that was his response.
When Coach Saban introduced us to “The Process” he told us that everyone had to put the idea of winning championships out of our mind. That what we have to focus on was doing what it takes to be a champion. That has now happened at Alabama. The guys that make up the football team now understand what it takes to be a champion. Alabama was not the most talented group of players in country in 2009.
But Alabama was the best team in America in 2009.
“The Process” is now complete. What has to happen now is a different thing altogether. The players, the coaches, the administration, and the fans now have to work towards maintaining that championship level. That won’t be easy. Alabama now has the giant target on its back. There will be negative things that happen. Assistant coaches will leave. Players will transfer. Players will leave early for the NFL. And Bama’s opponents will use every one of those situations to attempt to tear down what has been built.
Fortunately this championship wasn’t built on a house of cards. This championship was built on literally thousands of hours of hard work. It was built on gallons of blood, sweat, and tears. It was built on a group of guys understanding that a team will always be more powerful than a group of individuals. And because of that, Alabama will be in contention for SEC and BCS titles for the foreseeable future. They won’t win them all. That’s just not a reality. But gone are the days of ten-win seasons being followed by trips to December bowls.
Instead we all get to enjoy seeing Alabama as a perennial top ten team. But even better than that, we get to enjoy seeing the Alabama football team be one of the most disciplined and hardest working teams in the country.
Those were the thoughts that passed through my head as I strolled along the cart path, into the maze of the golf course turned parking lot in the wee hours of the early morning on January 8.
I walked with the quiet satisfaction of knowing that I had just experienced a once in a lifetime event. And I walked with the satisfaction of knowing that I will have the opportunity to experience similar events in the near future.
It’s a great time to be a Bama fan.