I have loved two sports for most of my life: baseball and college football. (I have begun to like hockey in a growing way in recent years.) I love baseball because it has a very slow pace and forces the real fan to slow life down and watch a long season in which endurance becomes the big factor over 162 games. You just have to “grind” as baseball players like to put it. Life is a lot like “grinding” with the need for real perseverance and focus.
I love college football for a totally different reason. As a small boy of nine years of age my dad took me to see Alabama play in its first season under the legendary coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant. I watched this team, interestingly named the Crimson Tide, with rapt interest as my dad told me story after story about the famous “Bear.” I would learn that Bear played against my dad in high school football and that they were born and reared only a few miles apart in southeast Arkansas. (Bear played for the Fordyce “Red Bugs".”) I recently visited the land that my dad was reared on and a flood of these memories came rushing back. Today this land is all pine trees but standing on it for the first time since I was a boy with my dad was a trip down memory lane.
Anyway, I fell for all things Crimson Tide because of my dad. Come to think of it this is also why I fell for baseball. Dad’s are so important to boys in these things. When it came time to head off to college I had my heart set on going to Alabama and cheering for the Crimson Tide in person. I did and thus spent two football seasons on campus (1967-68) before I transferred to Wheaton College, where I earned my B.A. in 1971. And though I have lived in the Wheaton area for 41 years now I have never gotten over my time at Alabama. This is why I have followed the Tide’s football fortunes for a lifetime.
As most of you know last season was the best year a Tide fan could hope for in a lifetime. Undefeated and crowned national champions by beating Texas in the BCS game their 14-0 season was impressive. I got to enjoy a major item on my “bucket list” by seeing the BCS Championship game in person in Pasadena. I will never forget that wonderful three-day trip because my family and friends gave me a Christmas present to remember.
Today, the new season begins. Alabama is ranked No. 1 in most pre-season polls, which are truly meaningless. I would prefer this was not the case since everyone will be aiming at them and escaping this season will prove to be a huge challenge. I think it is much harder to reload and win again than it is to win the first one. In fact, no SEC team has repeated as conference champion for two consecutive seasons since the league began a championship game in 1992. Florida has won the most championships but no one has repeated. This league is just very tough. And Alabama has not lost a regular season conference game in two full seasons, a feat that is amazing in itself.
Can Alabama repeat? I do not honestly think that they will but I plan to enjoy the season regardless. After all, I have all the reminders of 2009 around me as I write and these will not go away. Everyone wants to repeat but few fans get to enjoy what I experienced last season.
There is no real doubt that Alabama is loaded again. A former player told me that Coach Saban believes he has more talent this year than he’s ever had in college but coaching talent is not easy to do. At the same time, Nick Saban can coach. Even his critics acknowledge that much.
Nick Saban is seen by the national media as a high-priced mercenary. He grew up in a small coalmining town in West Virginia and rose, through hard knocks, to become the defensive guru who “out-works-the-other-guy” every time. He has restored Alabama’s great tradition in three seasons and the cupboard, as they say in the sport, is no longer bare. So who is this guy?
Recently Nick Saban spoke to high school coaches and allowed them to see a side of him not normally seen by the media. A reporter who was present said he was funny, got lost in a teaching mode and went beyond his allotted time by 35 minutes. No one complained.
Jeff Sentell, of the Birmingham News, said that Saban came across as “an investor in human potential. His aim is to protect the professional future of the young men in his program.” This explains, at least to my mind, why Saban angered some people when he called some NFL agents “pimps.” When the dust of this all settled I watched it all again and personally I can see why he was so angry. I realize he is protecting his investment but he is also protecting his young men.
Is Nick Saban a “control freak” as charged? Sentell says, “Probably. But with noble intentions. He said his program employs two sports psychologists. The focus is on hearts and minds. Alabama can do that because the blue-chip bodies going to Tuscaloosa now set the curve on the physical front.”
But some critics still see Alabama as nothing more than a football factory. This charge is not true but I doubt that it will ever go away. (Alabama is not an elite college but it is not what people outside the state think either. It has produced more than its share of great minds and leaders.) Last year, as an example, Alabama had a record 22 student athletes who had already received their degree and played in the BCS game. 13 players graduated before the 2009 season and 12 freshmen were Academic All-SEC. The quarterback is a Rhodes Scholar and numerous players have excelled in life beyond football. But this true story will not make ESPN’s Sports Center.
As Saban finished his speech to the high school coaches a few weeks ago he thanked them for their part in his success reminding them that half his team came from the state of Alabama. Saban then encouraged the coaches to focus not exclusively on results but on process, his favorite topic when he is allowed to talk about it. I believe this is the real reason he left the NFL so suddenly. He said, “Maybe the participation in all athletics is not what it used to be but I think it has tremendous value. So if they can engage and inspire young people to develop better habits by participating, that would be the one thing I would want everyone to get out of this.”
Will Saban win more championships at Alabama? I have to believe he will. The guy is unbelievably good at what he does and he recruits as well as any coach in the land. He is 58 years old but he has great people around him. But will he stay? Yes, he is not leaving. If he goes anywhere I expect he will retire. Where would he go? The NFL has no appeal and no other college has the tradition and support of Alabama. Did I say “Roll Tide Roll” yet?