For even the oldest and most established players on this year’s University of Alabama football roster, the history of the program boils down to two eras: before Nick Saban and after.
That’s not a rub against any of the head coaches who preceded him, including Paul “Bear” Bryant, Gene Stallings, Frank Thomas and Wallace Wade, who all won at least one national championship, but more a reflection of how most college students view the world.
“As a kid, I’d probably say 2009 when they won the national championship,” senior defensive end Jonathan Allen said about when he started paying attention to the Crimson Tide.
“They were under the radar and then Coach Saban came and they started winning championships, and I saw them play Florida,” sophomore cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “That was my first team growing up, Tim Tebow and that Florida team. When they played, I watched them and went, ‘This is a pretty good team.’ And I started to follow them a little bit after that.”
While that perception is obviously reflective of Saban’s success, as he’s trying to close out his 10th year at Alabama with his fifth national championship there—and sixth overall—it also speaks to how Crimson Tide fans don’t like to be reminded of the years preceding his arrival.
That’s where the generational divide can really be seen, between those who just know the dynasty and those who remember when Alabama was the butt of a lot of jokes. They’re the ones who find the initials for the Before Saban era an accurate description.
“I have a son who is a junior in high school, football obsessed,” said ESPN broadcaster Joe Tessitore, who will call Alabama’s game against Washington in the Peach Bowl. “We were having a conversation recently. He made some comment about Alabama, Alabama has always been there.”
Tessitore didn’t have to bring up the years of issues at Alabama that even soap operas (yes, they still exist) couldn’t dream up, including death threats, grandstanding news conferences by lawyers and the bizarre revolving door of humiliated coaches. He just mentioned that during Saban’s first season, when the textbook disbursement scandal hit, Alabama lost to Louisiana-Monroe.
“He couldn’t believe me,” Tessitore said. “It was unfathomable.”
Actually, just about everything going on with Alabama at that time was—including head coach Mike DuBose having an affair with his secretary, Dennis Franchione sneaking out of town and re-emerging at Texas A&M, and Mike Price fired before coaching a game following his strip-club bender detailed by Don Yaeger in the pages of Sports Illustrated.
Alabama’s biggest problems centered on a recruiting scandal, when wealthy Memphis businessman and Crimson Tide booster Logan Young paid approximately $150,000 to a high school football coach to influence the recruitment of standout defensive tackle Albert Means.
The NCAA ended up bringing the hammer down on one of college football’s most prestigious programs by issuing a two-year bowl ban, five years’ probation and the loss of 21 scholarships over a three-year period.
“They were absolutely staring down the barrel of a gun,” infractions committee chairman Thomas Yeager famously said at the time. “These violations are some of the worst, most serious that have ever occurred.”
At the time the sanctions were considered among the harshest ever handed out by the NCAA but criticized for their inconsistency. For example, witnesses implicated several other schools, yet none were punished.
The circus that ensued was nothing short of jaw-dropping. Nuxmerous lawsuits were filed against the NCAA, investigator Richard Johanningmeier and nearly anyone who had implicated the program. On the advice of his lawyer, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer accepted a $10,000 fine rather than risk crossing the state border to attend 2004 SEC media days in Birmingham.
In March 2005, Young was convicted in federal court and sentenced to six months in prison and six months of house arrest. He appealed but died before it could be heard. Meanwhile, a jury found $30 million in favor of former Alabama assistant coaches Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams, who claimed they were the fall guys in their lawsuit, only to have the judge throw it out.
Yes, all of this happened within the last 20 years, after Stallings resigned in 1996 following NCAA sanctions from another issue, but most Crimson Tide fans believe it was primarily due to an irreparable rift with his bosses: athletics director Bob Bockrath and Dr. Andrew Sorensen, the school president.
Regardless, from 1997 to 2006, Alabama had more losing seasons (four) than 10-win campaigns (three), and one of those was wiped out by NCAA penalties. Those three teams were the only ones to finish ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, and none of them rose higher than No. 8 (1999 and 2005).
It didn’t have a first-round NFL draft selection between 2001 and 2008, the last of which marked the first time the Crimson Tide had no one picked at all since 1970. From 1997 to 2007 it had just two consensus All-Americans (Chris Samuels and DeMeco Ryans).
It was nothing like what the program has enjoyed since then, including a record nine straight years of being ranked No. 1 at some point of the season, 29 consensus All-Americans and 18 first-round draft picks.
“There was a lot of listening to people complain,” said Ken Gaddy, director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum. “People used to call us from New York, or D.C., wherever there were Alabama fans. They couldn’t complain there, but they would let us have it over the phone.
“‘Tell coach so-and-so to do this,’ or ‘I have an idea.’ I did a lot of listening, therapy-type things. We don’t do that as much anymore, although there are still people who complain.”
In contrast, the museum ran a fun promotion a couple of years ago called “So Many Trophies, So Little Space.”
Across the street at the football complex, the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility had to, again, build new trophy cases this fall, and fans are becoming concerned that the part of Walk of Champions in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium that recognizes national titles is almost out of room.
The three men who get the most credit for turning things around are former university president Dr. Robert Witt, Moore and Saban, who never would have said yes to Alabama had the school not already begun a major facilities and endowment initiative. A big part of that went toward upgrading elements of the football program that had been ignored for far too long, including Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The indoor practice facility had to share space with the tennis program, resulting in a shortened football field. The courts were removed during one of the extensive renovations, plus Alabama now has a weight room that’s the envy of even NFL teams.
The remnants of that era are all gone but not forgotten, at least by anyone older than the millennial generation. For them, it all adds a lot of perspective to the dynasty.
“To see the turnaround under Nick Saban after that first year where he kind of took his lumps, the consistency that they have had since his second year is staggering,” said Todd Blackledge, who will serve as broadcast analyst for the College Football Playoff semifinal.
“I believe what Nick Saban has done over the course of the last nine seasons is the finest display of coaching in college football that we’ve ever seen.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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