Auburn fans hate to hear this ó shoot, fans across the country hate to hear this ó but itís true. Despite the occasional rough stretches in its history, the Alabama football program is a blessed one. It is both an immovable object and an unstoppable force. Its success seems preordained, perhaps divinely inspired. Simply put, Godís an Alabama fan; thereís no other plausible rationale. What other explanation is there as to how a program that was trolling the dumpster bottom less than two years ago is on the verge of completing two consecutive undefeated regular seasons? In the SEC no less! How does a program thatís taken more body blows than Rocky Balboa rebound so quickly and so absolutely? If God himself isnít responsible, then a saint is. Saint Nick, of course.
Crimson Tide fans can say it with impunity now: Bamaís back! Itís not a tease this time, like it was in 1999, or 2002, or 2005, or the beginning of the 2007 season. Itís official this time. For the past decade, the one thing that Alabama hasnít done ó aside from win a national championship or a BCS bowl ó is show consistency. No back-to-back 10-win seasons, no back-to-back SEC title game appearances, no consecutive appearances in major bowl games. Thatís all changed. Alabama will win 10 games for a second-straight season. And they will play again in the SEC Championship game. And then they will again compete in a major bowl game. For once in a long while, it isnít wishful thinking. Itís reality.
In order to fully comprehend the magnitude of the Tuscaloosa turnaround, consider the state of the Alabama program two years ago this week.
Nov. 17, 2007. Louisiana-Monroe 21, Alabama 14. Ground zero for a team that had hired five head coaches in seven years, been gut-punched twice by the NCAA in six years and hadnít strung together two 10-win seasons since George H.W. Bush occupied the White House. There were coaches who dallied with secretaries and strippers, and one who dropped his rope under the cover of darkness. There were players who signed with agents, some who signed with boosters and many more who were signed out on their own recognizance. There were losses, lots of them, to teams from towns that Rand McNally couldnít find. Northern Illinois, Central Florida, Louisiana Tech...and ULM.
In the mid-week press conference that followed the Monroe loss, Nick Saban pondered a suitable analogy to put his programís latest embarrassment into perspective.
ďChanges in history usually occur after some kind of catastrophic event,Ē Saban said. ďIt may be 9/11, which sort of changed the spirit of America relative to catastrophic events. Pearl Harbor kind of got us ready for World War II, and that was a catastrophic event.Ē
Little did we know at the time, appallingly insensitive remarks aside, Sabanís overall message of change was spot-on. Since the ULM loss, Alabama is 22-3 overall, 21-1 in the regular season and 13-0 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. By contrast, Alabama was 13-12 over the previous 25 game spread, and 15-10 over the previous, previous 25 game spread. Consider that, for much of the decade, a berth in any low-tier bowl game (even ó yikes ó the Independence Bowl) was cause for celebration. Suddenly, now itís SEC Championship Game or bust. And after last weekendís LSU game, thatís exactly where the Tide finds itself for the second year in a row.
There are folks out there, myself included, who believe that God calls them to certain professions. If Iím right about that, then there cannot be a better modern-day example than Nick Saban. If ever there was a human being that was fulfilling his true role in life, itís Saint Nick. The constant grind of the coaching profession doesnít wear him down, it sharpens his edge. The sleepless nights donít tire him out, they energize him for the next day. Heís never satisfied, always challenging himself, always selling the program. Itís Glengarry Glen Ross meets college football. Put that coffee down, coffeeís for winners. You drove a Hyundai to work today, he drove a crimson, built-Ford-tough truck. His watch cost more than your car. His leads are not weak, youíre weak. Heíd wish you luck, but you wouldnít know what to do with it if you got it. Have I got your attention now? Good.
Remember those folks who thought Mike Shula got a raw deal in 2006 when he was forced out? Iíd have thought anyone who has watched enough football to call themselves a fan could see that Mike Shula was to the coaching profession what Larry Langford is to debt management: Unacquainted. Each day thatís passed since Shulaís termination makes his hiring seem that much more appalling. Every game he won was the result of either blind luck, fervent prayer from the fan base, or both. And yet, when he was fired, there was genuine outcry from a large portion of that fan base. You canít treat a former player like that! He was just getting things turned around. Where are those people now? Gone, faded into the woodwork.
Remember the weeping and gnashing of teeth that resulted from Rich Rodriguezís famous spurning of the Tide? Remember local TV reporters gathering outside the West Virginia playerís meeting, waiting for word on whether the miracle-working Mountaineer would jump ship to T-town? Then the WVU managers ran out the door with glee, thumbs raised proudly? No RichRod for Bama, and the mourning commenced. And now look at the body of work heís put together at tradition-rich Michigan? Now whoís weeping and gnashing their teeth?
Remember what Nick Saban told the South Florida media? ďIím not going to be the Alabama coach.Ē What if his word was bond? What if Mal Moore had left the tarmac in Miami without his new coach in tow? Who would he have turned to next? Joe Kines?
Itís all moot now. For once, the Alabama administration bowed up against the fan base and made the right call in firing Mike Shula. For some reason ó at least at that point in time ó money couldnít woo RichRod out of his rural backwater. And, although itís a far less impressive feat, Nick Saban made a conscious decision to break a promise he made to the media. Is it coincidence? Perhaps...but that seems like too many coincidences to me.
The reality is Nick Saban was made for Alabama and vice-versa. The story of how they met should be cut into an e-Harmony commercial. The constant pressure of Alabamaís demanding fan base ó which has worn down every post-Bryant head coach ó feeds Nick Sabanís drive to succeed. Sabanís cold, calculating demeanor and his Ahab-like obsession with winning at all costs emboldens the fan base. Itís a violation of the laws of thermodynamics...a self-perpetuating machine of football success. Winning attracts recruits, good recruiting allows teams keep winning, and so on.
More importantly though, Nick Saban has provided Alabama the benefit of the doubt from a national perspective. Whereas, under Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula, Alabama occasionally won games, Nick Sabanís Alabama is expected to win games. That helps with regard to preseason polling (which, as the 2004 Auburn Tigers can attest, tremendously affects a teamís end-of-the-year success) as well as BCS positioning. Right now, Cincinnati, Boise State and TCU donít have the benefit of the doubt. If computers ran the whole BCS system, one or all of them would likely be ranked ahead of Alabama. But, as it is, humans trust Alabama. Why is that? Is it because Alabamaís been there and done that in the past? In some respect, yes. Moreover, itís because Nick Sabanís been there and done that in the past. Like Urban Meyer, Pete Carroll and Bob Stoops, Nick Saban is a deal-breaker. And that, more so than any other benefit that accompanies his presence, is the reason Nick Saban is so important to the Alabama program.
So, for now, Alabamaís back on top of the college football world. For how long? Who knows? This stuff always cycles up and down. Thereís always the ever-present fear of rogue boosters, pay-for-play and NCAA investigators ó all of which helped plunge the Tide into the wilderness for much of the decade. Thereís always megalomaniacs in the athletic department that can spoil things (remember Bob Bockrath?). But itís a safe bet to assume that the self-perpetuating machine will feed itself at least as long as Nick Saban is on the payroll. And, as LSU can attest, perhaps afterward as well.
Upon Further Review is the Birmingham Weekly sports page. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.