Alabama football: From TCL to South Beach, Nick Saban's journey has been indescribable
The Tuscaloosa Regional Airport, especially Hawthorne Global Aviation Services — which sits at the dead end of Carter Drive in Northport — is a pretty quiet place. Thirteen years ago, there weren’t any commercial flights into or out of the tiny airport and just a smattering of private traffic. Birds were more plentiful than takeoffs and landings.
On Jan. 3, 2007, though, TCL was anything but quiet. In the weeks before that sun-splashed day, the comings and goings of N1UA — the University of Alabama’s jet — had been tracked and deciphered to the point that Mal Moore didn’t even utilize it a couple days before on his way to Miami. And this day, N1UA was on the other side of the airport when another small jet pulled up at Hawthorne Global with the greatest college football coach in history.
Nick Saban’s arrival in Alabama was pure, pent-up celebration. Hundreds crowded the fence line, and many more made their way onto the tarmac once the jet’s engines wound down. When Saban emerged in a gray suit and light-purple dress shirt, well, the celebratory mood devolved into visceral joy. Saban was practically mobbed with well-wishers, including one inebriated lady who hugged him and planted a kiss on his left cheek. It took a couple minutes for the coach to wade his way through the crowd and into the terminal, then eventually to an SUV that whisked him away — across the Black Warrior River and to campus.
I was there, in part to bear witness and in part to distribute the “extra” editions of The Tuscaloosa News that we produced that morning trumpeting Saban’s arrival. It seems curious to the young’uns, I’m sure, but an “extra” was about as big as it gets in the nascent stages of the internet and without social media. “IT’S SABAN TIME!” screamed the headline, with my co-byline above the main story all about how Alabama’s 27th head football coach was here to save the proverbial day from the darkness that had befallen what was once a great football program.
Before Jan. 3, 2007, it was hard to believe that this was the same Alabama that once dominated the college football landscape. Led by a Bear of a man who won 6 national titles for his beloved alma mater, Alabama had become a program that was under NCAA probation from one coach (Mike DuBose), a stepping-stone to Texas A&M for another (Dennis Franchione) and the punch-line ending for yet another (Mike Price and “Destiny” ring a bell?) The previous 4 years of relative calm — and a smattering of success — under alum Mike Shula gave only the most ardent of Crimson Tide supporters any reason to believe the heights once seen only with Paul W. Bryant at the helm could be witnessed again.
Moore, Alabama’s erstwhile former assistant coach under Bryant and well-meaning if occasionally bumbling athletic director, pulled the trigger on Shula late in the evening of Nov. 26, 2006 — just 4 days after Thanksgiving. The initial targets seemed, well, a little curious? A Steve Spurrier sighting at The Bright Star? Rutgers’ Greg Schiano or Tennessee assistant David Cutcliffe? Finally, there was a coach from West Virginia that caught Moore’s eye.
The Mountaineers coach was offered the Alabama job at some point on Dec. 7, 2006. In my role as executive sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News, I decided a couple days prior to keep our main columnist and basketball writer in town in case Alabama made a move, and I traveled to South Bend, Ind., that morning to cover the No. 5-ranked Alabama’s basketball team playing Notre Dame that evening.
Our competition in Birmingham began reporting that the West Virginia coach had taken the job during the first half, of course, and I spent all game long on the phone wandering around outside Notre Dame’s basketball arena imploring our guys to get it right. There was a problem with Rodriguez, we were being told. He hasn’t accepted the gig, our reporters insisted. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about that game. But when the sun rose the next morning and I was about to depart Chicago to come home after a sleepless night, Rodriguez gave a news conference announcing he was staying at West Virginia.
Seemingly with egg on his face, Moore instead had an ace up his sleeve. He had also been courting another West Virginia guy, this one a native son who was slogging through a second season with the Miami Dolphins. It took a lot of arm-twisting from Moore — who basically camped out at Saban’s house alongside Saban’s wife Terry to stage a sort of career intervention — but when the jet was fired up and pointed toward TCL, Moore had his man inside.
The Alabama that Saban walked into when he was formally introduced the next day was nothing like the Alabama we know now. Aging facilities and an athletic department festering with well-meaning good ol’ boys were obstacles the coach saw almost immediately. So, too, was a roster that had talent but lacked the kind of focus and purpose necessary for excellence that was desired. In other words: Alabama wanted to win, like all programs do, but had no idea how to get there.
Saban did. With a personality that was certainly frosty to the aw-shucks crowd and grated those who weren’t used to “my way or the highway” accountability, Saban began a top-to-bottom renovation of the entire program in his image. Tagged “The Process” almost by accident on the back cover of the Tide’s 2007 media guide by then-sports information director Doug Walker, this meticulous way of demanding excellence by everyone and every day needed time to fully root.
The results weren’t immediately apparent. No change of this magnitude comes that sudden, no ship this size can cut a turn that sharp on a dime. Still, that visceral love for Saban poured out in the form of a capacity crowd of 92,138 at A-Day that April — an insane crowd to watch a glorified practice, yes, but a workout orchestrated by the Crimson Tide’s new savior. Still, Alabama would start the ensuing season 6-2 en route to a 7-6 mark, capped by a victory over Colorado in the Independence Bowl.
That was good and all when looking through the prism of the previous handful of years, but Shreveport wasn’t a preferred destination anymore and 6 losses in any season just wasn’t going to cut it. Alabama was paying Saban an unprecedented $4 million per season, after all, and had just poured millions into expanding the north end zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium to include new luxury suites and an upper deck.
The first leaves on what was going to become the mightiest oak in the forest took bloom in February 2008, when Saban inked the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. The immediate jewel of this class was wide receiver Julio Jones from Foley, a player who was simply unlike just about anything Alabama was able to lure in the recent past. Also in that class was a running back named Mark Ingram, a fireplug who ran with a fire and intensity that couldn’t be extinguished. The class, 32 players in all, ended up practically looking like an NFL roster — Jones, Ingram, Andre Smith, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, Barrett Jones, Marcell Dareus, Damion Square, Dont’a Hightower, Robert Lester and Terrence Cody among them.
Tuscaloosa felt different almost immediately, not only because there were enough flagpoles in the north end zone expansion to support more national championship flags and an empty spot alongside the bronze statues of Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bryant and Gene Stallings that celebrated the Tide’s national championship coaches. That semi-circular spot was built, literally, for the purpose of adding a 5th larger-than-life statue for Alabama’s next national championship coach.
It seemed audacious and prescient all at once. I loved it, the gall to say “Yep, we have 12 national championships — and there are more to come any day now.” For a program so steeped in its past, it was much more than just a nod to the potential future. It was a full-on “We’re back, and this is our guy to bring it all the way home.”
The next season, 2008, Alabama ran the table in the regular season — including beating LSU 27-21 in overtime in Baton Rouge, a trick that incensed the Tiger fans who realized that the coach that took them to the 2003 title was now about to make the SEC West a miserable existence — and made it back to Atlanta to face Florida. Urban Meyer’s Gators and 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow got the best of the Tide that day, and the suspension of Andre Smith for the Sugar Bowl against Utah was a catalyst for a loss in New Orleans.
That Sugar Bowl experience was odd, for me, in that Alabama fans simultaneously felt thrilled to be in the Big Easy but depressed that the Tide fell from No. 1 in the country to out of the national title picture. It was clear, too, that Saban was dissatisfied, and hell-bent on ramping up The Process even more.
The result? 2009 — another undefeated regular season, as the Tide beat Florida’s Tebow literally to tears in the SEC title game before Heisman winner Ingram romped all over Texas in Pasadena to win the entire thing. The venerable Rose Bowl was a perfect spot for that 13th title, in that Alabama won the 1925, 1926, 1930 and 1934 crowns at the Granddaddy Of Them All — a venue and accomplishment that became part of the fight song reminding all who sang and heard it to “remember the Rose Bowl, we’ll win then.”
A pair of things stuck out from that 2009 triumph. First, Alabama players clearly needed practice celebrating — clobbering Saban with the Gatorade bucket while dousing him with red-flavored liquid. Second, Saban sounded the clarion call at the Tide’s national championship celebration back in Tuscaloosa — declaring that “this wasn’t the end, but just the beginning.”
Indeed, 11 years and 5 national championships later, Saban was dead-on accurate. It wasn’t a prediction or clairvoyance. It wasn’t quite like Babe Ruth calling his shot in the 1932 World Series, either, but it was close.
This was closer to Beethoven telling a sold-out crowd who had just heard his First Symphony that he was going to pen a Fifth Symphony that you’d really need to hear. This was more like Shakespeare letting folks who had just caught a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream know that a doozy called Romeo and Juliet was right around the corner.
This was a coach who knew how to recruit, cultivate, motivate, matriculate and accumulate a million moving parts into perfect synchronicity. And he was going to do it again and again and again.
It was exhilarating to consider if you were living in West Alabama. It surely was frightening to contemplate anywhere outside of West Alabama. If you were in Lee County, well, it might have just caused you to call up a preacher and inquire if his talented son was for sale.
The highs kept coming, as we all know. The lows were few and far between, losses worthy of sacrificing goal posts to the Oxford community and creating a legendary coach — a former Alabama son, fittingly — in Clemson, S.C.
All the while, Bryant loomed. How could he not, a presence so absolutely revered for making Alabama No. 1 in something during the same era the state earned a tarnished reputation for its awful reputation of race relations. Bryant made Alabamians proud of something when there was little to be proud of, and now that pride was returning in the form of needing to build more trophy cases every year and practically keeping championship ring manufacturers on speed dial.
Climbing Mount Everest, it is thought, is capable if you concentrate more on the myriad tasks of getting up the hill step by step instead of looking up 29,032 feet in the sky and being intimidated by how darn high it is. Saban’s greatest gift isn’t that he has gotten to 29,000 feet now 7 times. Instead, his gift is in understanding that the first step in that journey is as important as the final step — and that you gotta put every bit of yourself into each step along the way.
Which is why after the Tide rolled Ohio State 52-24 on Monday, Saban couldn’t help but to let out a wry smile when asked on national television just how he does it. How do you explain in a soundbite something so complex? How do you explain that the pain of 7-6 begat 12-2, which begat 14-0? How do you explain that the handful of losses in a handful of years haunt so much more than the avalanche of wins? How do you win a national championship in 2017, see your entire assistant coaching staff recycled, and win it all again in 2020?
How do you do it?
The best in the world can make something insanely difficult look easy. Alabama steamrolled every opponent it lined up against this season in a manner that causes the guy at the end of the bar in Wichita to peek up at the results on SportsCenter, shrug and say “heck, that was too easy…” to his buddy.
That talent is worth more than money can buy. Not at $4 million in 2007 or $10 million in 2020. Not more than the limitless cash the oil barons in Austin could ever throw your way.
How do you do it?