Nick Saban might call the mere suggestion “rat poison,” because “every team is a different team,” “this year’s Crimson Tide team hasn’t won a national championship” and isn’t “defending anything.”
In truth, as challenging as Monday night’s contest vs. Clemson will be, the hard part for Alabama came and went a little over a decade ago.
That’s the last time Alabama was chasing anyone on college football’s mountaintop.
That’s when “The Process” was just a recruiting pitch kids had to believe, instead of a household bit of vernacular refined and refurbished by coaches across the sporting landscape but never really replicated.
There was no I-Pad, no Spotify, no Instagram, no way to Airbnb in Shreveport for Alabama’s trip to the 2007 Independence Bowl. You couldn’t even start a Kickstarter or a GoFundMe to help pay Tommy Tuberville’s buyout at Auburn, though if we’ve learned anything in 150 years of college football, it’s probably that Auburn’s boosters will find a way.
Instead, by December 2008, Alabama was a couple years removed from 4-8, a year removed from an Independence Bowl and a season where it lost at home to Louisiana-Monroe, and weeks removed from ineffable heartbreak and the 31-20 SEC Championship Game loss to Florida.
Nick Saban’s Alabama was the hunter and Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Florida ruled the college football universe. Everyone else, from the bayou of Baton Rouge to the high-octane offenses at Texas and Oklahoma to the B1G just beginning to recruit elite speed and play modern systems, was playing for second.
Yes, before Alabama won 5 national championships in 9 years, there was the matter of felling Florida, of vanquishing Tebow, of building not just a team that could compete with the best, but a program that was the best.
The story is well-known.
Tebow, playing without Harvin, the Robin to his Batman, willed Florida to a comeback victory over Alabama in the 2008 SEC Championship game, a performance that ended with Saban calling Tebow “one of the best, most competitive, passionate football players he’s ever seen”, a piece of praise that, when received from Saban, meets one of the requirements for canonization in the realms of sainthood, or at least it probably does down South.
That loss motivated and animated Alabama for an entire offseason and finally, 12 months later, given a second swing, the Crimson Tide broke through, sending Tebow into tears, Florida into the college football wilderness and Alabama to the summit of the college football universe, where it has dwelled ever since.
The hard part was so much more complicated than that, of course.
It started with the grueling 38-day courtship to land Saban. There was the dream of The Process after Saban’s arrival, but with it the hard tack job of selling it and a program mired in early century mediocrity. There was the 7-6 first season (technically 2-6, thanks to NCAA violations) that featured the nadir of Alabama’s lament in November losses to Louisiana-Monroe and again to hated Auburn. There were the innovative, relentless, sleepless schedules of Saban’s assistants on the recruiting trail in 2008, when fiery lieutenants Kirby Smart, Curt Cignetti and Lance Thompson delivered the 32-man class that included Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower and Mark Barron, among others, the bulwarks of Saban’s game-changing 2008 and 2009 teams.
But always, there was Saban.
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Warding off Meyer and Bob Stoops for Julio Jones in 2008, Saban made beating Florida the offseason hallmark of Alabama’s program that winter, bringing in high-profile speakers from all walks of life to build winners mentally.
“It wasn’t just (strength and conditioning coach) Scott Cochran, though he had much to do with what separated us” former Alabama All-American Barrett Jones told Saturday Down South last year. “It was the way we were mentally trained and prepared, never wavered, were instructed not to rattle.
“We knew we would get bigger, stronger, faster. But everyone else was doing that, to some extent. We were doing it better and we were getting mentally smarter, cultivating an edge. It was about making ourselves the best version of ourselves we can be.”
Making themselves the best versions of themselves.
It’s difficult to think of a phrase that sums Saban’s Alabama dynasty up more than that.
For all the chasing of Tebow and Florida when he arrived, the “chase” has mostly been about chasing yourself. For all the coaches who have tried to bottle up “The Process” and re-deploy it on their own terms and in their own programs, maybe distilled to pure form, The Process is this: the dogged, relentless pursuit to make every player in the program become the best version of themselves they can be.
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Most of the memorable college football eras and dynastic programs had their signature.
Nebraska in the 1990s had the square-jawed Tom Osborne and the physicality, speed and toughness of Tommie Frazier and the Black Shirts defense.
Florida under Steve Spurrier had the high-flying Fun-n-Gun offense and the southern swag, calling the SEC Championship team photo their “annual team picture” or throwing deep in the fourth quarter because “no one had ever hung 50 on Georgia in Athens” or because “it’s their defense’s job to stop us.”
Over nearly two decades of elite football, Miami intimidated and imposed its will on opponents, combining swagger, speed and raw talent to cultivate an aura of invincibility not really seen until now, when you watch Tua’s Alabama. If you’re cynical, Google the 2001 Miami Hurricanes roster and as you debate the number of future NFL Hall of Famers, ask yourself whether you’d have wanted to play the U.
Under Pete Carroll, Southern Cal had a patent on fun, mixing the Hollywood panache of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush with a laid-back West Coast approach to culture and tenacious, aggressive defense to dominate the early part of this century.
For all of these programs, the cultural approach to winning was self-motivating and sustaining. Every team wanted to replicate the joy and swagger and success of the team that came before it.
But they also chased one another, whether it was Osborne and Nebraska chasing and finally vanquishing Warren Sapp’s Miami or the early 2000s Miami chasing the greatness of Spurrier’s Florida, the greatness of others is naturally a benchmark to aspire to.
Except it is different at Nick Saban’s Alabama.
They seem to mostly be motivated by themselves.
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Maybe that’s why Alabama keeps going a decade and five national championships later, when there’s no one left to chase and hardly anyone left who can compete.
Even now, as what might be Nick Saban’s greatest football team prepares for a fourth consecutive Playoff duel with Clemson, their only genuine challenger, it seems what Alabama mostly chases is its own excellence.
“Alabama is chasing a combination of historically dominant teams,” award-winning ESPN sideline reporter and SEC Network college football analyst Laura Rutledge told Saturday Down South via email. “They are chasing the invincibility of Miami, but they are more focused and business like than those teams,” Rutledge added. “They have a class to them that’s different. More than anything, I think Alabama chases its own excellence of late.
“It’s been remarkable to watch and I would say last year’s national championship team is the most interesting because it wasn’t Saban’s best team during this stretch and took the gutsiest call he’s ever made to get that win. To affect the entirety of college football the way the Tide (have) is remarkable. They set the tone, they serve as a seemingly immovable enemy for teams and fans but also receive a great deal of earned respect.”
As Rutledge rightly points out, the idea of chasing one’s own excellence is something that occurs when you have a class about you that is different.
There’s almost no historical comparison for this type of sustained excellence, but it’s instructive that the one program that does compare was almost as singularly driven by making itself the best version of itself it could be.
Florida State had the genteel, aw-shucks leader in Bobby Bowden, so diametrically opposed and yet oddly-matched with the fire-eating intensity of his genius defensive coordinator, Mickey Andrews. Together, their physical, lightning-fast defenses and pro-style offenses became the sport’s model for consistency and excellence. For 14 consecutive seasons from 1987-2000, Bowden and the Noles finished in the top 4 in the final AP poll, a standard of consistent excellence that might never be replicated.
Chuck Amato was on staff at Florida State for all but one of those seasons (2000). He agreed that what separated the Seminoles under Bowden was the desire to perfect themselves.
“(Coach) Bowden used to preach and emphasize the three F’s: faith, family, football,” Amato said. “He felt if you focused on those things and not outside distractions, you’d be the best version of yourself — for you, for your family, for your football team. And that was the goal every year at Florida State. What could this team be? How could it be better?”
At Alabama, with no one and nothing left to chase, that’s what the process has become now: the relentless, unflinching commitment to being the best team it can be.
With only one game to play, completing that process might just make this the best Alabama team ever or perhaps, the greatest college football team ever to play.
Nick Saban will be fine with everyone else debating it that, though. He’ll be busy demanding the Tide are even better next year.