Facing Saban: Small-school coaches reflect on what it’s like to take on (arguably) the GOAT
Why play Alabama? For the challenge and, yes, the money. But mostly for the experience of going up against the greatest in game.
MACON, Ga. — When Bobby Lamb told his wife his football team was playing Alabama, she told him, “You’re crazy.”
This November, Lamb will serve as a modern-day shepherd boy when his Mercer University Bears step onto battle lines to face a Gath-like team and their Goliath, who stands 5-foot-8. Because on Nov. 18, when Lamb patrols the sideline, he won’t be facing another coach from the SoCon.
He’ll gaze across the field and see Nick Saban.
On a blistering summer morning, Lamb is nuzzled into a swivel chair inside his U-shaped office desk, the 10,200-seat Five Star Stadium looming beyond the windows. Behind Lamb are a series of wooden trophies, miniature helmets and books — pigskin studies and playbooks by famous coaches, including Vince Lombardi. The folksy, aw-shucks leader of the fledgling Mercer program, Lamb is a day removed from a satellite camp that welcomed 122 coaches — including Dan Mullen and Lane Kiffin — to campus. The satellite camps are just one of the clever ways Lamb markets his program (he does it because he has to), and on Nov. 18, he’ll usher his men to face the Greatest Show in the South.
Upending what has become the top program in the country over the past decade will require something close to divine intervention, and the game will likely engender an Old Testament severity by final whistle. But this does not stop Lamb from playing the game. Ironically, the last time Alabama lost to a team not in a Power 5 conference occurred when Louisiana-Monroe marched chest-first into Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa and tomahawked the Tide, exactly 10 years and one day from when Mercer and Alabama collide.
At that time, Mercer football did not exist. The private school playing host to 4,500 undergraduates had not fielded a grid team since the onset of World War II, and the last helmets the team stuffed on their heads were made of stitched leather. Few are old enough to remember the halcyon days of Mercer football when offensive lineman Les “Swede” Olsson owned the trenches.
Six years ago, Mercer University President William D. Underwood revived the program from a 70-year slumber and hired Lamb to direct the nascent brigade. During Underwood’s courting of Lamb, who had been the head coach at Furman University for nine seasons, Mercer not only lacked a team, there was no stadium — only a promise there would be one by the time the Bears suited up for their first game. “My first question was, ‘Where are you going to play?’” Lamb says. “It’s hard to build your brand if you’re playing in a high school stadium. Then (the president) reaches under his desk and pulls out plans for the stadium and says, ‘I’ll have this Game 1.’ All of the promises came true.”
Around the time of Lamb’s hiring, Alabama was marching to its second national championship under Nick Saban. It was a program at the zenith of the college football world, a 21-0 drubbing of LSU at the Superdome in New Orleans the newest mountain pass the expeditioners, clad in crimson, had overcome. While the confetti descended, Lamb was trying to figure out how to persuade players to come to Mercer without a scholarship (because the program could not offer them), at an institution that beckons over 30 grand per year from the pockets of its students.
Per NCAA rules, Mercer was prohibited from play until it had a year of recruiting and a year of practice under its belt. It began in the un-famous Pioneer League beginning in 2013. Lamb, convinced the effort was worthwhile, hit the roads in search of warm bodies, and by the end of the one-year recruiting process, he found 104 of them.
Lamb admits that the two-year hiatus from football was like going to the driving range every day without ever teeing off. “Excruciating,” he says. So when the Bears opened with Reinhardt University on Aug. 31, 2013, needless to say he was burning to get back on the field. Now, four years removed from that victory, Lamb faces the biggest odds of his football life.
Why These Games Are Important
Since 2005, when the NCAA ceremoniously allowed a 12th regular season game, Power 5 schools have been scheduling FCS and lower Division-I programs on a yearly basis. These contests are referred to as “guarantee games.”
For instance, during the Saban era alone, Alabama has faced Kent State, North Texas, Middle Tennessee, Georgia Southern, Charleston Southern, Western Carolina, Chattanooga, Georgia State, Florida Atlantic, and San Jose State, among others, and has drawn considerable backlash for doing so, particularly for booking FCS opponents.
The media will banish these programs into the categories of patsies, cupcakes, “rent-a-victims” and any major Power 5 program that schedules them can expect to be lambasted for padding their schedule with these runts of the litter.
Oddly enough, this mind-set of the college football biosphere is the exact opposite of college basketball, as no one would want to see a March Madness ball without Cinderella. What the critics, analyzing in a silo, don’t understand is that these perceived unsexy contests benefit college football as a whole, and the trickle down effect keeps programs that desperately need the revenue afloat.
Russ Huesman, now the head coach at Richmond, faced Alabama three times while he was the head coach at Chattanooga. His team always lost, but Huesman expressed his appreciation to Alabama for playing the game. “Every time I saw Coach Saban, I thanked him,” Huesman said. “I said, ‘Thank you so much for playing us, I really appreciate it.’ We need it to keep our programs alive and do the things we need to do to be successful. For us, it’s huge.”
In November 2015, Alabama faced Charleston Southern, an FCS program then-led by head coach Jamey Chadwell, now an assistant at Coastal Carolina. The week before the game, Saban went on one of his famous Coke-bottle-on-podium, several “ au-ights” rants, and used bathroom descriptors to remind journalists of the day Georgia Southern ran through his tin-horn-like defense. Saban also tried, unsuccessfully, to convince columnists of CSU quarterback Austin Brown’s propensity to morph into Dan Fouts. It was clear from the histrionics that Saban takes every game seriously.
As for the game itself, Chadwell described the experience like “going into a gunfight with a dart,” and by halftime, it was already 49-0 (not in favor of CSU). Although the Tide won 56-6, a half-a-million-dollar payday helped Chadwell’s program to upgrade their stadium and field turf. “It’s huge,” Chadwell says. “Those games are necessary to operate and survive in today’s football market. In the four years at CSU we got a new weight room, field turf, and upgrade in the stadium, and an upgrade in graphics on buildings. And all that was based on those guarantee games. It’s a win everywhere except in the win column.”
Rick Stockstill, a former quarterback at Florida State under Bobby Bowden who has been the head coach at MTSU since 2006, echoes that monetary sentiment. In 2015, the Blue Raiders went to Tuscaloosa and lost 37-10, but walked away with a fat check. “We need the money,” Stockstill says. “It’s not so much for getting your name out there, but for the paycheck. For paying the bills in the athletic department.”
What is it like for a coach of Small School, America, to face arguably the greatest coach and program in the history of college football? For some coaches of these schools, the experience provokes awe. For others, less so. Yet all will share the respect they have for Saban, and for the kind of sublime program he administers.
Since college scheduling typically occurs far in advance and the chore is often delegated to assistant athletic directors, many of the coaches have little or no say-so in regards to whom their teams will play. Lamb remembers the moment he heard that Alabama was a possibility. According to him, Daniel Tate, assistant AD at Mercer, phoned and said, “We just got a call from Alabama. They want to do a package deal.”
“My first thought was, ‘you’re joking,’” Lamb recalls. “There’s no way Alabama’s calling Mercer. I thought, ‘Why would they be calling us?’ It just shows you how scheduling is hard … trying to find teams to play.”
At first, Lamb said no, due to the fact that Auburn was already penciled in for the 2017 schedule. When he walked down the hall into the coaches’ office to relay the news, they agreed: Auburn and Alabama in the same season would be too much.
But the thought began to turn over in his mind, and soon the decision was his to make.
Lamb, a coach’s son from Commerce, Ga., (and who grew up — of all things — an Alabama fan), began to postulate that another big payday might help fund a much-needed superstructure press box at Five Star Stadium. But this was not the ultimate tipping point. The tipping point was that the team on the other end of the line was Alabama.
“The reason we did it is because it’s Alabama,” Lamb says. “If it were somebody else calling, no. But it’s Alabama, the greatest program in the history of college football. With the greatest coach in the history of college football. So why not put yourself on that stage? It would help you in recruiting and help build your brand.”
Unless there is a reason to call, the opposing coaches rarely speak before a game, and the first conversation between the two competitors usually occurs at midfield before the coin toss. More likely than not, Lamb will not speak to Saban until pregame festivities on Nov. 18.
For schools like Mercer, playing at Bryant-Denny Stadium in front of 100,000 fans is a bit of a culture shock, so many of the coaches haul their teams to the coliseum early to whet their palate for big time college football. “We always went to the BCS stadiums on Friday,” Huesman said. “I took (the players) to Alabama and let them take their pictures and do all of that stuff. I wanted them to get it out of their system.”
Before the game, the respective generals march out onto midfield to exchange niceties. Stockstill, Chadwell, and Huesman all complimented Saban on his pregame congeniality and were often surprised at how much Saban knew about their teams and family members. “He was always gracious and always complimentary of our team and our coaches,” Huesman said.
During each visit to Bryant-Denny, Huesman brought his son, Levi, along. “(Levi) really likes Nick Saban a lot and he would always come to midfield with me,” he said. “And Coach Saban was really nice and gracious to him and shook his hand and talked to him. I’ve got pictures. My son with Coach Saban, shaking his hand. Those things were really cool for me.”
Stockstill’s son is following in his father’s footsteps as a quarterback, and the MTSU coach was impressed that Saban knew about his son as well. “Before the game, we talked. He said something about my son. He said, “You’re son’s a good player,’” Stockstill said. “But he’s not going to be lovey-dovey or kumbaya. It was short and sweet.”
When Charleston Southern played Alabama in 2015, Chadwell’s team was on the brink of a Big South Conference title, a status of which Saban was fully aware. “He talked about our team and was very complimentary,” Chadwell remembers. “He said a lot of positives about our program. After the game, he said, ‘good luck in the playoffs’ and it meant a lot for him to even know what we were doing. Some coaches don’t take the time to do that, but he did. It meant the world to me.”
The only coach who saw a divergent reaction from Saban was Charlie Weatherbie, the Louisiana-Monroe coach whose team defeated the Crimson Tide in 2007. Weatherbie, who retired from coaching in 2009 and is now the Regional Director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes for southwest Florida, says that before the game Saban was affable and friendly. After the embarrassing loss to the Warhawks, however, Saban’s countenance changed. “He was a little bit pale. A little bit white in color. A little bit disappointed,” Weatherbie told SDS.
Most coaches will tell you that they are so focused on the game, they don’t have time to be starstruck, but Chadwell admits that the pageantry was almost too much to take in. “If you follow college football at all, you know about Nick Saban,” Chadwell said. “So to be even on the same field, and not only with him, but to be at Alabama with the tradition that Alabama has, with Bear Bryant and all, to be in that stadium and see their crowd, to see those helmets and those uniforms, I was in awe.”
A Confidence Builder
For Bobby Lamb, the most important aspect of the Alabama game is Branding 101 — helping to put Mercer football on the map. If one hundred people around the country were polled, the majority would not know that Mercer even had a football team. So for Lamb, it’s a critical time to get the word out about his program. “This (game) is something we need to do because it’s Alabama,” Lamb said. “It gives us a boost in marketing, and a boost in recruiting. It sounds good to an 18-year old, but to a 54-year old coach it doesn’t sound great.”
Most youngsters don’t lie awake at night dreaming about playing football at Mercer or Charleston Southern; they dream about playing in the Southeastern Conference. But coaches like Lamb can use the game as a sales pitch when recruiting in-state kids as well as those from border states who might be waffling. For teams like Mercer, they’ll use almost anything to gain a leg up.
Branding is less important for Division I teams like Chattanooga or MTSU, since these teams have been around the block, so to speak, and games with Alabama and their ilk have more to do with economics and confidence building than anything else.
For instance, across three contests with Alabama (2009, 2013, 2016), Huesman saw tremendous improvement in his team. In the first two games, he witnessed shellackings of 45-0 and 49-0. But by the third contest, Huesman saw a marked difference. “This year, when we went in that locker room and it was 14-3 at halftime, I couldn’t settle our guys down,” Huesman said. “They were almost ready to come back out and continue playing. I’ve never seen our team so excited to come back out for a second half than they were in that Alabama game. You could see the fire in their eyes and the excitement to come back. Every other time, we were down 42-0 at half, and (Alabama) did what they wanted to us.
“By halftime, it was just about over, and you were trying to figure out when to get your subs in. This year, we played them probably about as good as we can play. We had gotten our program to a point where we think we can line up and make plays. First couple of years, we really couldn’t make plays against them. In the last one, our guys had a lot of confidence and it was great to see that our kids had that kind of confidence playing Alabama.”
MTSU, a team that competes in Conference USA and has been bowl-eligible eight out of the past 11 years, regularly schedules Power 5 teams. “Our guys competed against the national championship team, against a guy that was the Heisman Trophy winner in Derrick Henry,” Stockstill told SDS. “It gave our guys some confidence that we just went against the best team in the country, and had it not have been for a few mistakes we made, we might have been able to hang in there with them in the fourth quarter.”
Segueing that 2015 game into future success, last season the Blue Raiders went into Missouri and won a 51-45 thriller. This year, the team will open with Vanderbilt, Syracuse, and Minnesota in consecutive weeks. Indeed, playing teams such as Alabama and Missouri on a regular basis helps to breed confidence in mid-major programs.
Louisiana-Monroe’s victory over Alabama didn’t occur by osmosis. In 2006, Weatherbie had prepped his team for future victory by filling his schedule with Kansas, Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky, and experience in those games helped quell the butterflies by 2007.
Weatherbie recalls the ether in the locker room after the Warhawks’ win in Tuscaloosa. “It was a lot of yelling and screaming and hugging,” Weatherbie recalls. “People grinning from ear to ear and loving what had taken place. It was a great, great day of jubilation.”
Then, as the bus pulled back into Monroe, hordes of congratulators were waiting on them. “The whole town waiting for us as we got off the bus,” Weatherbie said. “The band, the townspeople.”
Riding a crest of confidence after that 2007 win in Tuscaloosa, Louisiana-Monroe five years later defeated No. 8-ranked Arkansas 35-31 in Little Rock. By then, Weatherbie had already retired. “A lot of those kids were our kids,” Weatherbie said. “It gave them a lot of confidence that they can play against anybody in the country on any given day.”
So what is it exactly that makes Nick Saban so great?
After playing at Florida State, Stockstill began a coaching career that would take him all over the South. Before arriving at MTSU, Stockstill was an assistant at South Carolina under Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier, so he’s familiar with what it takes to achieve greatness. Stockstill believes the number one quality that puts coaches like Bowden, Saban, Spurrier and Holtz into an elite class is consistency. “I would say the big thing is, they’re very consistent about what they are going to do year in and year out,” he said. “They change with the times, adapting their offensive and defensive schemes — the philosophical — and schematically they adjust with their players. But they are consistent in their general philosophy in how they are going to run their program and their philosophy on how you win.”
Charleston Southern’s Chadwell saw the same consistency and focus when his team played Alabama in 2015: “The one thing I noticed during the game, it’s not about who they play. It didn’t matter who showed up, they were focused. It was the respect they showed our players and our team. The way (Saban) wouldn’t let his team overlook anybody. Some teams might act like ‘we’re better than you,’ but you can tell he believes in the process.
“They were beating us handily, and he was coaching the third and fourth team just as hard as the starters. He was coaching those guys like it’s the last play of the national championship. He expects and demands so much. He gets great players, but he coaches them and gets them prepared, so there’s no drop off. You can see that. That was the most impressive part to me.”
Huesman believes that the magic of Saban lies in the fact that he never gets complacent. “He doesn’t pat himself on the back after a national championship,” Huesman said. “He may enjoy it for a day or two, but he doesn’t let his coaches become complacent, his players become complacent. That’s easy to do and you see it all the time. You just see that he doesn’t let that happen. He goes back to grinding. He just goes right back to work.”
A Long Road to Tuscaloosa
If President Underwood was the architect of Mercer football’s restoration, Lamb served as the superintendent of the project. “I was at every meeting for the stadium, every meeting for the field house, every meeting for the kind of turf we were going to get,” Lamb said. “That was rewarding to have a footprint on everything we did.”
After two years of cobbling together a team, of consulting with coaches from upstart programs (Joey Jones at South Alabama, Bill Curry at Georgia State), of watching Five Star Stadium and the Homer and Ruth Drake Field House being erected, Lamb was ready to get back to playing football.
When Mercer opened up with Reinhardt University in 2013, Five Star Stadium was filled to overflow, a portion of the 12,000 spectators seated on grassy inclines beside the stands on a hot night in Macon. Describing Reinhardt, an NAIA team out of Waleska, Ga., Lamb says the team had some “cats” (translated: guys who can run). “We kick a field goal on the last play of game to beat them 40-37,” Lamb recalls. “That’s one of the most exciting nights in my college coaching career. We took a ragtag bunch of guys — all redshirt freshmen — and we go 10-2 that year. It’s still an NCAA record for the most wins by a starter program. To this day, that is the most rewarding year, ever.”
Lamb continued to build, and believe. The next season, the program left the Pioneer League and became the tenth member of the Southern Conference. They were finally able to award scholarships. “We went from non-scholarship to scholarship in a year and a half,” Lamb says. “At this level, you get 63. Here, you can split ’em up if you need to.”
Competing in the SoCon, Mercer now turned their attention to teams like Samford, The Citadel, Western Carolina, Chattanooga and Wofford. The first year, Mercer was competitive but won only one conference game, a 27-24 victory at VMI, and finished at 6-6. The next two seasons, Mercer slogged through a tough SoCon schedule, winning six conference games along the way. In 2016, Mercer scrapped with Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta and lost respectably, 35-10.
Now the come-uppance for the Mercer Bears has reached the cynosure of the college football world. Gone are the days when Mercer played host to Warner or the Ave Maria University Gyrenes (Hail Ave!). The ascendancy of the Mercer program has reached Bryant-Denny’s doorstep.
You can bet the town of Macon is brimming with excitement. Sharon Fambro and her husband are the proprietors of a wings restaurant in Mercer Village called Francar’s, where newspaper clippings and orange-and-black paraphernalia is pasted on walls, and varying levels of wings are offered (Level III is described as “flat hot”). According to one waitress, Sharon is Mercer’s biggest supporter, and Sharon believes Mercer might “surprise” Alabama this season. “I think it’s going to be a good experience for (Mercer),” Fambro said. “They might get blown out, but you never can tell. We’ve got some good guys coming in next year. I don’t know about all four quarters, but they might surprise them!”
Mercer Athletics is no stranger to knocking off the big boys. In 2014, when the 14th-seeded men’s basketball team upset Duke in the NCAA Tournament, Bears fans jammed the streets in front of Francar’s to watch the game on a bigscreen TV that stretched the width of Linden Avenue.
Historically, David/Goliath matchups are always a bigger deal to the smaller schools. When the large schools host the small schools, they often cannot fill a stadium to capacity. At the smaller schools, they throw block parties. Just ask what it meant — still means — to the town of Boone, N.C., for Appalachian State to beat Michigan, or what it meant for the good folks of Monroe, La., when ULM took down the mighty Crimson Tide.
So the question for the Mercer faithful is: “Is it possible?”
The world has been fascinated with the underdog since David, so long ago, sunk a smooth stone into a giant’s head. Throughout history, there has been much ado about these mismatched contests that forges deep into our psyche. But college football is less interested in the David/Goliath juxtaposition, as it is the meeting of two Goliaths.
The NCAA basketball tournament fomented an interest in Cinderella, because the ramifications of one of basketball’s blue bloods losing to a 15 seed is severe: You have to deal with the humiliation plus getting bounced out of the tournament. The college football ecosystem does not provide such ramifications. Perhaps if the games meant more, they would be taken more seriously by the fans and the media. For all of the takeaways of playing a Power 5 school, even the small-school coaches will admit that the biggest games on their schedule are not Power 5 games. The biggest games are the games within their own conference.
Regardless of the ho-hum nature of the game, Bobby Lamb will see what Facing Saban is like on Nov. 18. He’ll discover what it’s like to put on that headset and gaze across the field at greatness. Win or lose, it’ll be an experience he’ll never forget.
“I joke that we’re playing in our first ever bowl game in Tuscaloosa, a new bowl called the Tuscaloosa Bowl,” Lamb said. “We know we are going to be outmanned up front as most people are against Alabama. But I think it’s a great test for our players to say ‘Hey, maybe I do belong on this stage. Maybe I can play at the next level.’ If you can play good against Alabama, you can play good in the NFL. That’s kind of the selling point for our guys.”
The coaches of the smaller schools, they don’t regret it. They will all relay a positive experience of playing Alabama. Of facing arguably the greatest coach of all time. They’ll say they don’t regret playing the game.
“I’d take another L. I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Chadwell says. “I’d ask for more money, next time though.”
Why play games like this?
Because it’s good for the perpetuation of college football as a whole. Because it means more to the smaller schools and their respective towns than anyone could possibly measure.
And because, from time to time, Cinderella wins.
Al Blanton is a freelance writer for Saturday Down South. Follow Al on Twitter @alblanton78