Nate Oats could win the next 3 national championships and it wouldn’t change reality.

College football — not college basketball — is king at Alabama.

That doesn’t change overnight. In some places, it never changes, even when it’s followed with historic success. Take Florida during the Billy Donovan era. Take Michigan during the “Fab Five.” Take Houston during the “Phi Slama Jama” run. What do all 3 of those iconic college basketball moments have in common? When the dust settled on great basketball moments, football was still the unquestioned king.

But what Oats just showed us in this new world of NIL/transfer portal is that you can be at a school where football is king and still win big on the hardwood.

I know what you’re thinking. Haven’t football-crazed schools like Baylor, Oregon and Auburn (to name a few) done that in the past decade? Absolutely. Alabama isn’t the first or last football power to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Shoot, the team the Tide will be facing on Saturday night in the Elite Eight, Clemson, is doing just that.

What’s the difference then? Those schools aren’t Alabama. Those schools don’t share the campus with the biggest brand in their sport. Today’s college athlete only remembers a time in which Nick Saban’s Alabama ruled college football. And if you don’t think Alabama “ruled” college football recently because it finally had a 3-year stretch without a national title, remember that “drought” still included 2 SEC Championships and 2 Playoff berths.

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Sure, it’s an advantage to be able to take a basketball recruit to an Alabama football game. It’s also a disadvantage that an 18-22 year-old kid will know that he won’t be the big man on campus. Not on that campus. If you don’t believe that, ask yourself why Bryant-Denny Stadium has become a college football cathedral while Coleman Coliseum is … nothing close to a college basketball cathedral.

Yet despite that ever-obvious “second fiddle” role, think about what Oats just did in the last year. He coached the top overall seed in the 2023 NCAA Tournament and appeared to have a major championship window shut after losing in the Sweet 16. That team lost:

  • No. 2 overall pick Brandon Miller
  • No. 21 overall pick Noah Clowney
  • Veteran guard Jahvon Quinerly (transfer to Memphis)
  • SEC All-Freshman Team selection Jaden Bradley (transfer to Arizona)
  • Center Charles Bediako (NBA Draft)

Mark Sears was Alabama’s only returner who played an average of 16 minutes per game last year. If we want to include Nimari Burnett and Noah Gurley, Oats essentially had to replace 7 of his 9 rotation guys from a team that many believed was the Tide’s best in program history.

If this were Duke, Kansas or Kentucky, nobody would bat an eye at that. The assumption would be that another top-flight recruiting class would step in and fill that talent void or at least come darn close to doing that.

But Alabama isn’t those schools. It’s Alabama. As in, the school that entered 2023-24 with 1 Elite Eight berth and 0 Final Four berths to speak of.

Now, Alabama is the program that reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament 3 times in the 2020s decade. Here’s the list of programs that can claim that:

  • Gonzaga, 4
  • Houston, 4
  • Alabama, 3
  • Arkansas, 3
  • Creighton, 3
  • UCLA, 3

You’ll notice that “basketball schools” like Duke, Kansas, UConn and UNC are all absent from that list. Granted, all of those teams played in a Final Four in the 2020s, which Alabama hasn’t accomplished … yet.

That would be Oats’ greatest feat to date. It would one-up what he did on Thursday night by knocking off top-seed UNC. For my money, that cemented Oats as the best program in Alabama’s history. Yes, Wimp Sanderson had twice as many Sweet 16 trips (6) as Oats, and he’s largely responsible for what many consider to be the golden era of Tide hoops. But Oats, in his Sanderson-inspired plaid sports coats, already reached an Elite Eight in Year 5.

Let’s also give Oats credit for overcoming the modern hurdle of roster fluidity. Losing 7 of 9 rotation players put immense pressure on him to get it right in the portal. Recruiting to his up-tempo, 3-point heavy, 5-out offense could’ve proven to be a unique challenge. Instead, he turned it into a tremendous asset.

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The aforementioned Sears started his career at Ohio and blossomed into an All-American after returning to his home state of Alabama 2 years ago. Aaron Estrada was another prolific mid-major transfer who stepped into an incredibly important, crafty scorer for Oats (he’s the only one with the green light to take a mid-range jumper). And Grant Nelson could’ve gone to the NBA, but he instead hit the transfer portal and landed at Alabama, where he became a role player by day and a UNC dream killer by night.

Including Latrell Wrightsell Jr. and Nick Pringle, 5 of Alabama’s 6 leading scorers are former transfers who have been with the program for 1-2 seasons. You could argue that’s a sign of finding some diamonds in the rough in the portal, but the counterpoint is obvious. What’s stopping any “football school” from doing that? It’s not facilities. It’s not getting McDonald’s Americans. It’s not even NIL. That entire process starts with the right coach and the right system.

It took 5 years. Alabama, at the height of Saban’s peak, hired a coach from Buffalo to lift a football-focused school to places it hadn’t been in the 21st century. There are plenty of football programs that are still searching for their version of Oats. Georgia is. Ohio State is. LSU is. Penn State is. Nebraska is.

(Yes, I can still include Nebraska in that category when it still has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game.)

Fans of those teams will push back and say that their current guy is just as capable of pulling off what Oats just did. Sure. So was the guy before that … and the guy before that. Before Oats, Alabama would’ve been part of that group. Avery Johnson was the guy. Before him, Anthony Grant was the guy (he’s the guy at Dayton now). And of course, before him, Mark Gottfried was the guy. They made 1 combined Sweet 16, and it was a Cinderella run to the Elite 8 as an 8-seed after an 8-8 SEC mark.

There’s nothing flukey about the program Oats built. All 3 teams that reached the Sweet 16 did so as a top-4 seed, which Alabama only had 1 of between the Sanderson and Oats eras.

Times have changed in Tuscaloosa. That doesn’t mean Alabama is now a “basketball school.”

But it’s the perfect example of why a football school shouldn’t have any excuses to look the part in March.