You don't have to love or like Alabama, just appreciate its run
It was a pleasant enough January night in South Florida, full of possibilities amazing or terrible, but a calm breeze was accompanied by an unforgiving Tide. A dynasty had come calling, whistling through the palm trees, and I was placed right in the middle of it, a lifelong Notre Dame fan just “happy to be there,” about to witness the final signature that would officially stamp Alabama as that modern-day college football dynasty.
My father, a Philadelphia Irishman who raised me as one of those Notre Dame “subway alumni” fans and who had passed away almost 12 months earlier, was only there in spirit that surreal night, as an empty orange seat next to mine. But he had a saying, “That game was over at the National Anthem,” and he saved it for games like this, for occasions like this, for incredible teams like this, for runs of success like this.
Alabama was especially special in 2012, and you knew it that night as sure as anything. And I knew somehow, as one of the last people walking out of Sun Life Stadium in the wee hours after the Tide’s 42-14 beatdown of the Irish in the BCS championship game, that this run was far from being done. That as long as Nick Saban remained in Tuscaloosa and “The Process” kept processing and producing gems, that another title night couldn’t be far behind.
It turns out, it took three more years for Bama to churn out another championship. But save for a miracle ending at Auburn that next fall and an uncharacteristically sloppy performance in the College Football Playoff semifinals against eventual champ Ohio State last season, the Next Title Night might have come even sooner.
Bama Way: Legacy of winning
A dynasty breeds championship performances in so many different ways. That’s the beauty of looking back at pure excellence, in any sport. Each path to each ring has its own postscript.
Some of the title games are joy rides. No drama, just dominance, thank you very much, like the one against Notre Dame in front of these saddened eyes that had me tossing and turning as AJ McCarron and Eddie Lacy and Amari Cooper seemingly took turns scoring, forever.
Some take fortitude and focus against a pesky opponent and even a little luck, like the first crown against Texas when Colt McCoy’s early shoulder injury changed the dynamic of the game. It wasn’t Bama’s fault, just some good fortune, and just what the Tide and Nick Saban needed to help place that first championship brick in what is now seemingly a house of them.
Some championships are simply down and dirty because they have to be, like the one in New Orleans when Alabama flipped the script on SEC rival LSU after losing to the Tigers in the regular season, hammering them when it really mattered in the Superdome, a 21-0 whitewash as LSU crossed the 50-yard line exactly one time. As if LSU and its fans didn’t hate Alabama enough, they had to watch Bama lifting that crystal ball in their home state.
See, that’s what happens when dynasties are born and champions are made of young men in different situations, different years, taking those different paths. Winning is built into the muscle memory, like Broadway dancers who put on show after show, knowing which way to step and tap without thinking about it. They’ve done it before and they can do it again, and they’ll be damned if anyone tells them they can’t.
That’s what this beast of the beastly Southeastern Conference has become, with the master tactician standing on the sidelines. He doesn’t wear an iconic hat like The Bear did, he hardly ever smiles (except late on those whirlwind title-winning nights) and the hatred toward him is so vast it stretches from fans of rival schools to those of the Miami Dolphins, who feel he spurned them when he said he wasn’t going to Alabama when he really was.
But, really, what Saban has done, during a time with such great athletes spread out across the country and an overall system that was supposed to make college football dynasties something like the dinosaurs we see in books, is amazing. And the fact that he’s done it while having to survive the SEC gauntlet each fall with zero or one loss at the most makes it 100 times more amazing.
The proof is when the dynastic team is pushed to the limit. How does it respond? Ask Clemson, which led Alabama going into the fourth quarter in the latest edition of the Tide’s library of triumphs. It looked like Bama might finally lose a championship game, which would have only proven them and Saban human. The Tide was wheezing, Clemson was seeing the light at the end and with it a historic 15-0 season.
But Saban and his battle-tested players would have none of it. Most if not all of those players didn’t know what it was like to win a national title. They just knew it was the sort of thing this era of Alabama players did. You go to a championship, you win it. That’s been the surreal Bama Way since the night McCoy went down and the Tide turned on this era of college football.
After Saban’s daring decision to onside kick, all of a sudden Alabama was running downhill in a game Clemson had dictated to that point. Saban said something to the effect afterward of his team needing a spark, that his defense was tired, that he needed to change the momentum. The moment was created by a coach’s trust in his players, but of course it was up to his players to excecute and turn the moment into a treasured memory.
They did, of course, because winning when the moments are biggest are in Alabama’s muscle memory. When the Tide recovered the ball, the tide had most certainly turned, you knew the game was over and it was apparent, painfully for many and wondrous to those who come to expect it, that this crimson-colored dynasty was about to endure.
Yet again, like it or not.
Bama vs. The World
Alabama players don’t really care what you think of them winning all the time. They don’t.
Said Bama running back Kenyan Drake — whose 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown not long after the onside kick was complete with a snap-shot-for-all-time lunge to the end zone that told everyone Bama just wasn’t going to be denied — of the haters:
“Honestly, if you’re not doing anything to stop us from being where we are, then I guess you’re just gonna be tired of us because that’s what we work hard for day in and day out — to win a championship and be the best,” he said. “So until we stop ourselves from accomplishing that, then I guess people are just gonna be mad that we’re winning once again.”
People like radio personality Colin Cowherd, who somehow complained after Alabama’s whitewashing of Michigan State to get to Clemson that the Tide’s dominance was bad for the sport, and that Alabama was boring.
What an incredibly shallow way of looking at what Alabama has done and will probably continue to do, providing Saban doesn’t jump ship.
Excellence can never, ever be boring.
Sure, it is OK for opposing fans to dislike this team, be jealous of this program, wonder when the Tide will give somebody else a chance at the throne.
But while you’re despising them, silently and secretly applaud them in your mind, because if you’re a real college football fan, a hardcore SEC guy or girl, you’ll surely be talking about them for the rest of your life.
As I was that night in Miami, marveling aloud as I mourned Notre Dame’s loss to end a Cinderella season, and the loss of my father, who would surely have leaned over and said, “Hey, don’t worry, this thing was over at the National Anthem.”
Rest assured, Bama will be in another championship steel-cage match soon. It might be next season. It might be the one after that. But you won’t be surprised when they’re there and, most likely, you won’t be shocked at all when they find another way to win another crown.