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By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 8, 2013
As media pundits across the country – not to mention a few of Notre Dame’s own players – tried to figure out exactly where it all went wrong, Alabama fans Monday night were in the throes of yet another championship celebration, equally oblivious to the historic ramifications of what had transpired in Miami.
At some point in the next few weeks, after the confetti has been cleared from Sun Life Stadium and the mainstream media’s focus finally diverts from its much-preferred Notre Dame, the question will be asked whether this is the greatest era in Alabama football history.
That such a question would be asked in the first place should be a sign of just how significant Alabama’s program under Nick Saban has become.
There are currently 124 teams in what is officially known now as the Football Bowl Subdivision, but what many people still call Division-IA. College football began play in the mid-1800s, with the first national championship awarded in 1869 to two teams, Rutgers and Princeton. Both teams finished with records of 1-1. It seems controversy as to who the “real” champion of football was goes all the way back to the first year titles were handed out.
It wasn’t until 1884 that a championship-winning team finally played a 10-game schedule, as 9-0-1 Princeton split the title that year with Yale, which played only nine games. But the first time a non-Ivy League school won a title – aside from Rutgers sharing the very first one – was in 1901, when Michigan won its first of four straight titles. None was unanimous; Michigan shared the title with at least one other team each year.
That means college national championships have been awarded for 121 years, post-Ivy League era. If a different team was given a title each year, at least three teams in the present-day Division-IA still wouldn’t have had their turns yet.
Meanwhile, Alabama just locked down title No. 15.
Alabama has been a fixture in every era. The Crimson Tide won four titles in the pre-poll era, meaning before 1936. It won another eight titles in the poll era, which is technically still in force but for the most part went out with the advent of the BCS in 1998. Since the BCS came into being, Alabama has won three more titles.
Nick Saban is the third Alabama to coach to win multiple titles at the school, along with Paul Bryant and Wallace Wade. Wade also won three; Bryant won six.
And we’re led to believe the current era may be the best in Alabama history?
In a word … yes.
Thanks to NCAA-enforced parity in the form of scholarship limitations, practice time constraints and a recruiting oversight system that has all the subtlety of a brass band comprised of wild monkeys, establishing a dynasty in college football these days is so difficult that any talk of it up to this point has been met with laughter and derision.
Not anymore. It’s here.
It matters not what comes after this; apparently, the national media has deemed three titles in four years to be the official qualifying criteria for use of the word. Under those restrictions, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Alabama are the only three teams to pull off the trick since the poll era came into being and consolidated the selection process. Alabama punched its ticket by punching out the Fighting Irish in Miami.
But to be considered the best ever at Alabama, there’s a gravel-voiced mountain wearing a houndstooth fedora that one must climb. Its name is Mt. Bryant, and over a 25-year run in Tuscaloosa, it produced six national titles, dominated two full decades of football in the SEC and led to so much rewriting of the rulebook that the NCAA ought to call its annual football rules conference the “Paul Bryant Career Appreciation Week.”
But Bryant never won three titles over four years. Saban? Check.
Alabama never beat Texas under Bryant. Check.
Alabama never beat Notre Dame under Bryant. Check once more.
What Nick Saban has done is not only rival Bryant in terms of his effect on the political landscape of the sport – there’s a recruiting restriction now colloquially referred to as “the Saban Rule” – but in the process, he’s exorcised a couple of Bryant’s old demons, namely the Longhorns of Texas and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. In championship games, even.
What Bryant still has over Saban – and will have, lest Saban decide he wants to coach into his 80s – is longevity. It is expected that Saban will finish his coaching career in Tuscaloosa, either in a few years or in many years. Alabama’s rivals are praying for the former and not the latter.
If Saban splits the difference and picks a nice number in the 70s somewhere to hang it up, what might he yet accomplish in Tuscaloosa? Recruiting once again leads the nation. Most of the 2012 championship team returns in 2013. And then there is the ultimate carrot, the thing that eluded Bryant twice in his career – thanks in part, both times, to Notre Dame – a three-peat of national titles. It simply hasn’t been done, at least not since the days when the Ivy League was the happening place in college athletics.
For those who were born later in Bryant’s run at the Capstone, or in the years after he left, Paul Bryant was somewhat of a Santa Claus character thanks to our parents and grandparents. He came to Alabama when it was hurting, delivered championships (presents) to all the good little Alabama fans, then left before we were old enough to consciously take part in it.
Most of us grew up afraid that we’d missed out. Instead of a classic Cadillac or a ’57 Chevy with big fins, we’d been handed the keys to a Dodge Aries with bad brakes. We certainly never felt we’d see such an era spring forth again.
Yet, here it is. And it has come so quickly, so completely that it is almost artificial. Nick Saban has turned Alabama football into something from a video game, where the kids figure out the cheat codes, win all the titles and never lose to the computer. The only concern in the face of all these championships is that they won’t be fully appreciated until Alabama is two or three coaches downstream from Saban.
But there are teams and fan bases that will never know this feeling. It’s a good bet your grandkids’ grandkids may never see, for example, a New Mexico State national championship. There are even some SEC programs for which a title is, honestly, out of their reasonable reach.
What Alabama did in Miami was simply execute. Period. There was no magic to it, just good, solid execution, great coaching and a near-perfect gameplan on both sides of the ball.
And in the end, it was Alabama that woke up the echoes of two eras of its past, placing the 2009-2012 teams squarely in the discussion of the best Alabama teams ever.
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