When I was a kid, Alabama football was a national power. Bear Bryant, in his lion-in-winter phase, won back to back national championships in 1978 and 1979 (and should arguably have had another in 1977). Bama meant success. Crimson Tide football was the air I breathed and the ground I walked on until Bear Bryant came on TV at the end of the 1982 season and said that it was time for him to hang it up. A month later, he was dead.
Nick Saban arrived at Alabama in the spring of 2007 on an absurd-for-the-time contract, something like 8 years at $4 million per, and the absolute confidence of the Tide faithful that THIS was their guaranteed ticket back to the big time. Which…well, I don’t think even the most irrational Finebaum caller would have predicted how things would end. Five national championships. Two Heisman trophy winners after over a century with none at all. The Bear’s teams were a national power; Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide is THE national power. Clemson and Ohio State and others get their licks in, for sure, but right now, Alabama is the Death Star of college football. They are the rake, they are the dealer, they are the moral equivalent of rooting for the house.
In between was a long strange quarter-century that accounted for the majority of my life and the vast majority of my Alabama fandom. That was the Alabama I grew to adulthood on – a team that could go 5-6 in 1984 but somehow it was okay because they upset Auburn. A team whose coach could win 10 games and then decide to decamp to the University of Kentucky. A team that won the same number of national titles between 1982 and 2007 as BYU, as Georgia Tech, as Washington or Colorado or Tennessee. Basically, a long stretch in which Alabama football had the memory of great past success and tradition to buoy what was, at root, a generally mediocre bog-standard state university football program. Usually won enough games for a bowl, occasionally won double-digits and got a conference title or otherwise fell into a January bowl named after a commodity rather than a sponsor. Occasionally slipped and fell hard. Made some dubious decisions on coaching, many of them of a piece – hiring Mike Dubose because Gene Stallings wanted to choose his successor, then hiring Franchione when Dubose’s position became untenable, then hiring Mike Price when Franchione sold out in a hurry, then desperately grabbing Mike Shula when Price became morally untenable, then finally shooting a gigantic money cannon at Nick Saban.
I was a pretty damn devout Alabama fan (even if I didn’t much understand football) from the time I can remember football up until I got to Vanderbilt. At which point I had a football team of my own to be mildly interested in, and Vanderbilt had rattled off three 5 win seasons out of four and was primed for the come-up…until LSU hired the coach away and Vandy hired the offensive coordinator of my beloved Redskins and ruined both squads in the process. And then I was living in DC, and the NFL took most of my interest for pigskin, and while I was still aware of Alabama football (and blissfully unaware of Vanderbilt), it just wasn’t a big deal unless it was Tennessee or Auburn week. And I wasn’t in the South any longer. And then, I met a girl with her own Cal season tickets, and they were on the way up, and pretty soon that was the dominant football interest for a long time. And when Cal ran on the rocks, Vanderbilt suddenly became pretty damn good – incredibly good, by its standards – and that absorbed me completely.
And then it ended, and the wheel stopped spinning, and Vanderbilt and Cal were a mess and the NFL was reprehensible and Alabama…well, Alabama had changed, hadn’t it? It was as if you rubbed the lamp and the genie gave you everything you could have wanted. The first victory over Texas, in the Rose Bowl stadium, to cap a 14-0 season with the Tide’s first Heisman trophy winner? It was like something out of a dream. Nobody had any notion there would be four more national titles in the next eight seasons, a pace not even the Bear ever managed. And somewhere in there, Alabama football had become joyless. Maybe it was the distance, maybe it was the time, but the kinds of fans we quietly derided behind their backs as lunatics had become the archetypal Tide fan. Sports talk radio and social media had made the hype all-consuming. Obsession was the default mode. And for all that, actually watching the team was joyless. If you won a national championship, it was what was expected. If you lost unexpectedly to Ole Miss or something, it was the end of the world. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt rent its garments and went insane with rage because a coach left after averaging a record of 8-5 over three years – numbers that would almost certainly show Nick Saban the door.
The question for me becomes – did Alabama football really change, or did I just become more aware of it? Were things this nuts in Bear’s era, with no ESPN or Twitter or recruiting rankings or sports radio, or is it just easier to see now? And to come back to Alabama now feels like being one of those new soccer fans who runs right out and signs up to support a Manchester team, or like the legion of bandwagon Golden State Warriors fans. Maybe you don’t feel the connection any more when there’s no connection there. I don’t know that I could be an Alabama football fan now even if I’d actually gone to Alabama…which was a lot closer to happening than some people may remember or realize.