TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Four bronze, larger-than-life statues look over Bryant-Denny Stadium’s front lawn, one for each man to win a national championship here.
From right to left, the statues stand chronologically: Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings. To the left of Stallings, there’s a lonely pedestal of grass, reserved for the next immortal.
It’s been considered that Nick Saban, who has Alabama at the head of the Bowl Championship Series title chase, could be the missing link.
“After we beat Georgia,” said David Jones, owner of the Alabama Express gift shop right off campus, “somebody actually went out there and put a mock statue of him in that spot.”
Such is the buzz absorbing Tuscaloosa these days. Sooner than anyone could have expected, Saban has awakened the 8,000-pound, crimson-clad elephant in the room.
Alabama football sleeps no more.
When the Crimson Tide face No. 15 LSU on Saturday afternoon in Tiger Stadium, it will take the field with a No. 1 ranking attached to its name for the first time since 1980, a year after Bryant won back-to-back national titles. It is the first time Alabama has had the ranking, period, since Stallings bronzed his status with a victory over Miami in the Sugar Bowl, following the 1992 season.
By beating the Tigers, the Tide can clinch a trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game. Alabama hasn’t done that since 1999, four coaches ago.
“Bama fans don’t really know what to do with ourselves right now,” said Jeremy Tuggle, a 2004 graduate from Birmingham. “We really thought it would be one or two more years before we were having these conversations.”
Saban, 57, might be the most popular man in town these days. Or it might be Mal Moore, the man who hired him.
One of the two.
It has been only 22 months, after all, since Moore, the Alabama athletic director, shocked football circles — NFL and college alike — by luring Saban from the Miami Dolphins, rushing him home on a private jet and introducing him as Alabama’s next coach at a news conference.
Across the nation, Saban was ripped for leaving Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga in a lurch. For investing only two years in Miami, then bolting. For famously announcing “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach” at a Dolphins news conference, only to reverse field.
Tuscaloosa never cared.
When Moore and Saban touched down, houndstooth-adorned fans — from the boosters to the coeds — rolled out the crimson carpet.
“You hear people talk about the Saban effect,” said Jones, who recalls Jan. 3, 2007, as a landmark day for sales. “I’ve thanked Mal Moore several times.”
Saban’s arrival was the big splash Bama craved. It promised the SEC’s most storied program a chance to end years of hit-and-miss and regain its traditional place as a consistent national player.
That’s what Moore wanted when he cast a line into the water after firing Mike Shula, like Moore a former Bama quarterback. For all the high marks he’d earned after directing a $125-million effort to enhance Alabama’s facilities, the A.D. knew he had to get this right.
Money wasn’t an issue. Neither was taking chances.
“I knew I wanted a proven coach who’d won a championship,” Moore said. “But I didn’t know that coach Saban was a real option for us. I’d only heard from different people that he might want back in the college game. When I flew down there, I didn’t even know if he’d talk to me.”
Moore left Tuscaloosa for south Florida the weekend of Miami’s final game, in Indianapolis. He returned a few days later with Saban, who had agreed to an eight-year, $32 million contract.
“I think it was a relief as much as anything,” said Kirk McNair, founder and editor of Bama Magazine. “Everybody was scared that Alabama wasn’t going to be able to get a (top-quality) coach.”
The one they got was one they knew. Saban, after all, had coached SEC West rival LSU to two conference titles and one national championship in five years.
He could do it here, too, couldn’t he?
The Tide had rolled through five coaches since Bryant retired after the 1982 season. Stallings, the third try, had been the only one worthy of a statue.
This would be different, Bama fans believed.
When the Saban story broke, its impact in Tuscaloosa could be measured in several ways, Web activity among them. McNair watched Bama Magazine’s message boards explode after he posted the news.
“It went berserk,” McNair said. “I’ve never seen the forums do anything like that.”Turning the Tide
Saban doesn’t seem to have changed much. He’s still not one to break out an oxford shirt or coat and tie very often. He’s still driven and competitive. He’s still impatient, for the most part, with anything — media functions included — that cuts into his time on the practice field or film room.
And his formula remains the same.
If you put this Alabama team in gold helmets and white jerseys, replaced its mascot with a live Bengal tiger and changed the lyrics of its fight song, you’d swear it was 2003 all over again. Saban has rebuilt in Tuscaloosa just as he did in Baton Rouge, carrying the same kit of tools.
He’s winning with defense. Solid, steady quarterback play. Preparation and discipline. He’s winning with the kind of team made for the long haul.
“It reminds us of a certain other coach,” said Ken Gaddy, director of the Bryant Museum, on the Alabama campus. “It’s what people think is Southern football.”
In other words, Bama isn’t flashy.Not yet.
Bama’s most recent recruiting class, however, was the best in the nation, according to Rivals.com, Scout.com and other recruiting services. It included the likes of Julio Jones, a tall, athletic receiver who has caught 33 passes and started every game as a freshman.“People know he’s stocking the pantry,” McNair said of Saban, who recruited equally well at LSU, where he landed a consensus Top 5 class three times, in ’01, ’03 and ’04.
The most encouraging thing — or, if you’re a Bama rival, discouraging thing — about this 9-0 start? The Tide has only nine scholarship seniors, a sign that more of the same could await.
Saban won the SEC championship in Year 2 at LSU, but that team’s best ranking was No. 7, reached after a victory over Illinois in the Sugar Bowl. He didn’t have the Tigers in the national championship conversation until Year 4, a season that ended with LSU winning the BCS title.
Who knows where November will take Alabama? But it seems a lock the Tide will enter Year 3 under Saban ahead of schedule.
“Right now,” said Tuggle, the Bama grad from Birmingham, “we’re playing with house money.”Feeding the monsterSaban may not have a statue in front of the football stadium. But like every other man who has coached a game at Alabama since Bryant’s retirement, he does have an exhibit at the Bear Bryant Museum.
For now, the Saban display, located an option toss from the gift shop, is fairly unspectacular. It features a couple of magazine covers, a football commemorating the coach’s 100th career victory (registered against Tulane in September), last year’s Independence Bowl trophy and a highlight video accompanied by “Sweet Home Alabama” music.
But Kathleen Page, a lifelong Tide fan, figures the exhibit will need a remake soon. Her excitement is evident, from the ring tone on her cell phone (Yeah Alabama, by the Million Dollar Band) to her Tide handbag. She is too caught up in the unbeaten start to ponder star-studded recruiting classes.
“It’s been a long time coming,” the 44-year-old said, as she scanned old newspaper articles, bowl-game programs and game-worn equipment inside the museum. “And I really think this is the year we’re going to take it all the way.”
Every team in the SEC has passionate, impatient fans, to be sure. But nowhere else has a scrimmage drawn 92,000 fans, as Saban’s first spring game did.
“Coach Saban has preached to us about not getting too far ahead of ourselves,” said Gaddy, who has 12 team portraits on the wall in his office at the museum, one for every recognized national champion. “But the goal, long-term, come January, is to be No. 1 at the end of the season.”
And yes, to provide some company for Wade, Thomas, Bryant and Stallings. To put another Tide coach on that kind of pedestal.