Alabama wins in two words: The Bear. He could take his’n and beat your’n, and he could take your’n and beat his’n. In Alabama, they wear houndstooth because The Bear wore houndstooth, and they eat Golden Flake chips because The Bear ate Golden Flake on his TV show. They visit his statue outside Bryant-Denny Stadium the way pilgrims visit Jerusalem. Before every home game, Alabama plays a video to get the crowd fired up, and at the end The Bear mumble-rumbles I ain’t never been nothing but a winner, and grown people weep when they hear the words, because The Bear made them winners, too.
Roll Damn Tide.
The history runs even deeper. Alabama won its first national title in 1925, beating Washington in the Rose Bowl behind two touchdowns from Johnny Mack Brown, who has to be in here just for his nickname: the Dothan Antelope. This was back when Army and the Ivy League dominated college football, and the rest of the country looked down on the South as nothing but rednecks and rickets. Alabama football meant the South was good at something. That mattered then, and it matters now, especially in Alabama. It’s a beautiful place with fine people, but it has no professional teams, no huge cities, no major tourist attractions. Its identity begins with football. This is why Alabama-Auburn is the fiercest rivalry in sports. They aren’t just fighting for bragging rights, they’re fighting for the state’s very soul. And the tough thing for Auburn is, the best they can do is borrow. Alabama owns it.
Most Alabamians can modulate their passion, but every so often somebody breaks off the knob. In the 1954 Cotton Bowl, Tommy Lewis jumped off the Bama bench to tackle a Rice running back who had broken free down the sideline. Two years ago, Harvey Updyke went on the radio and announced that he had poisoned Toomer’s Oaks at Auburn. When asked why he’d done it, Updyke gave the same answer Tommy Lewis had given 50-some years before. He was just too full of Bama.
An illegal tackle doesn’t equal poisoned trees, and Harvey Updyke doesn’t represent the normal Tide fan. But in Alabama, the hashmarks for “normal fan” are set a little wider. Many a home from Huntsville to Mobile features the artwork of Daniel Moore, whose paintings of great moments in Bama football history will get a fan choked up about as quick as hearing The Bear’s voice. Moore and the university have gotten sideways with each other, but it’s useful to think about Alabama football as a brutal art. Those uniforms, simple and bold. Red and white. Blood and bone.
If you prefer Sunday football, you’re basically watching Alabama grad school. Bart Starr and Joe Namath won the first three Super Bowls. John Hannah, Ozzie Newsome, Ken Stabler, Derrick Thomas, Shaun Alexander – perhaps you’ve heard of them. Four Alabama players were taken in the first round of the 2011 draft. Four more were taken in the first round in 2012.
And yet here the Tide is, No. 1 again.
It’s not destiny. In fact, not that long ago Alabama went through a decade-long slump – losing records, probation, and a series of mediocre coaches (not counting Mike Price, who self-ejected before ever coaching a game). But Nick Saban arrived in 2007 and yanked the Tide out of the muck. Alabama has won two of the past three national titles – numbers 13 and 14 by their count, although others, including the NCAA, beg to differ. Either way, it’s more than you got.
Alabama wins under Saban the same way it won under The Bear: The defense wears you down, and the running game plows you under. (I believe it was Auburn historian Wayne Flynt who put forth a theory about why the state’s teams are so stout on defense: Alabama has always been good at resisting progress.) All over the country, other teams are running spreads and Air Raids and no-huddles and other stuff that led Saban to say, “Is this what we want football to be?” Alabama’s schemes aren’t as simple now as when The Bear ran the wishbone. But they’re not complicated. They’re just executed by five-star players with five-star coaching. Alabama rose up on the backs of farmers, and mill workers, and people pulling the graveyard shift at the factory. They are people who admire simple hard work done well. Even if Saban gets more than $5 million a year for doing it.
This year’s national title might have been decided last Saturday, in fearsome Baton Rouge. LSU led 17-14 in the fourth quarter, and the Tiger fans smelled revenge for last year’s whipping in the title game. Alabama got the ball with 1:34 left at its own 28. The running team had to pass now. A.J. McCarron to Kevin Norwood, three straight times for 44 yards. One incompletion. Then the perfect call against an LSU blitz: a screen to running back T.J. Yeldon, just a freshman. One missed tackle, one little fake, and it was over.
I mentioned the other day that the postgame was my favorite moment in sports so far this year. Part of why it’s powerful is the relief on the faces of the coach and the quarterback. Football matters to them, deeply. But they also know how much it matters to Alabama. If it didn’t matter that much, neither one would be there.
Every game, the Crimson Tide shoulders the weight of all that history and passion. Over the years, they have pounded the burden into a weapon. Too late to put it down now. Might as well be nothing but a winner.