In January 1997, outgoing Alabama head coach Gene Stallings handed the reins of the Crimson Tide football program to untested but then-popular assistant Mike Dubose. While the program was under NCAA sanctions for impermissible benefits, impermissible agent contact and lack of institutional control, most felt Alabama would suffer a season or two of retooling and be right back in the thick of the yearly title chase.
Over the next ten years, Alabama had three 10-win seasons: 1999, 2002, and 2005. They earned one SEC Championship (1999). In addition to Dubose, the program saw a parade of four head coaches with Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula all taking turns trying to get the Bama train back on the tracks. Franchione fled to Texas A&M after the 2002 season. Mike Price replaced him but never coached a down after a weekend gone awry in a northwest Florida strip club. Mike Shula dove in and came up for air once in four seasons with a 10-win campaign in 2005. The painful, 10-year span between 1997 and 2007 included three losing seasons in which Alabama failed to win five games. They went 4-7 in 1997, 3-8 in 2000 and 4-9 in 2003. The most disgusting exclamation points to disappointing seasons came by watching Auburn fans finally learn how to count. One… Two… Three… SIX!
Many reasonable observers concluded that Alabama’s glory days were over and that it was just another middling member of an increasingly competitive Southeastern Conference.
Indeed, when Shula was dismissed after the 2006 season and Alabama was in the midst of a nearly two-month coaching search, some self-appointed experts tried to convince the Bama Nation that the best they could hope for was stealing a coach from a mid-major team or hiring another untested but popular assistant. There’s no sense in naming names and quoting quotes. Those people know who they are and they know what they wrote and what they said. Water under the bridge, and all, but a lot of these knuckleheads were secretly satisfied that the conference’s alpha wolf looked old, beaten and ready to be finished off.
Athletic Director Mal Moore proved a skeptical nation wrong when he introduced Nick Saban at his first press conference as Alabama Head Football Coach five years and one day ago. When Nick Saban stepped off that airplane; when he walked through that door and stood at that podium, everything changed.
Apologies for rehashing that painful decade preceding that day in January 2007. It had to be done because in the five years since that turning point, Saban has made most Alabama fans forget that time spent wandering in the darkness. In five years, Alabama has had four 10-win seasons. They’ve had two undefeated regular seasons. Two BCS Bowl appearances. Two SEC Championship Game appearances. One more SEC Championship, one National Championship and the opportunity to play for its second in two years. Numerous players named as finalists for and receiving individual awards, including the school’s first ever Heisman Trophy winner in Mark Ingram and a trip to New York as a finalist for Trent Richardson.
The lifeblood of college football success is recruiting, and Saban has that heartbeat steadier and more powerful than ever before. Regardless of which of the last top-drawer prospects Alabama lands on National Signing Day next month, many recruiting analysts are speculating that this may be the best class in program history, topping even the 2008 class Saban hauled in after only one full year on the recruiting trail.
Win or lose in the BCS Championship Game Monday night, there isn’t one reasonable observer who couldn’t conclude that the Alabama football program is exactly where it wants to be. National and conference rivals’ snickering and whispering stopped in January 2007. Sometime during the 2008 season, the surprise turned to concern as Alabama reeled off 12 wins in a row. It turned to abject terror in 2009 and except for a small handful of other “big boys” in the league and around the nation the sense is that it is they whose glory days are gone; that they are the ones who have been passed by. They’d really like to cling to that decade of darkness, but…
The Bama Nation has forgotten it.