At the University of Alabama bookstore, Nick Saban quickly grabbed a spot right alongside the Bear.
For every rack selling the snappy houndstooth hats that Paul W. ``Bear'' Bryant made famous while winning all those national championships, there's one right next to it hawking the floppy straw hats that Saban prefers when barking orders at practice on a sweltering summer day.
Along the wall, a buyer can choose from two banners - one embroidered with Bryant's motto (``I ain't never been nothing but a winner''), the other sampling one of Saban's more verbose witticisms (``What I would like for every football team to do that we play is to sit there and say I hate playing against these guys.'').
To fashionistas and wordsmiths, the Bear still rules. Then again, the Bear never attracted more than 92,000 fans to a practice game.
When receiver Keith Brown ran through the tunnel at Bryant-Denny Stadium on A-Day, he was expecting a hefty turnout for the traditional intrasquad scrimmage that signals the end of spring practice. The first estimate he heard was 50,000. Then 60,000. Then 70,000.
Sometime early in the second quarter of a game that didn't count, Brown started looking around. Every seat was filled, and others had to be turned away.
``I was like, 'Woooooow. This is awesome,''' Brown recalled. ``I didn't think it would turn out like that.''
Porter Reaves waited in line for nearly an hour to claim a spot in the upper deck that towers over the west side of the stadium. Once all those seats were filled, they opened up the matching deck on the opposite side.
Again, all for a game that would never show up in any standings.
``I literally watched the other deck fill up right in front of my eyes,'' said Reaves, a political science major from Montgomery who just began his senior year at Alabama. ``It was pretty cool to see that.''
If Saban was still coming to grips with just how passionate these folks are about their college football, he certainly got the message on that April day.
``I was a little surprised,'' Saban conceded. ``It was heartfelt though. I really appreciated it.''
He calls it ``Crimson Karma'' - a mantra he stole from his wife. Whoever came up with the term, it's clear Saban has landed right in the middle of a football-crazed state that is longing for the stability and confidence and swagger that's been missing for much of the past quarter-century.
Bryant retired after the 1982 season, having won five Associated Press national titles in 25 years as the Alabama coach. In the 25 years since, the Crimson Tide has gone through nine head coaches, one of them (Joe Kines) filling in for a single game after Mike Shula was fired last year, another (Mike Price) didn't even make it to his first game after a drunken trip to the Gulf Coast.
Now comes Saban, lured back to school after two unsatisfactory seasons with the NFL's Miami Dolphins. In his last college job, he led LSU to a pair of Southeastern Conference titles and a share of the national title in 2003.
At Alabama, they're expecting the same sort of results.
The sooner, the better.
``We want to be back there at the top,'' said NFL Hall of Famer and Alabama alumnus Bart Starr, ``and we have the leader who can take us there.''
No one can truly understand what college football means to this state unless they're born and raised here. Imagine Yankees vs. Red Sox - without any distractions, such as the NFL, getting in the way.
``There's football season and spring practice,'' said Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson, a native of suburban Birmingham whose mother was a Crimson Tide cheerleader in the 1970s. ``Those are the two seasons.''
Right out of womb, you're forced to pick sides: Alabama or Auburn. Then you spend the rest of your life cheering for one school and wishing all sorts of misfortune on the other.
While neighboring states such as Georgia and Florida and Tennessee have divvied up their loyalties with all those pesky pro teams, there are no such diversions in Alabama. It's all college football, all the time.
Sure, there are other states, such as Mississippi and Arkansas, that can devote their full attention to the college game, but none has two schools with the tradition of Alabama and Auburn.
Both have won national titles. Both have gone through entire seasons without a loss. Both have made a habit of appearing in major bowls.
But, other than a superb seven-year run in which Bear protege Gene Stallings presided over the lone national title of the post-Bryant era, Alabama has shuffled through coaches with about the same regularity as J.K. Rowling churns out another ``Harry Potter'' book.
Price was dumped without ever signing a contract when reports of inappropriate behavior surfaced from a golf outing in Pensacola, Fla. Shula was hastily hired as Price's replacement, but he never grew into the role and pulled a Curry by failing to beat Auburn.
Now it's Saban's turn. The Crimson Tide feels as though it finally got one right.
``With all the other coaches, everybody hoped he would be the guy who could take them there,'' said Dan Sellers, sports editor of The Crimson White, the student newspaper. ``With Coach Saban, everybody knows he can do it. He's proven he can do it. Everybody knows it's just a matter of time.''
Saban didn't come cheaply, though he admittedly was eager to get back to the college game after struggling for two years with the Dolphins.
``Really, it didn't have anything to do with Miami,'' Saban insisted. ``It was more about college football, the love we (he and wife Terry) have for college football.''
He talked of being able to ``control the destiny'' of a program and affect the lives of his players, the sort of all-encompassing power he never got coaching multimillionaires in the pros.
One might get the impression that Saban is a bit of a control freak, and he wouldn't necessarily argue with that assessment. Most of the good ones are, and the Crimson Tide finally seems willing to turn over its fortunes to a benevolent dictator, someone who'll say to anyone who sticks their nose where it doesn't belong: It's my way or the highway.
``What it comes down to for me is: I'm 55 years old and I only have so many years left to do this,'' Saban said. ``You've got to choose where you'd rather do it. Where would you be the happiest? We just felt that we would be happier in a program like this.''
The Crimson Tide set a new standard for college coaching salaries by forking over an eight-year, $32 million contract to lure Saban away from the NFL.
At least one state lawmaker questioned the message being sent by paying so much for a football coach in a state that has one of the nation's lowest-funded, worst-rated education systems.
Finis St. John, who serves on the Alabama board of trustees, points out that Saban is paid out of athletic department funds - not from the general university budget. Besides, Saban's hiring is already benefiting other aspects of campus life.
``If he is able to be successful, it's going to mean a lot to a lot of people,'' St. John said. ``It's important not only to the university, but important to the state. His impact on the university has been overwhelmingly positive.''
The school had a record number of applications. The freshman class is expected to be more than 4,500 strong, the largest ever. Construction projects are breaking out all over campus.
``All that works together,'' St. John said. Alabama is pushing forward with ``a program to attract the brightest students and grow the student body and push forward in an effort to maintain excellence in all phases. This is just part of it.''
Saban's arrival in Tuscaloosa sent expectations soaring off the charts, so it's easy to forget that Alabama is coming off a 6-7 season and managed just two wins in the SEC a year ago. The offense ranked near the bottom of the conference, while the defense must replace six starters.
No matter how good this new coach is, he's not likely to win a national title his first year.
``That's unrealistic,'' said Brown, who had 44 catches last season. ``But Saban, he's a great coach, man. I'm pretty sure he's going to recruit some guys and have this offense and defense rolling one of these years. I don't know when, but it's possible that somewhere in our future this team will win a national championship.''
Saban is off to a great start in recruiting, having landed 16 commitments for next year's class. Twelve are from within the state, while nine are considered top-of-the-line prospects. Just as significant: Auburn has landed only eight commitments, none of them on par with the Tide's top recruits.
Of course, there have also been a few bumps.
Since Saban took over, four players have been arrested in an off-campus bar district known as ``The Strip,'' including defensive leader Simeon Castille on a disorderly conduct charge last weekend.
But the arrests are just a minor annoyance in a state that is riding the giddy tide of Crimson Karma.
``I've never seen students this excited about a football season,'' said Reaves, the senior from Montgomery. ``Every student wants a ticket, but there's only so many to go around. ... Even the professors are talking about it in class.
``I wish I was a freshman right now.''
by: Anthony White - theSpread.com - Email Us
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