TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) -Mike Johnson still remembers his recruiting trip to Alabama, which came with a heavy emphasis on - who else? - the Bear.
He drove down Paul W. Bryant Drive. He walked around Bryant-Denny Stadium. He received a tour of the Bryant Museum, where they keep a replica of the late coach's office, all the championship trophies, the shiny rings - even a crystal duplicate of the Bear's famous houndstooth hat, twirling under glass with an imposing sign that says, ``Do No Touch.''
``It's pretty cool,'' said Johnson, who was a Florida State fan growing up in the Panhandle but now plays offensive line for the Crimson Tide. ``It's nice to be a part of that.''
But this isn't some musty tradition fit only for a museum. It's on the move again - evolving, growing, eager to carve its own niche at a school where Bryant still reigns supreme, more than a quarter-century after his death.
feted with a single-minded passion that can't be matched anywhere.
``Here in Alabama, we don't have any pro sports teams,'' said quarterback John Parker Wilson, whose mother was a Crimson Tide cheerleader. ``You either pull for Alabama or you pull for Auburn. It really draws the state together.''
Indeed, this sport provided immeasurable pride when Alabama - the state, not the team - was the scorn of the nation during the civil rights movement. Bull Connor may have pointed fire hoses at blacks for simply demanding the right to vote, but no one could deny that Bryant's all-white team was one of the nation's best, still fighting its own, more successful version of the Civil War.
When integration grudgingly came, Bryant started recruiting talented black athletes and kept right on winning, his teams hoarding five national titles and 13 Southeastern Conference titles by the time he retired after the 1982 season. He was stricken with a fatal heart attack exactly four weeks later, which only seemed to enhance his legend. Even today, on a campus where most of the student body wasn't even born when the Bear died, his presence is everywhere.
gs adorned with the checkered pattern.
But Saban, who had won a national championship with LSU, arrived at Alabama supremely confident he could take advantage of Bryant's footprint without stumbling over it. It helped to be following a string of coaches whose legacies ranged from scorn and betrayal to shame and embarrassment.
Mike DuBose and Mike Price were caught in scandals off the field; Price, in fact, was fired without ever coaching a game in Tuscaloosa. Dennis Franchione abandoned the Tide without bothering to say goodbye, while Mike Shula proved too inexperienced to handle the job.
``A lot of the things I was told about Alabama have not turned out to be so,'' Saban said. ``All the positive things have been very positive and some of the negative things haven't really been so.''
Asked for specifics, he pointed to the enormous expectations that anyone coming after the Bear must ultimately live up to. Ray Perkins thought it best to make a clean break, but he only angered the masses when he ripped down Bryant's famous coaching tower. Bill Curry tried to appease the Alabama faithful, even putting the tower back up, but he was always treated as an outsider because he hadn't played or coached under Bryant.
post-Bryant era in 1992.
Saban knows he, too, will largely be judged on wins and losses. He can live with that.
``Everybody says what a hard place it is to coach,'' Saban said. ``I don't see that at all. I appreciate the interest. It wouldn't be a very good thing if there weren't expectations, as long as they're realistic.''
While Curry stirred up such ire in Tuscaloosa that someone reportedly threw a brick at his office window, he has no ill will toward the school he coached from 1986-89, winning a share of the SEC title his final season.
In fact, he's still amazed at just how far tradition and expectations can carry a program.
``You can take an ordinary player, put that crimson shirt on him Saturday afternoon, and the son of a gun turns into Superman,'' said Curry, who now coaches Georgia State's fledgling program. ``Kids play beyond themselves. You never have to motivate the guys. They expect to win when they come to Alabama.''
Saban recognized that when he was lured away from the NFL's Miami Dolphins by the richest contact ever given a college football coach. The Crimson Tide brand has been immortalized in everything from song (Steely Dan's ``Deacon Blues'') to the big screen (the 1990s submarine movie starring Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman).
the most recognized names in sports.''
He got a taste of just how important football is to these folks at his very first spring game, a glorified scrimmage played before some 92,000 fans. Expectations soared off the chart when Alabama won six of its first eight games in his debut season.
But a 41-34 loss to LSU, Saban's former school, sent the Crimson Tide into a four-game swoon at the end of the regular season. The slump included an embarrassing home loss to Louisiana-Monroe and another bitter defeat to Auburn, which has won six straight over its state rival.
Someone without Saban's gravitas surely would have faced swift, immediate criticism. But he's got the longest leash of anyone since Bryant, allowing him to press ahead without distraction. He had another huge recruiting year, leaving Auburn in the dust, and started Year 2 with a dominating win over Clemson. Alabama then routed Georgia, the preseason No. 1, after building a 31-0 lead at halftime.
When Texas lost last weekend, Alabama (9-0) moved up to No. 1 for the first time since finishing that way after the '92 season. The Tide will play its first game in a long while as a top-ranked team when Saban returns to Baton Rouge on Saturday for what figures to be another highly emotional game against his former employer.
candidate for president - more than 300 people signed up. Jared Shepard, who plays guitar in the ``Million Dollar Band,'' has a ``Saban-Palin '08'' sticker on his instrument.
``We knew from the start we were going to have a great team,'' Shepard said. ``He really put the spark back in Alabama fans.''
Saban also propped up a state that counts on football to make up for its shortcomings in other areas, everything from poor education scores to high poverty rates.
``People look down on Alabama as the lowest-ranked state in everything,'' Shepard said. ``But in football, we're No. 1 right now. That's making the whole state look really good.''

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