Bama tradition didn’t start or end with Bryant

By Hunter Ford

Last week, sports talk radio in Birmingham took up a topic close to my heart- the tradition of University of Alabama football. Well, sort of. What happened was that the “Bald Smirky One” went fishing for some controversy.

Paul Finebaum, in one of his columns, pondered a question, “Is Nick Saban bigger than Bear Bryant?”

In past years, this subject would have been like John Lennon saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Bryant is an icon to Alabama fans in particular and college football fans in general; he is to Alabama football what Robert E. Lee is to the South, what Elvis is to music fans and what John Wayne is to Hollywood. Here in the year 2008, however, the topic was not that big a deal. Many Alabama fans actually conceded that it was time to let Bear Bryant’s memory be just that- a sepia toned snapshot of good times gone by, always warmly remembered but not overpowering the present.

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It’s funny that many Auburn fans get their Under Armour all in a wad anytime Bryant is mentioned. I don’t blame them. Bryant beat Auburn 19 times in 25 years, including nine in a row from 1973-1981. It must have sucked to have been an Auburn fan during those Crimson years.

None of the current Alabama players were even alive when Bear Bryant coached at Alabama. Few of them have any clue as to how life was during that time, and I would guess none of the players decided to play for Alabama because of the legacy of Bear Bryant. The past two recruiting classes have come to Alabama to play for Saban, a guy who has two SEC championships, one national championship and an NFL stint on his resume.

What seemed left out of the debate about Bryant and Saban’s respective hold on Alabama consciousness is the overall tradition of Alabama football.

Alabama football tradition didn’t start or stop with Bear Bryant. Alabama football began in the late 19th Century and began to excel in the early 20th Century. When Alabama football started, Civil War veterans were still alive. Reconstruction was still fresh in the minds of southern folk. When the Crimson Tide whipped up on some Yankee schools early on, the Tide became a symbol of regional pride.

Much like Saban, Bryant was hired to bring back what was already an established championship tradition. In the late 1950s Alabama, the same school that boasted Rose Bowl appearances and national championships and legendary coaches Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas, had fallen on hard times. The Tide won a handful of games in three seasons before The Bear’s arrival. He immediately made them respectable again, and in four years he won a national championship. When Bryant won championships in the Civil Rights era, it once again gave Alabamians and Southerners something to be proud of amidst adverse circumstances.

Times are much different now. Saban is not in the same historical position as the first Alabama coaches in the early 1900s or as Bryant in the 50s and 60s.

But Saban has the chance to do what Bryant did. He can cement himself in the tradition of Alabama football by competing for championships in the next couple of seasons and by WINNING championships thereafter. That has always been expected of Alabama coaches BEFORE and AFTER Bear Bryant, and it will continue to be expected of coaches at Alabama long after Saban has gone.

“No one can help but be aware of the rich tradition that is associated with this team and this University. Tradition is a burden in many ways. To have a tradition like ours means that you can’t lose your cool; to have tradition like ours means you always have to show class, even when you are not quite up to it; to have tradition like ours means that you have to do some things that you don’t want to do and some you even think you can’t do, simply because tradition demands it of you. On the other hand, tradition is that which allows us to prevail in ways that we could not otherwise.”- Former Alabama President David Mathews

You can read more from Hunter Ford at his blog Alagonzo.blogspot.com. Ford’s columns also appear in Bessemer’s Western Star newspaper.