Saban brought momentum back to Alabama

Nick Saban arrived in Alabama to coach the Crimson Tide surrounded by one thing he hated—expectations. Those expectations were stratospheric Wednesday, January 3, 2007, as fans waited on a private jet to land; that Wednesday at about 3:45 p.m., several hundred (note:1) or perhaps thousands of fans clad in Crimson and White surrounded the Tuscaloosa Airport to catch a glimpse of the new coach.

It resembled a game day atmosphere at the airport. And like a game day, libations were flowing early that day for at least one fan. Colette Connell was interviewed on television just moments before Saban’s arrival. She was shouting and celebrating the news. “Oh God, we love him!” she said. Then she screamed for the WBRC Fox 6 television camera, “We ballin’ baby. We ballin’!” (note:2)

The white jet airplane carrying Nick Saban from his uncomfortable tenure as head coach of the Miami Dolphins landed to cheers from fans clustered behind a fence around the airport. Mothers with their daughters, fathers with their sons were present. When Saban exited the plane, chants of Roll Tide and cheers of NICK! filled the air. He shook hands with the airport ground crew, and then the usually reclusive Saban, with a smile on his face, walked toward the waiting crowd. Saban wearing a gray suit was quickly surrounded by fans and the press. Police attempted to provide some order around the coach, but could not prevent a determined and intoxicated Colette Connell from reaching him. She reached out with her right arm and slipped it over Saban’s shoulder. In an instant she was pulling Saban toward her and reaching up toward him with her lips. The coach narrowly avoided a kiss right on the mouth, but Connell’s lips found the coach’s face. She then hugged him tightly until a uniformed law enforcement officer pulled her off the coach.

Unfortunately for Alabama fans, the image of Connell kissing Saban became the photograph of the day in newspapers around the state and the nation. Connell could be seen in an AP photograph published in several newspapers wearing a jersey with the number 96 on it, and the writing CRIMSON TIDE. That would not be the only photograph taken of Connell that afternoon. While leaving the airport, Connell was arrested for DUI and taken to the Tuscaloosa County Jail.(note:3) There she posed for a mugshot, which also gained popularity on the Internet.

The rest of the crowd at the airport eagerly attempted to shake hands or get an autograph of the new Crimson Tide coach. As Saban moved inside the terminal, more fans were waiting. The police created a path through the mass of people and press. Inside the building cheers of Roll Tide! Roll Tide! reverberated.

Saban exited the building to begin the land route of his triumphant entry into Alabama football. He would go by motorcade with police escort to the University. The coach was joined by his wife Terry, their daughter, a family friend and athletic director Mal Moore in a Crimson SUV. The motorcade contained five cars and six police motorcycles.(note:4) Along the route, a local sign company placed a welcome message on its electronic billboard. When Saban arrived on campus more fans were there to cheer, and more television cameras recorded the moment. (note:5)

Alabama athletic director Mal Moore released a statement that afternoon, but a formal introduction of the new coach would wait until the next day. The Alabama coaching search lasted 38 days, “the longest ever for the University.”(note:6) It was a tense period of uncertainty for the Crimson Tide faithful. Rumors and leaks characterized the early days of the Alabama coaching search. Names like Steve Spurrier were dropped, and one evening there were widespread reports that Spurrier would be the Alabama coach. Saban was thought to be Moore’s first choice, but a flirtation with West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez ended in disaster for Alabama when Rodriguez bailed at the last minute of negotiations with the university. His agent had already reached “an agreement in principle” (note:7) with Alabama by the time Rodriguez backed out.

When that happened, fans were shocked, outraged and embarrassed. Fans were critical on talk radio of athletic director Mal Moore. Privately, the search moved back to Saban; however, there were fewer leaks about the status of the Alabama coaching search.

The first contact between Saban’s agent and Alabama came following the Crimson Tide’s loss to Mississippi State.(note:8) However, there was chatter following Alabama’s late October loss to rival Tennessee that a change needed to be made in favor of Saban. Certain members of the Alabama family were concerned by the fourth quarter collapse to the Volunteers by Mike Shula’s team. Most members of the media were critical of the conversation about Shula’s future. In fact, newspapers in the state were reporting Mike Shula would likely return as Alabama’s coach for the 2007 season as the 2006 Iron Bowl arrived.(note:9) Shula was fired late on the night of November 26, a little more than a week following the Iron Bowl and the Tide’s sixth-straight loss to Auburn.

On January 4, Saban was presented at a press conference by Moore and other university officials. It was there when Moore revealed the key to luring the coach to Alabama—Terry Saban. When Moore introduced the Saban family, he declared Terry’s role, “I can state to you how important she was in the decision that was made by the coach. She loves college football and longed to be back in it. So does Coach Saban. But Terry Saban was the one that made me feel good when I called her.”(note:10) Another important player in Saban’s decision to take the Alabama job was former Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings. Following conversations with Mal Moore, Saban called Stallings to ask about the job. “He was very candid,” Saban said. “We had a great discussion. He obviously had a tremendous amount of success here, won the national championship. It was helpful to myself and Terry in making this decision.” (note:11)

The excitement would not die that winter for Alabama fans. Saban salvaged a respecta-ble recruiting class despite being short on time. According to the Rivals recruiting service, the Crimson Tide’s 2007 recruiting class was one of the top 10 in the nation.(note:12) The Crimson Tide entered Spring Practice with hopes for a turnaround with a tougher mindset and a leader in the role of head coach. When the spring ended, over 92,000 fans turned out for the annual A-Day game. The capacity crowd drew praise from Saban, but drew scorn from the national media. The undeniable result of Alabama’s 2007 A-Day was to launch a new arms race in college football. The next year, ESPN broadcast Florida’s spring game. Alabama’s spring game and Georgia’s spring game were broadcast in 2009. Teams throughout the country saw the positive recruiting buzz generated by Alabama’s 2007 spring game, and wanted to generate their own recruiting momentum. Expectations were waiting on Nick Saban when he arrived to coach the Alabama Crimson Tide, but he brought momentum to the Capstone.

Notes: 1. Newspapers reported different numbers for the crowd at the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport. The Tuscaloosa News reported about 300, while Gannett’s Montgomery Advertiser reported “over 500.” The Anniston Star offered a more generic report of “hundreds of fans.” According to the Birmingham News, there were hundreds of fans inside the airport, and “more than 100 fans” were locked outside the airport about an hour before the plane landed. Rapoport later said 5,000 fans were at the airport (http://www.patspulpit.com/2009/7/20/955229/exclusive-pats-pulpit-interviews)
2. Many of the videos of Connell are memorialized on YouTube to the chagrin of Alabama fans.
3. Adam Jones. “Saban welcomed by hundreds of Tide fans”. The Tuscaloosa News. 4 January, 2007.
4. Tim Gayle. “Fans give Saban warm welcome in Tuscaloosa”. The Montgomery Advertiser. 4 January, 2007; Dennis Victory. “Saban gets a rock star’s welcome at the airport. The Birmingham News. 4 January, 2007.
5. Jones, The Tuscaloosa News, 4 January, 2007
6. Ian R. Rapoport and Kevin Scarbinsky. “ Chasing Nick Saban: A behind-the-scenes look at how the Crimson Tide landed its new head coach.” The Birmingham News, 7 January, 2007.
7. ibid.
8. ibid.
9. The Huntsville Times published a column by Paul Gattis on Wednesday November 22, 2006 dec-laring Mike Shula would return in 2007. On the same day, Ian R. Rapoport reported in The Birmingham News on Shula’s expectations to return as the Tide’s coach. The reports were published the Wednesday following Alabama’s sixth-straight Iron Bowl loss.
10. From the Transcript of University of Alabama press conference. 4 January, 2007.
11. ibid.
12. Rivals.com recruiting ranking 2007.