R ight now, Alabama football is the very definition of college football. Power comes and goes in the college football world, with perceived invincibility afforded to programs based on their gridiron dominance.
In the 1960′s and 1970′s it was Alabama and Notre Dame. In the 80′s it was the University of Miami, Oklahoma, Penn State and towards the end, Notre Dame again. Florida State, Nebraska and Florida carried this distinction for much of the 90′s, as did USC for the early part of last decade.
None of these programs have dropped off the map completely since their days at the top, though Alabama came close at the turn of the century. All of them ascended the mountain and stayed there for a while, earning the respect of the nation.
I would argue, however, that no one has done it quite like Alabama in the Nick Saban era. The respect Alabama has earned around the country…and Alabama fans enjoy…is just downright fun. There’s no other word for it. Fans of some programs have a rogue shirt they can throw on, but few can plan a vacation wardrobe consisting of a different championship shirt from a different year for each day of the trip like an Alabama fan.
Furthermore, the Alabama fan commands the attention of those around him on the subject of college football like no other. Such is the case with me this week as I vacation with the family at Disneyworld. If there is a better cross-section of the country, if not the entire globe itself, it’s Orlando…or more specifically, Disneyworld. There are literally people from every corner of the planet here, especially college football fans.
Folks hit Disneyworld decked out in their team’s gear, sometimes as a means to identify family members (like the 20-something family members I saw in Ohio State shirts). Fans show their colors here like nowhere else. It’s a conversation starter for some, but as I experienced first-hand yesterday at the Magic Kingdom, when you’re wearing Bama gear, thanks to Nick Saban, you hold the trump card to any conversation around you on the topic of college football.
Like E.F. Hutton, when you’re a Bama fan, when you talk, people listen. Mostly intrigued by the immovable force they’ve seen take other teams apart on TV, they want to hear more. Little teams like Texas, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Notre Dame, LSU and Florida, not to mention Virginia Tech, Clemson and Georgia. When Bama beats you, they often leave nothing left, and to the casual football fan, that’s impressive enough to ask for more.
Such was the case yesterday. While standing in line for Thunder Mountain, a man from Rhode Island saw my visor and had to ask.
“So what’s going on with Nick Saban? Is he staying at Alabama or leaving?”
The question took me by surprise, because I hadn’t heard anything that would suggest a Nick Saban departure. But my reply was instantaneous…almost involuntary.
“Why would he?”
His facial response was priceless. He wasn’t digging at Alabama or trying to start something. He had heard the year and a half old story of Terry Saban’s interview, where she said winning had become more of a relief than a joy. The story died eons ago, but for those not living in the epicenter of Crimson Tide football, like this guy, the story needed commentary from a guy and his family in front of him in line for a roller coaster. I went on.
“Saban has everything he wants at Alabama. And if he wants something else, he’ll have it. He has the keys to the kingdom. It won’t always be like this, but right now it’s pretty great, I’m not gonna lie.”
My new friend was from Massachusetts. College football isn’t a life-or-death thing as it is in the south, but the passion was more than intriguing to him.
“I’ve been a Notre Dame fan most of my life, but I couldn’t believe what Alabama did to them. There was just no comparison.”
I went on to explain the difference in Alabama football and everybody else. Saban cherry picks who he wants around the country, then puts them together like robots in preparation for the season. When Bama plays you, they destroy you. They know what you’re going to do before you do it. You’re intimidated before the game starts, and that includes your coaching staff.
“Yeah, I couldn’t believe Coach Kelly said that about Alabama not coming back out after halftime (as being the only way they could win).”
As humbly as I could, I explained that no one is better prepared than the Alabama coaches and team, and other coaching staffs know this. They have to resort to the hail marry mentality before the game ever begins, and understand that the margin for error against the Tide is extremely low. That psyches coaches out, which in turn trickles down to their players.
As we talked I noticed others listening in around us. A man in a Maryland shirt was keeping score on the conversation, as were a couple of folks in Clemson gear and others not wearing colors but tuned in nonetheless. I continued.
“And what makes it even more difficult for the other team, Saban doesn’t just get great players, he gets smart great players who are willing to work. Bama has one of the highest graduation rates within its football program in the country.”
“Does Bama get Texas A&M this year?” he asked. “That quarterback they have is crazy good.”
“I assure you,” I told him with a grin, “Nick Saban doesn’t get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom without watching film on the Aggies. You’ll want to watch that game. He’ll have the answer.”
The line began to move and the conversation moved on to other, more important things, like faith. And as we finally parted ways, I conceded again that I knew it wouldn’t always be like this, so I intended to enjoy it for as long as possible.
“How long do you think he’ll coach?” came the inevitable question.
“Well, if my sources are right, including the producers of the Gamechanger film from a few years back, he has another 6-8 years left in him, and Bama is his last stop.”
Again, the looks on the faces of those in the conversation were priceless. You could almost hear the wheels turning in their heads as they processed what another half decade or more of Nick Saban football would do to college football.
And I’m not gonna lie. It was fun.
The constant “Roll Tides” around the parks since I’ve been here are fun, as was the Gator fan/Disney worker who chimed in as I walked through Adventure Land: “It’s not too late to become a Gator.” It’s almost scary how immediate…almost involuntary…my response to him came as I continued walking:
“But I want to win.”
My wife had a quick word for me, as she always does. But as I explained, we are living in rare times at Alabama, and it’s just a game, to be enjoyed as a diversion to life’s real issues. So soaking it in, spreading the love, and having a great time is in order.
And that’s exactly what I intend to do…as Alabama football under Nick Saban even makes vacations more fun.