The Passing of Alabama’s Torch

The tall, broad-shouldered shadow of The Bear forever looms over Alabama. He was the stuff of legend. Yet, Bear Bryant is passing the torch, and his eyes are pointed in the direction of Nick Saban. He might not have let go of it yet, but the torch  belongs to Saban.

Bear Bryant, the legend: Painting by Rick Rush

He may never win as many games as the Bear. He may never win as many National Championships. But he has won three – two in three years with the Crimson Tide. Already his legacy has become the stuff of legend.

Both men are so similar. Tough. Straightforward. Driven to excellence. Never give up. Believes the game was built on defense. A burning desire for excellence in the gut. Winners.

Somewhere The Bear is smiling. A new gunfighter is in town.

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Nick Saban had trekked through the precarious and treacherous terrain of the Southeast Conference before. He knew all about the dangers, the perils, and the pitfalls. He knew it was a shooting gallery, and Alabama stood directly in the line of fire. Always had and always would. Week after week, Sabam would be eyeball-to-eyeball with the best teams, the best players, the best coaches that America had to offer. It was survival of the fittest.

Nick Saban was back. And he touched down in Tuscaloosa.

He had been the man chosen to resurrect Alabama football. There had been good men and good coaches in the recent years before him, but the Capstone was not quite like any other place on earth. The years were broken own into two distinct seasons: football and waiting for football. It was a religion, deeply felt, emotional, and often spiritual on Saturday afternoons – or nights – in the calm, graceful beauty of a Southern autumn. Kick off, however, and peace along the Black Warrior River turned to bedlam.

Alabama had never been satisfied with mere wins, even big wins. String a few victories together, and they led to something far more powerful. The Crimson Tide wanted championships. It was time for championships. As the headline in a special edition of the Tuscaloosa News, proclaimed, it was, at long last. Saban Time.

He had taken a moribund Michigan State team, and, in five years, upset number-one Ohio State, routed highly ranked Notre Dame, and led the Spartans to a 9-2 record and a bowl game. It had been so long between bowls. Saban left for the bayous of South Louisiana, reshaped a struggling LSU program that had suffered through seven losing seasons during the 1990s, and whipped the Bengal Tigers to a National Championship.

Nick Saban: Painting by Rick Rush

Saban was the miracle worker, and, in the recent past, Alabama had run out of miracles. The Tide wondered if he had a pocketful left.

When Athletic Director Mal Moore made the decision to find a new head football coach, he was looking for someone who already had national stature, success, and a winning legacy. No longer would the Tide be content to sit around and wait for a young coach to grow into the role. Moore, as the newspapers reported, wanted a proven winner.

The press bandied about the list of usual suspects, obvious names that might or might not be given a shot at the job: Houston Nutt of Arkansas, Bobby Petrino of Louisville, Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, Jim Grobe in Wake Forest, Rich Rodriguez of West Virginia, and a man who had suddenly departed LSU and college football for a head coaching job with the Miami Dolphins – Nick Saban. It was an impressive list of candidates. Good men. Good coaches. All with winning resumes.

Mal Moore knew whom he wanted, no doubt abut it, but the opinions around the nation all assumed he was spitting in the wind. Alabama had no shot at Nick Saban. Even Saban had said he had no intention of leaving the Dolphins. Moore did not listen.

He piled up a stack of guaranteed money worth thirty-two million dollars, offered a deal that would last eight years, and signed Nick Saban. Moore said, “When I set out on this search, I was seeking a coach who had a proven record of accomplishment and leadership for our program. The hiring of Coach Saban signifies a new era of Crimson Tide football and affirms our commitment to provide our student-athletes and fans with a leader who will continue our commitment to excellence across the board.”

A wave of raw, unbridled emotion fell across the Alabama nation.

Happy Days were here again.

Saban arrived amid a fervor bordering on hysteria, walking on campus with wild, almost deafening, chants of, Roll Tide falling around him. He had the status of a rock star, and Cecil Hunt wrote in the Tuscaloosa News: Saban “gave a virtuoso performance at his introductory press conference. He was confident and commanding, emanating the precise qualities that Alabama fans want in a head football coach. He spoke of championships and working three hundred and sixty-five days a year ‘to dominate his rival in the state.’ He spoke of fielding a big, physical football team and of hard work.”

Saban talked of winning titles, perhaps. He talked more about building teams. He certainly knew the territory and it did not faze him. The Swamp in Florida. Between the Hedges in Georgia. The haunts of the Iron Bowl. Saturday night in Baton Rouge, where the four horsemen were death, famine, pestilence, and LSU, and the most dreaded of these was LSU. This time, the Bayou Bengals would not have his back. This time, they would be gunning for him. A few had grieved when Saban left Baton Rouge. The rest were irate. Revenge was too nice a word. LSU was searching for something far worse.

Nick Saban was consumed by football. He demanded a lot from his team. He was even harder on himself, a defensive-minded coach with a flair for offense. As Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys said, “While everyone is talking about how good his defense is, you might notice that his offense tends to score a lot of points.” His LSU championship team had set a school record, averaging more than thirty-three points a game.

Alabama had high expectations. His were higher. “I want to win every game we play,” he said. And, somehow, Nick Saban always believed he would. For him, he said, Alabama would be the last stop.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of Champions: Great Moments in the History of Alabama Football.

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