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A Tide of Tradition

Unbeaten Alabama inspires championship dreams.

By 11.26.08

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Saturday afternoon, my phone will ring and I'll answer by hollering, "Roll, Tide!" My brother Kirby will return the greeting and we'll talk football for a few minutes before kickoff. Then, every time our team scores, the ritual phone calls will be repeated. It's a family tradition.

Logically, there is no reason why the University of Alabama should have the top-rated team in college football. They don't have a player in the running for the Heisman Trophy, and eight of the Top 10 teams in the Associated Press poll -- including Utah and Boise State -- outrank Alabama in total offense (where the Tide rates 30th).

Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson has thrown for 1,775 yards, but that doesn't even put him among the Top 30 passers in NCAA Division I, and certainly Wilson can't compare to Texas Tech's Graham Harrell (4,438 yards) or Oklahoma's Sam Bradford (3,710 yards). Nor does Alabama (23rd in team rushing) have a big-name running back. Glenn Coffee's 1,091 yards this season put him only at No. 25 on the list of leading rushers.

As a statistical proposition, then, Alabama's status as No. 1 would be indefensible, were it not for the one statistic that matters most -- that zero in the "L" column.

Logic and statistics be damned! The Crimson Tide is 11-0 going into Saturday's game against arch-rival Auburn, and every 'Bama fan is dreaming of the team's 13th national championship. (Or 18th, if you include disputed titles.)

Football tradition runs deep in Tuscaloosa, where the fight song still taunts ancient rival Georgia Tech ("send the Yellow Jackets to a watery grave") even though the Tide hasn't regularly played Tech since the Jackets left the Southeastern Conference in 1964. The fight song also urges the team to "remember the Rose Bowl we'll win," despite the fact that Alabama last played in Pasadena 62 years ago.

Traditions are stubborn and sentimental things, and if they are a potent source of strength, traditions can also be a stumbling block, as Crimson Tide fans have learned in the quarter-century since the retirement of legendary Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

An Alabama alumnus -- he was the "other end" across from Hall of Famer Don Hutson on the championship team that beat Stanford in the 1934 Rose Bowl -- Bryant took the Tide to six national titles and 14 SEC championships during his 25 seasons as head coach.

Tough and taciturn, with a rumbling drawl made deeper by his habit of smoking three packs of unfiltered Chesterfields daily, Bryant personified an intensely disciplined approach to football.

He cemented his reputation as a disciplinarian in 1954, when he took 111 Texas A&M players to a summer training camp where he banned water breaks as the temperature soared above 100 degrees. Ten days later, he returned to College Station with only 35 players. A&M won only one game that year, but by 1956, they were Southwestern Conference champions. In 1958, Bryant was asked to return to his alma mater.

Bryant was a tremendous recruiter -- nabbing such future NFL greats as Joe Namath, Ken Stabler and Ozzie Newsome -- but his winning formula owed more to team effort than to individual stars. "Bear Bryant could take his'n and beat your'n, or he could take your'n and beat his'n," as one of his Texas A&M assistants, Bum Phillips, once said. Every player was subject to the Bear's stern discipline. Bryant called Namath the greatest natural athlete he ever coached, but when the quarterback missed a curfew, he was benched for the 1964 Sugar Bowl.

Some 'Bama fans burned Bryant in effigy for that decision, but as his no-excuses coaching style led to more and more victories, he attained an almost divine mystique. Various jokes about the Bear walking on water circulated among fans, and humorist Lewis Grizzard said that every Southern boy imagined God as looking like Robert E. Lee and talking like Bear Bryant.

Living up to that kind of legend has proved an impossible task for Bryant's successors, a task made all the more difficult by the insistence of some 'Bama boosters that the job must go to "one of Bear's boys." But after Crimson Tide alumnus Ray Perkins managed only a 32-15-1 record four seasons, Alabama brought in a Georgia Tech man, Bill Curry, as head coach in 1987.

The third time Curry's team lost to Auburn, a disgruntled fan threw a brick through the coach's office window. Alabama won 10 games that year, but Curry was replaced by Gene Stallings, who had played for Bryant at Texas A&M. Stallings coached the Tide to their only national championship in the post-Bryant era, defeating Miami 34-31 in the 1993 Sugar Bowl.

Stallings left after the 1996 season, and Alabama has stumbled through scandals and disappointments in the ensuing years. They haven't beaten Auburn since 2001 and when the team sought a new head coach after the 2006 season, nobody really complained that Nick Saban wasn't "one of Bear's boys." Saban had won 48 games (including two Sugar Bowls) in five seasons at LSU, and if he could bring his winning ways to Tuscaloosa, who cared about anything else?

Like Republicans who've spent 20 years vainly seeking a worthy successor to Ronald Reagan, Alabama fans have suffered mightily during their long quest to return to the glories of the Bryant epoch. Yet as with Reagan's legacy, the Tide tradition lives on.

Bill Curry once explained the value of that tradition: "You can put that crimson jersey on anybody -- he may not be a great athlete -- and he will play his heart out. He becomes somebody else on Saturday. You can work the team harder than the norm, and nobody will quit. A kid can't quit and go home to Dothan and say to his dad, 'I just quit the Crimson Tide.'"

In his second season as 'Bama's head coach, Saban has had remarkable success with a very young team (20 players in the two-deep lineup are freshmen or sophomores). The Tide has already clinched a spot in the Dec. 6 SEC championship game against Florida (currently ranked No. 2 by the AP).

Despite their undefeated record, Alabama's season has been a nail-biter. The Tide barely beat Kentucky, 17-14, and Ole Miss, 24-20, and it took an overtime touchdown to defeat LSU 27-21. My brother, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery in February, called me during the LSU game to complain, "Don't they know I've got a bad heart?"

Even with Alabama ranked No. 1 in the country, Saban can't relax, because he hasn't beaten Auburn yet. Though the Tigers are a woeful 5-6 coming into the Saturday's game, they'll be fired up for Alabama and -- this being the SEC, where upsets are not unusual -- nobody expects this year's "Iron Bowl" to be a walkover. But 'Bama fans definitely expect something better than a sixth consecutive defeat at the hands of their hated rivals, and it would be a sad thing if bricks through the coach's window became a Tuscaloosa tradition. Roll Tide.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.