While the Auburn University student section filled Jordan-Hare Stadium and Nick Saban trudged through the crowds to a difficult press conference, the Alabama coach surely spent several crucial moments considering his history against the Tigers. In his 13 years with the Crimson Tide, this marked his fifth loss to the Auburn team. I’m sure Saban was fuming on his way to the press conference, trying to hold in his most choice words, maybe even saving them for his kicker. In true Iron Bowl fashion, the game went to the final seconds, only to be decided by some wildly unbelievable plays. Of those five losses, 2017’s was the only that Auburn truly controlled more than the last 5 minutes of. Alabama still won a national championship that year. Eight of Saban’s last 10 years have included an Alabama team in a championship final or semifinal game.
After this Iron Bowl, that streak of playoff appearances is officially over, and if the upcoming conference championships play outright (wrong, if you ask a Bama fan), the Tide may be sitting in a much worse bowl than they have been in a long time. Who’s excited for a trip to the Citrus Bowl? Fans must “settle” for only 10 wins this year; they haven’t seen so few wins since 2010, and 2007 before that. I think the natural question to ask is what this means for Alabama going forward.
Is this it for Bama? Is their reign of terror coming to an end?
I doubt it, but a guy can dream, right?
The Dark Years
To take a look into the future, you need to look back (obviously). Look back to the “lean” years. The names of Mike Shula, Mike DuBose and Ray Perkins all surely strike fear into the hearts of fans who saw who were around to see them. Could you imagine Bama playing a losing season? These men did more than just imagine it, they did it. Perkins led the Tide to its first losing season in 27 years but still gave them three seasons with eight wins or more. His 1984-87 tenure was debatably the worst in Alabama’s storied history. His only competitor for “worst” Alabama coach in the modern era might be DuBose, and DuBose still won the SEC in one of his four years with the Tide.
Did any of these men kill the entire program in their years there? Of course not. It took some time, but the program has recovered from its poorer seasons. Bill Curry, who followed Ray Perkins, took the Tide back to the top of the SEC. His successor gave the Bama a national championship to boot. The Mike DuBose-Dennis Franchione-Mike Shula decade is the worst in school history, featuring no less than three losing seasons. And yet, this record could hardly be considered a failure, especially compared to other schools in the conference. Vanderbilt did not see a winning season between 1983 and 2007. What Bama sees as a wretched season (only 10 wins!) would be a God-send to nearly any other team in the nation. This is why I rarely give any credit to the cries of fans. Alabama has been in much worse places and turned back in the right direction in no time.
But what if this time is different? What if things are changing?
Maybe it is different, but I see no reason for it to be. Many complex circumstances prevented Alabama from reaching its full potential during its bad years. Several seasons were marred by NCAA sanctions against scholarships and postseason games, hindering recruitment for even more years. More importantly, though, these coaches simply were not as talented as Bama’s best.
The Glory Years
No coach could claim more influence on college football than Alabama’s Bear Bryant. Bryant crafted the dynasty we know today. Six national championships and 13 conference championships came in his 25 years. He may not have been solely responsible for the team’s success, but he certainly played one of the greatest roles. Alabama was already a big name team. Players already wanted to go to Bama. But with Bryant at the helm, they wanted to play for him. No coach could compare to his persona and reputation. Indeed, this is, in my opinion, the root of the first “fall” of Bama (if you can really call it that). Bryant’s creation grew into something no one else could control. Ray Perkins took on the unenviable task and failed miserably. Gene Stallings was the only coach to come close to achieving the heights Bryant saw, and it took NCAA rule violations for him to do it. After Bear Bryant retired in 1982, I’m sure no fans thought Alabama would be the same.
Enter Nick Saban.
By 2007, Saban had proven himself a talented coach, leading the LSU Tigers to their first national championship since 1958. Upon his arrival in Tuscaloosa, the coach had a clean slate to fill his coaching staff. He filled it with a group that would, for the most part, lead the Tide to a perfect championship two short years later. Perhaps Saban is the best recruiter in the world, and I’m sure his name and prestige from LSU brought players in. However, I think much of the credit, especially for the early successes, belongs to the coaches, especially Saban himself. He has a habit of turning around struggling powerhouses. His first head coaching gig at Toledo saw the Rockets leap from 6-5 to a 9-2 Mid-American Conference championship. Michigan State also achieved 9-2 by the time Saban left for LSU, along with four bowl appearances. LSU went 4-7 and 3-8 before Saban came around; he never had fewer than eight wins every year of his tenure.
This is how I know with such certainty that the good times are not over. As long as Nick Saban sits in the head coach’s seat, I fully expect greatness. Maybe not domination, though that’s still completely possible in the next few years. This season is but a small blemish on the Tide’s storied history. If nothing changes, I see Saban maintaining a phenomenal squad for years to come. It pains me, but it’s inevitable now. Alabama’s success has become a reinforcing cycle.
Maybe that thought could’ve helped Saban through that Iron Bowl press conference. He could’ve looked back through the years of Alabama football and known he’s better off than any coach before him. He could know that despite this tough game, he’ll be back on top in no time…even if he can’t get a good kicker.