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Blue Bloods Retrospective: Alabama Football

Even though blue blood is typically used in basketball culture, and not football, Alabama football is pretty high on the list of all-time great collegiate sports programs. The term blue blood should be used to describe any entity that reaches greatness and stays there for a long time. Alabama football fits that bill better than most and they are the gold standard of college football itself. It’s all in good timing anyway, as the Alabama Crimson Tide just completed a perfect 13-0 season in route to winning their 18th National Championship.

Bama’s program roots span from cover to cover of a history book. Their first championship was won in 1925 and here they are nearly a century later still winning at the highest level. It’s not hard to see why they’ve been so great for so long. The top two coaches in college football history, Bear Bryant and Nick Saban, both primarily coached and won for Alabama. Same as in college basketball, great programs are built by one or multiple great coaches. That’s the main ingredient in the recipe for success at this and every level of athletics.

Alabama’s trophy case is larger than any other can claim, the program has been wildly influential in their history, and the culture is looked up to for good reason. When we talk about the blue bloods of college football, there isn’t any other program you can start the conversation with.  

When I said from the beginning of a history book, I meant it. The Bama football team was founded in 1892! William Little and Eugene Beaumont were the founders of the first football team that called themselves “White Crimson”. They originally started playing in Birmingham, Alabama including a matchup with soon to be foe Auburn. Bama lost this first match and a grudge of sorts was carried over for years, sparking the flames of what we know now as the Iron Bowl.

In the first few decades of the program’s history, they switched areas of play, uniforms, and coaches quite often. In the pre-Bear Bryant era, two coaches laid the groundwork for success. Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas won a combined five National Championships in the first half of the 20th century. Bama joined the SEC during its inception as a collegiate conference in 1922.

Now the interesting part is the fact that Alabama’s first National Championship came in 1925. The thing is back then, there was no National Championship game, as the Rose Bowl was the biggest game of the year. The top two teams played in that bowl game which was the most important game of the season. That’s why the Rose Bowl is called the granddaddy of them all. Wade led Bama to a Rose Bowl victory over Washington. Even though there was no official way of determining the best team for sure, this marks the very beginning of Bama’s success as a football program.

The following season Wade and Bama were back in the Rose Bowl. Against Stanford this time, there was a different result. They ended the game in a 7-7 tie. Yes, in the most important game of the year they decided not to have a clear winner and loser for some reason. Interestingly enough both Alabama and Stanford have claimed the 1926 National Championship for themselves.

This brings me to the great hidden debate when it comes to claiming National Championships. No doubt everything from Bryant to Saban counts and should be celebrated. They were won at a time when there were clear rules in place on how to get to the top. Before Bryant however, is a different story.

For nearly every pre-Bryant championship there is another team that also had a perfect record. At that time in CFB history there were lots of polls out, none of which ever agreed on the true National Champion. The system was very flawed and thus it has led to multiple programs claiming National Championships to inflate the status of their program. This isn’t a Bama thing at all because as mentioned Stanford in 1926, Notre Dame in 1930, and Minnesota in 1934 all claim themselves with Bama as the true National Champion.

In fact, the weirdest of them all came in 1941 when Frank Thomas coached Alabama to finish third in the SEC but because one stupid poll ranked them first, they claimed a national title for that season. If anything this shows the lack of true interest in the sport at this time in history. Football was just becoming a more popularized sport and when people cared more about it, the rules around crowning a championship were updated to become a fair system.

While Wade and Thomas’ success from a number of title’s perspective is overly exaggerated, they did make lasting marks on the program as a whole. They put Alabama football on the map early and established the team as a big-time brand which eventually piqued the interest of a man with a houndstooth fedora on his head.         

Ever since his retirement in 1982, people have called Bear Bryant the GOAT of college football coaches up until Saban arrived on the scene but that’s beside the point. He left his then job at Texas A&M where he coached them to a moderate amount of wins in four years. He’s held that the reason he left to take the Alabama job was because of his mom who knew this would be a better opportunity for him. His mom was 1000% right, as Bryant won six National Championships for Alabama in his time and owned the sport in the 1970s.

At this time the AP and coaches’ polls had been established as the way to determine a true champion. There was still no National Championship game (that started in 1999) but a much better system as now there were 2 polls instead of a dozen. For the first half of the ’60s, Bryant and Alabama football dominated college football from end to end. In those five years, they went 60-5 and won three championships.

So what happened in the 8 years between championship number three and four?

Well, Bryant had a tough time replacing his roster that he led to glory in the ’60s. Herein lies Bryant’s greatest move as a head coach and what made him so influential to the sport in the south. In 1971, John Mitchell became the first black player to play football for the University of Alabama. Obviously at the time teams in the SEC weren’t exactly inviting African American players to join their teams. Bear Bryant, however, looked around the country and saw teams in other conferences like the Pac 12 allow this and enjoy plenty of success from it. He didn’t let the stigma get in the way of giving his team the best chance to win.

As Bryant started a new trend in the SEC of recruiting black players, other coaches across the conference did the same. Although he wasn’t the first to do it, Bryant turned a rarity into a trend and transcended SEC football for the better because of it. Alabama football got back on top in 1973 as the coaches’ poll ranked them number one with an 11-1 record. The entire 1970s was owned by Alabama football. They had a 103-16 record over the course of the entire decade with three more National Titles.

When it comes to the why of Bear Bryant’s success, look no further than the way he was a leader of men on the football field and his overall philosophies. He was the definition of a player’s coach, as he credited the team by saying we instead of I. He believed that even if you had the best scheme in the history of football, you still need players to go out and execute with a winning attitude. Bryant knew football was in the details and by proxy the more he had his team prepared the better chance they had of coming out on top. The outcome of a game can be decided by just a few plays so Bryant would meticulously plan for so many scenarios in a game to make sure the Crimson Tide were the most prepared team on the gridiron.

In order to build a program up and establish a winning culture, Bryant first built a plan. He made goals for himself and his team and focused every action on the goal. Nothing was done without a purpose in his eyes so naturally, he found success by attaching a move with purpose to the goal of winning that week’s game. Instilling discipline, making a general plan, and constant preparation was how Bear Bryant elevated the Alabama football program and became a legend.

To finish his career off, he went 232-46 at Alabama, won six National Championships, and went to 24 straight bowl games. Bear Bryant devoted his life to coaching football and developing young men as evident by the fact that he coached so long into his life. Unfortunately, he passed away a month after coaching his final game but he left behind a seemingly untouched legacy.  

There’s a 25-year gap between Bryant’s final game and Nick Saban’s first game in 2007. During this time Alabama went through seven head coaches and most of them could not live up to the lofty expectations. Ray Perkins and Bill Curry were the next two coaches of the program and posted 32-15 and 26-10 records respectively. Certainly not bad for the average college football team but neither showed enough growth in their time for the fan base to feel comfortable.

Perkins left Bama for a job in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but Curry’s end was far less simple. Even though he’d led them to a solid record every season, Curry and the athletic department leaders were not on good terms. Reportedly, the athletic department leaders solely chipped away at his power to hire his own staff for the team. Couple that with three straight losses in the Iron Bowl and Curry accepted a job at Kentucky after the 1989 season.

Following Perkins and Curry, program directors hired Gene Stallings who played for Bryant at Texas A&M. He proved to be a chip off the old block and delivered a title in 1992. In the Sugar Bowl, Alabama destroyed Miami who were on a 29 game win streak and had the Heisman Trophy winner on the team. This earned them the number one ranking in both polls and by proxy a National Championship.

Stallings wasn’t able to build off this successful season for a couple of reasons. First of all, he was old and considered this his last job before retirement even before accepting the position. Secondly, one of Alabama’s players Antonio Langham broke NCAA rules by signing with an agent for the NFL to soon. This resulted in a bowl game violation for the 1995 season and thus no contention for a title.

This next decade was the worst in Alabama’s football history. They performed well on the field, but off-field controversies became a major issue.

Every coach in between Stallings and Saban had some sort of controversy and proved to be not fit to run a premier college football team. Mike DuBose was fired after an affair scandal, Dennis Franchione may or may not have even wanted to be there, and Mike Price never coached a game due to a strip club incident. These weren’t the brightest of days and Alabama had to forfeit wins due to some of these coaches’ actions.

The Alabama Crimson Tide needed stability more than anything. Someone that actually cared about winning and would be willing to stay for the long haul if necessary. But it’s safe to say that Nick Saban didn’t need too much time to revamp this program back into the spotlight.  

Saban was pried away from the Miami Dolphins on January 4th, 2007 to the tune of $32 million. During this era, that kind of money was seen as impossibly too much to give to a head coach at the collegiate level. It turns out it was a massive underpay for the kind of results that he would deliver. Even before his time at Bama, Saban was a proven winner. In 2003, Saban led LSU to their second championship at the time and saw plenty of his players move on to the NFL.

Nick Saban is the greatest college football head coach of all time without a doubt in my mind. I’ll explain exactly why later but let’s start with this. For starters in the last 12 years, Alabama football has an average of winning a National Title every other season with 6 total championships and 8 appearances in the big game over three separate decades. They have three Heisman winners in Ingram, Henry, and Smith with none of those playing quarterback. That’s incredible considering he’s coached in an era where quarterbacks have dominated that award and the football landscape. In fact, in every year Saban has coached at Alabama the Heisman winner has been either a QB from another school or one of his players that didn’t play QB. In my opinion, that fact illustrates his ridiculous dominance because he never relied on a quarterback to drive his team’s success in an era where quarterbacks are king.

Three of his titles were won in the BCS era and the other three were in the CFB Playoff era. The funny thing is there was a crowd that thought by putting a playoff in place, Alabama’s dominance would fade. Unfortunately for them, fading just isn’t in Saban’s DNA and they’ve remained a buzz saw for over a decade.

The raw resume speaks for itself so let’s dive a little deeper.

There are three main pillars when it comes to coaching at this level: recruiting, scheme, and motivation/leadership. Saint Nick checks all three boxes with flying colors. Especially recruiting, since 2011 Alabama has had the number one ranked recruiting class 9 out of 11 classes through the 2021 class. I mean it’s pretty hard to pass up a recruiting pitch from the Crimson Tide when every single player that has stayed for three years or more has won a Championship.

Not only does elite talent come in the door but they leave even better and more prepared for the NFL. Teams love former Bama players as 33 players from the program have been selected in just the first round. A staggering 97 players from Bama have been drafted since 2009. Some don’t understand that recruiting is the lifeblood of this sport so Bama’s ability to recruit better than anyone is a direct reflection on Nick Saban.

Defense is Nick Saban’s calling card so the scheme they run is heavily influenced by him. From the start of the decade to now, Bama has the number one defense overall by a wide margin. Specifically, Saban is hands-on with the defensive backs and lots of them have moved on to great success in the NFL.

Offensively, they’ve been able to hire the right men for the job. Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were given second chances by Saban himself and it proved worth it for every party involved. Both Sark and Kiffin coached high octane offenses and helped Saban continue to win. After their time, Kiffin went from FAU to Ole Miss and Sarkisian just landed a job at Texas.

In my opinion, making great hires is part of this scheme category. Saban doesn’t have a great knowledge of coaching offense by himself but he does have the power to hire the people that do. The number of times Nick has had to revamp his staff completely is astounding. They get better jobs at other places and nearly every season he gets someone just as good.

Finally, the way Saban motivates his players and his leadership style for his program is a model for anyone to follow. He’s a micro-manager and completely entrenched in the process of winning. Whenever you see him looking unhappy (which is all the time) it’s not because he is necessarily mad but he’s just focused. It’s why he never smiles in an interview until after they’ve won it all.

Saban has won it just about every way as well. Since he’s been a coach at Alabama, the sport has rapidly changed to more spread offenses and tempo. Saban himself didn’t create this change but he did adapt to it. That’s why he hired offensive coordinators with modern playbooks, brought in less game manager style quarterbacks, and put an emphasis on speed players and athleticism over bruisers on the recruiting trail.    

There isn’t a better way to conclude this than deciding who is the goat between Bryant and Saban. Even though I’m biased because I’ve only watched Saban coached Alabama teams, I think the clear answer is Nick Saban. While the number of championships is even at six apiece, the era played in has a lot to do with my answer. Simply put the BCS and Playoff system is much better and fairer than just the poll rankings to decide a champion. Even though the system changed from the BCS to a Playoff and the way the sport is played has evolved, Nick Saban has done nothing but win consistently. Bryant and Saban are at the very top of the list which makes Alabama football the best collegiate sports program

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