Roll Tide

In “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer,” his insightful 2004 book about Alabama football fans, Warren St. John writes this: “I always feel a mixture of misery and relief at the end of football season. Like a boozer thrown in the tank for a forced dry-out, I miss the elixir even as I know that it does me good to go without. There is, after all, the not insignificant matter of having a life, of earning enough money to buy food and shelter, of doing all the things necessary, in other words, to keep myself alive until the next season. Pro teams continue to play for a few weeks after the college season ends, which helps ease the craving; but to mix addiction metaphors, the NFL for me serves as a kind of methadone; it’s football even though I don’t exactly care who wins — the drug without the high.”

Written like a true son of Alabama.

It’s now methadone time.

For me, all seems right with our world on this cold Friday afternoon. The Southeastern Conference is home to a national football champion for a fourth consecutive year. And for the first time in 17 years, the championship trophy is headed to Tuscaloosa.

It’s important for college football as a whole that certain programs be good. College football needs Notre Dame to return to greatness. College football needs Texas to continue to be good. And college football needs Alabama to be good.

Though it had been 17 years since that last Bama title, they always knew there would be more.

They kept the faith when Alabama was placed on probation in 1995.

They kept the faith even as Mike DuBose went 24-23 as a head coach from 1997-2000.

They kept the faith even though Dennis Franchione left town after just two years, bound for Texas A&M.

They kept the faith as Alabama was placed on probation again from 2002-06.

They kept the faith in April 2003 when  media outlets reported that recently hired head coach Mike Price had spent several hundred dollars at a strip club in Pensacola on the same night a woman charged almost $1,000 worth of room service to his hotel room. Price was dismissed following the incident.

They kept the faith after Mike Shula had a mediocre 26-23 record from 2003-06 while committing the unpardonable sin of losing four consecutive years to Auburn.

They knew the right man would return at some point to lead them from the wilderness. And that man has proved to be Nick Saban, who became head coach on Jan. 3, 2007.

Outside the north end zone at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa is an area called the Walk of Champions. The plaza contains expensive statues of the coaches who have won national football championships at the school — Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings.

When the plaza was constructed several years ago, the base and lights were built for yet another statue. It sent the signal that Alabama was waiting.

The wait is over.

After Alabama defeated Texas on Thursday night, some fans put a banner bearing Saban’s name across the area set aside for the statue.

The school’s athletic director, a former Bear Bryant assistant named Mal Moore, was asked about the statue.

“It was put there for this, and I will recommend to the president that we go forth,” he said.

Immediately?

“Well, we’ll talk about it. But yeah. Hell yeah.”

Hell yeah, indeed. This is college football. This is the Southeastern Conference. This is Alabama.

Back to Warren St. John: “I grew up in Alabama — possibly the worst place on earth to acquire a healthy perspective on the importance of spectator sports. If you were a scientist hoping to isolate a fan gene, Alabama would make the perfect laboratory. People in Alabama have a general interest in almost all sports — the state is second only to Nevada in the amount of money that its citizens bet on sports, despite the fact that in Alabama, unlike Nevada, sports gambling is illegal. But the sport that inspires true fervor — the one that compels people there to name their children after a popular coach and to heave bricks through the windows of an unpopular one — is college football. A recent poll found that 90 percent of the state’s citizens describe themselves as college football fans. Eighth-six percent of them pull for one of the the two major football powers there, Alabama or Auburn, and 4 percent pull for other teams. … To understand what an absolute minority nonfans are in Alabama, consider this: They are outnumbered there by atheists.”

It was Gene Stallings who, even in the wake of winning a national championship, said this about the Alabama football faithful: “They still love Coach Bryant. They just tolerate the rest of us.”

After those 17 years in the wilderness, I suspect they are beginning to love Saban. He will never replace Coach Bryant in Alabama lore, but the Bear would have liked this Alabama team — a team that went 14-0 thanks to a relentless defense and a strong running game. In the days of the spread offense, this team was as much of a throwback as the Alabama helmets.

When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, the most important college football team in my life was Ouachita, and it played in the most important conference, the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference.

Arkansas, of course, was my team in the Southwest Conference.

But Alabama was my team in the Southeastern Conference. My father had played football at Ouachita in the 1940s with a south Arkansas native named Sam Bailey. Coach Bailey would go on to become Bear Bryant’s right-hand man, giving us a bit of a family connection to the Alabama program.

In 1981, I broadcast an Arkadelphia-Alma high school playoff game in Arkadelphia on a Friday night and then drove all night to Birmingham just to see Coach Bryant break Amos Alonzo Stagg’s record for the most wins ever for a major-college coach. He did it in the nation’s most heated rivalry, the Iron Bowl against Auburn. And it wasn’t easy.

Not having slept since Thursday night, I decided to drive as far as I could after the game before getting a motel room. I made it only as far as Tuscaloosa. But what a treat to have seen that game. My press pass had allowed me to go down on the field, walk off just behind Coach Bryant and join those who interviewed him in the dressing room afterward.

I still have the Sunday newspapers I bought the next morning.

A print of Daniel Moore’s painting of Coach Bryant on the sideline during that game hangs in my den. It’s signed by Coach Bryant. I took a long look at the painting last night before going to bed.

To put things in perspective, it’s important to realize that Alabama was good in football long before Bear Bryant became head coach. Wallace Wade won national championships in 1925, 1926 and 1930. Frank Thomas won national titles in 1934 and 1941. In those days, Alabama football represented the entire South come bowl time.

Alabama, which recruited a number of great players from Arkansas (including Bryant) from the 1920s through the 1940s, was invited to play Washington in the Jan. 1, 1926, Rose Bowl and won, 20-19. Alabama returned to the Rose Bowl a year later and tied Stanford.

Alabama would go on to beat Washington State in the Jan. 1, 1931, Rose Bowl and defeat Stanford in the Jan. 1, 1935, Rose Bowl.

Given that history, it was fitting that last night’s title was secured in Pasadena.

Even when I was a child, Alabama still was viewed as representing all of Dixie when the Tide would play a Notre Dame or a Penn State. I grieved when Notre Dame scored in the final minutes on New Year’s Eve of 1973 to beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. And I join those who believe the greatest goal-line stand in the history of college football occurred in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1979, when the Crimson Tide stopped Penn State to win a national championship.

Add my lifelong fascination with and love of Alabama football to the fact that native Arkansans of my age (I’m 50) were raised to hate the Longhorns. I love Texas as a state. I root against the Longhorns, though. To me, the hook ’em sign is an obscene gesture. Hearing “Texas Fight” makes my blood run cold.

My sons don’t understand that hate of all things burnt orange. To them, it’s irrational. To me, it’s natural.

For those reasons, Thursday night was a great night. Once more, the SEC rules.

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