Editor’s note: With the all-SEC national championship game set for Monday in Atlanta, we asked two prominent Southern writers—and unabashed fans—for their take on the big game. See Tommy Tomlinson’s essay about Georgia here.
When I was eight years old, my maternal grandfather, whom we called Toots, decided it was time to begin my inculcation. On a cool but sun-sweet Saturday in October, we hopped into his big blue Buick and drove downtown. We were headed for Birmingham’s Legion Field, where the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, then coached by Paul “Bear” Bryant, would play the Kentucky Wildcats.
Toots pulled his Buick into the front yard of one of the numerous shotgun houses scattered around Legion Field (where Alabama played some of its home games until 2003). He handed a man who was sitting in a rocking chair on the house’s front porch a five-dollar bill. I was in charge of carrying the two crimson-and-white seat cushions, a necessity for withstanding the stadium’s aluminum bleachers. A marching band played somewhere in the distance as Toots and I joined one of the many tributaries of walking fans, which eventually all joined together, forming a great swollen river by the stadium.
We found our seats. Toots bought me a Coca-Cola that came in a big, hard-plastic cup. The game started. An Alabama running back broke free on one of the first plays. The crowd rose as one in a crescendo of immense sound, like an airplane taking off, and I felt my heart thump in my chest. Toots never once clapped during the game. Instead, he just let loose a cackle of unbridled, childlike joy whenever Alabama made a good play. I fell madly in love with Alabama football right then and there. I held my cup of Coca-Cola in my hands throughout the game, unsure of whether I was allowed to put it down on the concrete floor. The ice never really melted, and just before halftime, a chill ran up my spine. I leaned into my grandfather, who was bundled in his camelhair jacket, finding warmth.
Alabama won that game, 45–0, gaining an astonishing 409 yards on the ground. It would turn out to be one of the last truly convincing wins of the Bear Bryant era at Alabama, which, after twenty-five glorious years and six national titles, was coming to its lumbering end. Bryant’s health was in decline after years of heavy smoking and drinking. His face by this time, as Richard Price once memorably described it, looked like “an aerial shot of a drought area.” I would learn later in life that Toots, before he quit drinking cold turkey, had been one of Bryant’s frequent partners in his bouts with red whiskey.
Bryant would retire two seasons later. As if scripted by the Poet, he died just twenty-eight days after his last game, a five-star general unable to live on after departing the battlefield. A few years later, Toots died, too, and a dark shadow threatened to snuff out my bright love of Alabama football.
Though Alabama did win a national title in 1992, the post-Bryant era became best known for mediocre play on the field and ugly scandals—recruiting violations, ignominiously fired coaches, severe NCAA sanctions—off of it. Paul Finebaum, in Allen Barra’s definitive 2005 biography of Bryant, The Last Coach, summed up those years thusly: “I think it’s a biblical thing. Twenty-five years of glory followed by twenty-five years of plagues.”
In the book, Barra continued: “If the plague era began with Bryant’s death, then a golden new age should be dawning for the Crimson Tide around 2007.”
Which happens to be the exact year that a man named Nick Saban came to Tuscaloosa.
Toots had his transcendent coach. And I got mine.
* * *
I’ve attended a few Alabama games in Tuscaloosa during the Saban era, always as a working journalist. Before kickoff, I’ve mingled with the crowds outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium, opening myself up to absorb and feed off the energy. During games, I’ve watched the fans rise together in full throat as Mark Ingram or Derrick Henry broke free on the field. I’ve never clapped—there is a strict rule against cheering in the press box. But I will admit to letting a smile creep across my face.
That ineffable thing that animates a football program—winning is a big part of it, but it’s also something else—came back to Alabama in full force when Saban arrived.
Bryant and Saban never crossed paths, though they coached concurrently for a few years. Remarkably, they have no real connection within the vast old-growth forest of football coaching trees. Their torch-passing, their connection, took place at a distance, basically skipping a generation, like grandfather to grandson.
Saban has had his detractors over the years. Miami Dolphins fans will never forgive him for the inelegant way he left that franchise for Alabama. He frequently—and visibly—erupts at his assistants on the sidelines. He can be prickly with the media (I felt some of that wrath after publishing my book about him).
And yet, as Saban ages (he’s now sixty-six, three years younger than Bryant was when he died), those sharp edges seem to be softening. He may never exude the warmth that Bryant did, but he’s made strides. He talks about his kids and grandkids. His rants seem more controlled and strategic. He is more patient and playful with the media. Saban has, before our eyes, become college football’s elder statesmen, the game’s wise grandfather.
He also still happens to be the game’s best coach—arguably, of all time.
Since arriving in Tuscaloosa, Saban has built and maintained the premier program in the nation by recruiting well and demanding much from his players, his assistants, his staff, and himself. He’s created a dynasty, a rarity in modern-day college football. Despite the success, the accolades, and the money, he’s never been one to toot his own horn. To paraphrase his friend and onetime boss, Bill Belichick, Saban just does his job.
On Monday night, the Alabama Crimson Tide will play the Georgia Bulldogs—not coincidentally, coached by one of Saban’s longest-tenured assistants, Kirby Smart—for the national title. A win for Saban would give him six titles in total (he won one at LSU), tying him with Bryant for the most ever, providing him his fifth in the last nine years and immediately removing any argument for the “best-ever” claim. (Saban’s had stricter recruiting rules; Bryant basically had an unlimited number of scholarships and a few of his titles have been disputed.)
It’s easy to understand why people begin to resent sports dynasties—after a while, they seem almost greedy. But all dynasties have a term limit, even though it never seems so until it happens. Bryant won his sixth national title in the 1979 season, and all still seemed rosy. Toots and every other college football fan had no reason to believe it would be his last, that the fall would come so fast.
So, on Monday night, I will be cheering hard, as I always do, for the Alabama Crimson Tide. But I’ll also be cheering for greatness and for a history-making moment. I’ll be thinking about the passing of generations and about Toots, too, of the warmth of his camelhair jacket, of that great cackle, and of all of the joy of Alabama football.
Get the other perspective here: Why You Should Pull for Georgia
Monte Burke is the author of the New York Times bestseller Saban: The Making of a Coach (Simon & Schuster)