Win or Lose, Alabama’s Greatest Export Is College Football

Alabama’s faithful aren’t sick of winning. In fact, winning games like Monday’s National Championship Game is what what defines the whole place.

The state of Alabama doesn’t have an NFL team, an NBA team, or an MLB team, but in one sport, at least, it’s No. 1 with a vengeance. Alabama is the college football capital of the United States.

Since head coach Nick Saban took over at the University of Alabama in 2008, the Crimson Tide has won three national championships, while cross-state archrival Auburn has one. And on Monday night, No. 2-ranked Bama goes for its fourth crown in seven years against No. 1-ranked Clemson in the College Football Championship Game in Glendale, Arizona.

You might argue that some other schools in some other states have followings more fanatical than Alabama’s, but you’d be wrong.

In no other state is the fan base so loyal and so rabid; the comparison is closer to the devotion of fans in storied baseball franchises like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox than it is to pro football in most NFL cities, where the atmosphere of a college football game can be imitated but never duplicated.

In August 2013, The Wall Street Journal ran a misguided story titled “At Alabama, Fans Are Getting a Little Bored With All the Winning.” The writer, Ben Cohen, argued that “Amid all this prolonged dominance, there are signs that boredom, if not downright apathy, has started to creep in.” Cohen cited an item from the school newspaper which reported that perhaps 30 percent of student football tickets went unused by students in 2013.

I’ll wager my autographed Kenny Stabler football card that Cohen never attended an Alabama game or he would have found that the reason so many students don’t use their tickets is because they can sell them for the kind of money that could put you on the 50-yard line when the New York Giants play the New York Jets.

Alabama’s football team is a rising tide which lifts all boats. As The New York Times put it last fall, “Alabama’s football pre-eminence on television and in the postseason, along with an aggressive plan to extend the university reach beyond the state, has helped attract a more academically-minded student body in the past decade from all over the country and served as the catalyst for more than $1.7 billion in fund raising, according to those who have engineered the explosive growth.”

The result is that over the decades, Alabama has surpassed Notre Dame as college football’s national brand. The Fighting Irish haven’t been No. 1 since 1988; since then, Alabama has topped the final polls four times, including a 42-14 victory over Notre Dame three years ago in the title game.

For many years, the only area where Alabama couldn’t top the Irish was in the popularity poll known as the Heisman Trophy vote. During the 20th century, Notre Dame had seven winners to Alabama’s none. Not even Joe Namath, the No. 1 pick in the 1965 draft, who lost out in the voting to Notre Dame’s John Huarte, who ended up playing just 24 games in the pros.

“Alabama never had a Heisman Trophy winner,” wrote Dan Jenkins in his classic book on college football, Saturdays America, “because they never needed one. Under Bear Bryant and the men he learned the game from, it was always the philosophy to share the ball. Other teams got the Heisman; Alabama got the national championship trophies.”

Now, Alabama gets both. Mark Ingram became the first Tide player to win the award as college football’s outstanding player in 2009, the year Alabama won its first national title under Coach Nick Saban. This year, the Heisman went to running back Derrick Henry, who had gained 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns against a schedule estimated by USA Today’s power ratings expert Jeff Sagarin as the toughest in the nation. (Henry finished the year with 2,061 yards and 25 TDs.)

That schedule, by the way, is one of the things that hones Alabama’s dynamo and keeps it fine-tuned year after year. The Tide plays in the Southeastern Conference, far and away the college game’s toughest football league, and Saban regularly schedules at least one ranked outside opponent at the beginning of the season in order to test his players. This past season Alabama’s opponents, when not playing Alabama, won 100 of 132 regular and postseason games, far and away the toughest competition of any team in the country.

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Another factor is a recruiting program that not only hauls in the most talent from the football-rich territory of the Southeast but blue-chippers from the rest of the country as well. This process began about half a century ago when the greatest of all college coaches, Paul “Bear” Bryant, began raising the Crimson Tide from the level of regional to national power by reaching out to rural Pennsylvania and grabbing the hottest quarterback in the college draft, Joe Namath.

Prior to that, Bryant’s favorite kind of football player was, as he famously put it, “Guys who aren’t very talented but don’t know it.” Now the program attracts top flight NFL bait such as Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy, New England Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and puts them through the same rigorous training under Nick Saban as in Bear Bryant’s day.

Alabama was probably one of the leading football schools in the nation from the time its teams journeyed north to play Northeastern behemoths such as Penn and Fordham in the 1920s and 1930s, but without national television and a national press following them, few knew it.

Then, in 1960, a rising young ABC executive named Roone Arledge came up with the idea that college football could become a staple of network programming. It was Arledge who transformed the college game from an occasional entertainment into an autumn Saturday afternoon American tradition.

The first college game Arledge produced was the opener of the 1960 season between Alabama and Georgia in Birmingham, Ala. The Crimson Tide had already won a trophy room full of awards from Rose Bowls and Sugar Bowls along with a few national titles, but 1960 marked the first time the Tide had ever been featured on national television.

Once fans all over America got a good look at Alabama cheerleaders, heard the Million Dollar Band blaring “Yeah, Alabama!” and saw the craggy outline of Bear Bryant outlined against a blue-gray September sky, it became a habit to tune in Alabama games every fall. Tex Noel, former executive director of the Intercollegiate Football Research Association, says, “Since 1920, Alabama has had the most successful program in the country measured by a combination of victories, strength of competition, and bowl appearances.”

Perhaps, though, the most significant reason Alabama is the most influential football program of all time is the one offered by Bear Bryant himself: “When we have a good team at Alabama, I know it’s because we have boys who have good mamas and papas.”

The sophisticated are ill-advised to sneer at this prescription for winning. It could well be the main reason why, on Monday night, Alabama is a 7-point favorite to win its 15th national championship—15, as they say in Tuscaloosa, and counting.