Newport Beach, Calif.–On a plaza at the North end of Bryant-Denny Stadium are the statues of the coaches who have won national championships at Alabama: Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Gene Stallings, and, of course, Paul Bear Bryant.
When the plaza was built there was room left for a fifth statue in anticipation that someday, someone, would take Alabama back to its football glory.
After Alabama’s 37-21 victory over Texas in Thursday night’s BCS national championship game, it is a fair statement that a statue of Nick Saban will soon be filling that space.
“I haven’t thought about it but Terry (his wife) said something about it last night,” said Saban, who brought Alabama its national championship in only three years. “You hope that when you get into this profession that you can do something that leaves a mark, that will effect someone in a positive way in the future.”
The college football world reacted with shock and awe in Janaury of 2007 when Saban was hired away from the Miami Dolphins for the unheard of sum of $32 million over eight years. But this morning, as Saban and athletic director Mal Moore came to pick up the national championship hardware, that deal struck three years ago looks like a bargain,
”You have to understand how special this is to the Alabama people,” said Moore, who laid the foundation for this moment by raising the money and building the facilities that made it possible for Saban to succeed. “To come here and win another national championship in the Rose Bowl is very significant to our people. This is just a great moment in the history of the University of Alabama.”
It was Moore decided that he would not take no for an answer when it came time to hire Saban. He had offered the job in West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez and it appeared that he was coming to Tuscaloosa. Moore decided at that point that Alabama would do whatever it had to do to get Saban. He then convinced the the right people at Alabama that hiring Saban and making the financial commitment was absolutely necessary if the school wanted to return to national prominence in football.
There was much work to be done when Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. But when over 92,000 packed Bryant-Denny Stadium for the first spring game, forcing fire marshalls to close the gates and leave thousands more outside, Saban knew that Alabama would eventually be successful.
“When I saw that kind of passion I knew that if we did our job as players and coaches that we had a very good chance to be successful,” he said. “When you have that kind of positive energy surrounding the program, you’re off to a really good start.”
Saban’s first Alabama team started fast but stumbled down the stretch to finish 7-6. In 2008 Alabama started 12-0 and rose to a No. 1 ranking. But a loss in the SEC championship game to Florida, which went on to win the national title, was followed by an inexplicable loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. Those disappointments provided all the motivational energy Saban would need to get the 2009 team ready for a run at the national championship.
“We were very clear with our players about what it would take and the commitment that would have to be made to be successful this season,” said Saban. “Our players bought into what we were selling.”
There were some tense moments this season. Terrence Cody had to block a field goal on the last play of the game to beat Tennessee 12-10 in October. Alabama had to drive the length of the field to beat Auburn on the day after Thanksgiving.
But when Alabama faced No. 1 Florida in the SEC championship game, Saban and his players and coaches had done their homework. They had been getting ready for that game since they lost in Atlanta the year before. Alabama just destroyed Florida.
In the BCS championship game Texas lost quarterback Colt McCoy early which certainly changed the game. Behind freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert the Longhorns cut a 24-6 lead to 24-21 with about four minutes left.
But Alabama’s defense forced two late turnovers and made the game appear to be more lopsided than it really was.
Alabama’s team gets back to Tuscaloosa tonight and there will be a great celebration. And there will be plans to build that statue. But it won’t be long before thoughts turn to recruiting and the 2010 season.
Expect Alabama to be the preseason No. 1 with the talent the Crimson Tide has returning. Saban would have no part of that discussion.
”Every team is different and this team will have a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “You guys (the media) will look at our top four or five players and figure we should be there (No. 1).”
Understand that Saban’s warning was not for the benefit of the assembled media. It was for the Alabama’s players who will be watching him on television. It is his warning to them that this offseason may be one of the toughest Alabama has ever had because it is much harder to win the second championship because you’re not as hungry.
Saban will make sure they are hungry. You can count on that. After all, he’s got a statue.
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