TCFA

Posted Jan. 8, 2015

Sep 8, 2011

A Dynasty In Full Bloom, A Dynasty In Decline

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There was a time, not so long ago, when Alabama football was not Alabama football.

The year was 2006, and the college football world was lorded over by Pete Carroll in the West, by Urban Meyer in the South, by Mack Brown in Texas, and by Jim Tressel up North.

Nick Saban was working wonders in Athens. The ever-eccentric Les Miles was just beginning to make noise in Baton Rouge. Charlie Weis, he of the large ego and larger waistline, was still viewed as a strategic savior up in South Bend. And some guy named Chris Petersen was going about the business of building a program that would fundamentally alter the national college football debate.

In all corners of This Great Land, there was a whole lot of exciting stuff happening.

But not in Tuscaloosa.

Because in Tuscaloosa, there was only this: Despondency. Pain. Misery. Hopelessness.

In November of that sad year, Tide fans saw their team lose, for the fourth straight time, to the Auburn Tigers, they of the Barn. Coach Mike Shula, he of the last name and very little else, was coach for all four of those debacles. And so it came to pass that, despite the six-year contract extension that he had received just 12 months earlier, Shula was fired.

You don’t lose to Auburn four times straight and keep your job in Tuscaloosa, see? Boasting an overall record of 24-23 doesn’t help matters, either.

Now, looking back, one might presume that Shula’s firing would have been cause for great celebration (as morbid as that may sound) down in Tuscaloosa. But it was not exactly that; if anything, the event was little more than another miserable turn of events for a program that, except for the occasional glimpse of glory, had essentially been wandering the college football wilderness since 1996. That was the year the great Gene Stallings retired after a seven-year run—a remarkable and generally underappreciated run that saw the Tide go 70-16-1 and win one national title.

No, Stalllings didn’t exactly deliver Bryant-level results, but he won enough to keep the natives content. When he left, everything in Tuscaloosa essentially went to hell, as The Most Important Program in the American South struggled through four historically bad coaching hires. First came the Mike Dubose Era (24-23 in four seasons, one case of alleged sexual harassment, and the Albert Means mess). Which was followed by the Dennis Franchione Era (17-6 in two seasons, lots of grumbling about life in Alabama, one messy departure for … Texas A&M?). Which was followed by the stunningly short-lived Mike Price Era (two words: Roll. Tide.).

And then there was Shula, so unprepared for the job, so unfit for the culture, so clearly out of his depth.

After that decade of historic misery—after embarrassing losses and off-the-field scandals and the great and painful indignity of seeing Florida and LSU and Georgia and all of those deeply unworthy programs take over the mantle of True SEC Titan—Tide fans had given up reason for hope. Their program was in tatters. The legacy of the Bear had been tarnished.

They were also-rans.

They were forgotten.

They weren’t Alabama.

***

Then a man with the surname Saban arrived.

Yes, Nick Saban, former college coaching journeyman, one-time national champion at hated LSU, NFL washout, was introduced as the 27th coach of Alabama football on January 4, 2007.

It is not an exaggeration, not in the least, to say that the moment Saban stepped to that podium--the moment he addressed the vast Tide Nation--was the very moment that the Alabama football program was saved. Because indeed, in the years since he's taken over, Saban has done nothing less than make Alabama into Alabama again.

Which is really quite remarkable when you think about it, because to be perfectly frank, Saban’s pre-Alabama resume was actually quite checkered. There was the national title season at LSU, yes, and there was the Sugar Bowl win in his second season there, as well. Impressive stuff, no doubt. What you may not recall, however, was that Saban reached 10 wins just twice in his five-year run in Baton Rouge; in fact, that national championship season was bookended by a 8-5 mark in 2002 and a disappointing 9-3 run in 2004.

Before LSU, there was Michigan State, where Saban essentially made his name in the college football coaching world, though looking back, it’s difficult to understand why he became such a hot commodity—and why LSU decided to hire him in the first place. Besides, his overall record in East Lansing was 34-24-1. He was there six years, and won more than seven games just once. He never won a bowl game with the Spartans, never won a Big Ten title, twice finished fifth in the league, twice finished sixth. His teams were unremarkable in most every way.

And yet, there is no denying that Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa was greeted with nothing less than over-the-moon enthusiasm among the Tide fans, downright fury among the NFL snobs, and downright fear among the Tide's rivals in the SEC West; though there was nothing particularly impressive about Saban’s record to that point, the man quite simply had a presence about him.

When he spoke, people listened.

When he entered a room, he owned it.

When he talked football, he evoked a sense of confidence that was simply unmistakable.

He knew he was hired for but one reason: To win. And so he went out and did precisely that. There was the 7-6 transitional year in 2007 (a minor miracle of a season in its own right, given the material he had to work with), an SEC title game run a year later, the national title a year after that. Last year’s 10-3 mark, capped with an epic beatdown of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, was a slight disappointment, yes, but no matter: ‘Bama entered the 2011 season as a unanimous Top 5 pick, a popular favorite to win the SEC (again) and an unquestioned national title contender (again).

For the first time since the days of Stallings, in other words, this program is what it by all rights should be: A powerhouse.

To see Saban’s Tide teams play is to see a team that plays with disciplined brutality and controlled recklessness. A team that plays with the kind of confidence that can only be engendered by a man who demands nothing short of perfection. A team that knows what it’s supposed to do, then goes out and does it. A team that will physically dominate you. A team that will mentally intimidate you. A team that knows it is supposed to win every time it takes the field—and win impressively.

The Alabama of today is about championships. There is nothing else on the radar.

Saban, in other words, has built Alabama into the single thing that every college football fan hopes to see their team become: A dynasty.

A dynasty in full bloom.

***

Saban’s dynasty hits the road this week.

They will pack up their crimson and white jerseys and their elephant mascot and their legions of followers and head up to Happy Valley, home of Beaver Stadium, where on Saturday afternoon they will take on Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions.

In theory, this is a big one. In theory, it’s game-of-the-week material. In theory, it’s the kind of showdown Gameday should flock to. In theory, it’s got all the makings of a true college football classic—two college football bluebloods, some of the finest uniforms in all of sports, a massive stage on which to play, North vs. South, power vs. power.

And yet, if I were to be perfectly honest, I would have to admit the following: This game isn’t any of those things. Not really.

It’s not a big one, at least not on a national scale. It’s not the game of the week. Gameday ain’t coming (indicative of where this game actually stands, folks, is the fact that ESPN is instead shipping Chris, Lee and Kirk out to Ann Arbor ... for a showdown between unranked Michigan and unranked Notre Dame). And, barring some kind of miraculous performance from the boys in blue and white, this one likely won’t be a classic, either.

At the risk of sounding fatalistic, and at the risk of raising the ire of the Penn State fans out there, I don’t really believe Penn State has much of a shot to win this thing. And here’s the thing: Deep down inside most Penn State fans don’t really believe Penn State has a chance to win this thing, either.

I mean, why would they?

The gulf between Penn State and Alabama right now—in talent, in confidence, in cachet, in coaching, in cunning, in ruthlessness—is massive. Absolutely massive.

I want you to do me a favor this week, folks. When you first flip on this game (3:30 on ABC, by the way), I want you to take a good long look at the Crimson Tide; then I want to you take a good long look at the Nittany Lions. I want you to compare the offensive linemen against the offensive lineman, the defensive linemen against the defensive linemen, the tailbacks against at the tailbacks, the defensive backs against the defensive backs. I want you to compare the size. The athleticism. The bulk.

Then I want you to ask yourself: Barring some kind of heroic performance, how in the world can Penn State—smaller, weaker, less athletic—actually be expected to beat Alabama?

Well, they can’t, can they?

A Penn State win here would be an enormous upset, which is in itself a sad commentary of sorts, but it is a true statement nonetheless, because what Penn State once was, they are no longer. The same man who built this program into a national elite has also overseen its slow, steady decline; this weekend, that decline will be broadcast for all the college football world to see.

***

I have said it many times: One of the great frustrations I have with college football fans (and analysts, for that matter) is the fact that they have such maddeningly short memories.

It’s the ESPN mindset run rampant; whatever happened yesterday matters no longer; whatever happened a year ago is forgotten; whatever happened a decade ago may as well have never happened at all.

But you see, in college football, this mindset is nothing less than an abdication of college football fandom itself. If you claim to love this game, you must embrace its history. You must honor its history. Maybe more importantly, you must understand its history.

And to understand the history of college football is to understand that, for an awfully long time, Joe Paterno was a fantastically successful football coach, one of the most successful the game has ever seen. He was a cunning gameday manager. A master motivator. A field general’s field general. A thinker. A planner. A winner.

The numbers speak for themselves.

After a shaky 5-5 start in his debut season of 1966, then a promising 8-2-1 mark in 1967, Paterno began winning like few coaches have ever won before. His teams went undefeated in 1968 and 1969, won 10 or more games every year between 1971 and 1974 (and remember, these were the days of the 11-game regular season), posted back to back 11-1 seasons in 1977 and 1978, and, in the 1980s, went about the business of firmly established Penn State—a school long derided an Eastern also-ran—as an unquestioned member of the college football elite. The Nittany Lions played for the national title four times between 1979 and 1986. They won two of those showdowns, knocking off Herschel Walker and the Georgia Bulldogs in 1982, and Michael Irvin and the Miami Hurricanes in 1986.

To see those Paterno teams play was to see a team playing with reckless brutality. A team playing with the kind of confidence that can only be engendered by a man who demanded nothing short of perfection. A team that knew what it was supposed to do, then went out and did it. A team that would physically dominate you. A team that would mentally intimidate you. A team that knew it was supposed to win every time it took the field—and win impressively.

Sadly, however, those Penn State teams are gone, relics of the past, symbols of a different era.

It is true that, in the years since the heady days of the 1980s, there have been glimpses of greatness up in Happy Valley; the 1994 team was undeniably one of the greatest the game has ever seen; the underrated 11-2 bunch of 1996 steamrolled Texas in the Fiesta Bowl; the much-beloved Orange Bowl champions of 2005 announced Penn State’s re-arrival as, at the very least, a Big Ten contender; the unexpected Big Ten champs of 2008 brought fleeting hopes of a national title (damn you, Iowa).

Great teams all. Great Paterno teams all.

And yet, there can be no denying that, as the 1980s have faded into the distance, the seasons of glory have grown less frequent, the athletes less spectacular, the teams less dominant. The confidence isn’t there. The dominance is gone. Penn State doesn’t take the field expecting to win anymore, and there’s a perfectly simple reason why: They lose as many big games as they win, and indeed, an argument could be made that they don’t win very many big games at all.

Penn State may be a bigger program in name, yes. But could it be denied that Boise State is bigger in reality? I think not.

Look, I say this as somebody who loves the place as much as anybody: Penn State is many things. It’s an historic football power. It’s one of the winningest programs of all time. It’s a marquee program for the East Coast, a lynchpin program of the Big Ten. Penn State can still produce good teams—very good teams, actually—and can still turn out great football players. Penn State can still put on a great gameday show. Penn State can still draw the crowds. Penn State can still win the Big Ten on occasion, can still play in the Rose Bowl on occasion, and can still make a (fleeting) run at the national title on occasion.

But when you see the Crimson Tide tussle with the Nittany Lions this Saturday, and when you really see the difference between these two great historic programs, it will readily become clear what Penn State is not.

It is not a dynasty.

It is not an elite.

It is not, in other words, Alabama.

And to be quite frank, it’s really not even very close.

THE NEWS, AS IT WERE: RAMBLINGS FROM COLLEGE FOOTBALL PROPER

♦ I suppose at some point we should address The Elephant In The Room. That Elephant being, of course, Texas A&M’s Protracted Yet Inevitable Move To The SEC. For a brief moment Tuesday evening, it seemed that all that A&M has been dreaming of for the past year or so was about to come true; the SEC presidents on that fine evening voted (unanimously, allegedly) to invite the Aggies as their 13th member, a move that would not only effectively destroy the Big 12 but also set in a motion a potentially calamitous series of events that may or may not conclude with The Complete And Utter Destruction Of Everything We Hold Dear In College Football. The Aggies, unfazed by the prospect of chaos, were downright thrilled with the SEC’s decsion; so much so, in fact, that they began planning a big party to celebrate the event. It was to be “SEC Day” in College Station. Or possibly, “Hell Yeah We Totally Screwed Texas Day.” Or possibly, “It Will Be Fun Watching Baylor Wither Into Nothingness Day.” The event was planned for Wednesday. And yet the event never occurred, because the aforementioned Baylor stepped up and announced that they would not wither into nothingness without a fight. Yes, the school that is currently led by one Ken Starr (I am not making that up; Ken Starr is actually the president of Baylor) has promised to (prepare to be shocked) file a lawsuit (gasp) to stop A&M from leaving. Apparently, other Big 12 schools are beginning to come around to Baylor’s way of thinking, too, which has surprised the Aggies, as they were promised by The Stunningly Ineffective Dan Beebe that their departure would not be impeded by, you know, lawsuits. Or Ken Starr. Said The Stunningly Innefective Beebe: "If the departure of Texas A&M results in significant changes in the Big 12 membership, several institutions may be severely affected after counting on revenue streams from contracts that were approved unanimously by our members, including Texas A&M. In some cases, members reasonably relied on such approval to embark on obligations that will cost millions of dollars." And so we are left in limbo. Except we aren’t. Because no matter what, Texas A&M is going to the SEC. So let’s just get it over with, already.

♦ Michigan plays Notre Dame this week. And while every Michigan-Notre Dame game is cause for celebration among We Of College Football Nation, this year’s showdown seems a tad more special, a tad more intriguing, and tad more, well, important. Not just important for Notre Dame, and not just important for Michigan, but rather, important for The Entire Northern United States. As we all know, both of these programs have had their struggles of late, and not-so-coincidentally, so too has collegiate football north of the Mason-Dixon Line. We are living, whether we like it or not, in The Era Of Mike Slive, with the schools of the SEC winning everything in sight and enjoying every moment of the seemingly annual beat-downs they lay on the schools of the once-proud-and-will-be-proud-again Big Ten (I am including Notre Dame in the Big Ten discussion because they will be a member of the Big Ten by 2014). Which brings us to this game, the first ever night game at grand old Michigan Stadium, and a showdown between Brian Kelly (perceived savior of Notre Dame, though his halo is positioned slightly askew of late) and Brady Hoke (perceived savior of Michigan, though it must be noted that Michigan fans weren’t exactly thrilled to hear of his selection). Both men have shown signs of promise. Both seem well-equipped to lead a renaissance at their respective programs. Both are proven winners. And yet the question I ask is this: Can both of these men succeed at the same time? Given the shifting demographics of our nation, is there enough talent in the Midwest (read: Ohio) to support both programs and Ohio State and Michigan State and Penn State? I’m not sure there is, which means that, in the long run, only one of these two guys is likely to survive. I just came to this realization at this very moment.

MISCELLANY: NOTES FROM THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL FRINGES

♦ I just want to warn you, dear readers, that we are hearing the very first rumblings of this: Texas to the Big Ten. Along with Notre Dame.

♦ I have heard the same old story all week from The Defenders Of Bad Uniforms: “Those trendy uniforms aren’t for you,” say the ill-advised Defenders. “They’re for recruits.” Well. Here’s the thing, folks: When you commit to play for a college football program, you commit to, you know, play for that program. The uniforms that are there are the uniforms you can expect to wear during your time there. The uniforms that are there are the uniforms you should want to wear—and wear proudly. These kids should not expect to given new uniforms just because they think they're "cool," and I admire the programs out there who are willing to stand their ground, respect their histories, and not pander to a bunch of 17-year-old kids. Note: Damn I'm old.

♦ While I understand that My Long-Winded Column Up Yonder about Penn State and Alabama did not paint a very pretty picture of things in Happy Valley, I would like to point out that I still believe the Nits of 2011 have a legtimate shot to win the Big Ten. And there are two reasons why: 1. Linebacker Mike Mauti, who is a worthy successor to All Those ‘Backers Who Came Before; and tailback Silas Redd, who may be the most exciting back Penn State has had since Ki-Jana Carter. Mauti is No. 42, Redd is No. 25. Sit back and enjoy.

♦ Speaking of the Penn State defense … I fully expect this bunch to give Alabama fits. Penn State won’t lose this game because of defense, and indeed may not actually lose because of offense, but special teams are almost certain to be an issue. Here’s a name you need to know: Anthony Fera. If he plays for the Nits on Saturday, they have a chance. If he doesn’t, expect calamity.

♦ Les Miles said this week that Texas A&M joining the SEC would be (and I quote) “good for our country.” This is why we love Les Miles.

♦ Jerry Palm this week predicted that Michigan would finish second in the Big Ten and play in a BCS bowl. I have no further comment.

♦ Boomer Esiason, former Maryland football legend, speaking to ESPN this week about Maryland’s horrific uniforms: "It's the most conversation about sports at Maryland since Gary Williams' team won the NCAA basketball tournament in 2002. That's a long time."

♦ Kevin Plank, former Maryland football “legend” and founder of UnderArmor, to ESPN this week about the inspiration behind his company’s designs for Maryalnd’s horrific uniforms: "Our job is to start a conversation."

♦ ESPN’s Rece Davis, writing for ESPN.com this week, about the Penn State-Alabama game: “These two have played 14 times. Four times the winner scored nine points or fewer. I know. History doesn't mean a thing come Saturday, but that's just the way the Nittany Lions and the Tide go about their business. And both will be impeccably dressed.” PENN STATE AND ALABAMA AND TRADITION WIN.

♦ I promise you this, dear friends. If I was in Happy Valley this weekend, and if I were tailgating In The Shadow of Mount Nittany, then this song would be playing loud and clear at 8:17 a.m. There is Willie. And then there is everybody else.

♦ Looking for this week's picks? Well, click here.

♦ Looking for the latest episode of the TCFA Podcast? Well, click here. In this week's episode, Mike and I review all of the events from college football's Week 1, explain why Penn State has no chance to beat Alabama and, most importantly, talk about "Woo Pig Sooie." It's a must-listen.

♦ Have an opinion about this week's column? Want to chime in about the latest podcast? Well, please, contact us at youreditor@intelligentcollegefootball.com or podcasts@intelligentcollegefootball.com.

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