Unparalleled fan passion keying state of Alabama's historic run
The Iron Bowl rivalry has gotten a reputation for negative fan behavior
In reality, fan passion is a big reason for the state's three straight titles
Alabama's and Auburn's joint success is unprecedented in modern era
Friends of Kevin and Beth Butler describe the couple as rational, even-keeled and, well, just about as down-home nice as anyone in the South. Kevin is a 47-year-old engineer; Beth is a 46-year-old stay-at-home mom. They've been happily married for 19 years. Yet one 2010 night in their home of Scottsboro, Ala., explains at least partially why -- according to both Nick Saban and Gene Chizik -- the state of Alabama has been able to rule the college football world for the last three years like no other state in the modern history of the sport.
On Nov. 26, 2010, the Crimson Tide hosted the Auburn Tigers in the Iron Bowl. Kevin, who was born in Florence, Ala., and attended Auburn, is a diehard Tigers fan; Beth, a native of Scottsboro, comes from generations of Alabama fans and is a devoted Crimson Tide backer. The two had gone to the 2004 Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa, but vowed to never attend another Alabama-Auburn game together again after Kevin celebrated the Tigers' win a little too fervently for Beth's taste, cheering with the band in the front row of the stadium. "She just thought I was down with the band a little too long," Brian said. "It was an extremely quiet ride home. It was probably the first time in our marriage we really didn't get along. So then we decided we can't watch the Iron Bowl together anymore."
So in 2010, Brian watched the game on a television in his garage while Beth viewed it inside their home. After Cam Newton rallied Auburn from a 24-0 deficit to win 28-27, Brian didn't dare go inside, fearful of incurring the wrath of his wife and further damaging her wounded pride. "I stayed in the garage for over an hour," he said. "We both love our teams. We grew up with it. When I went inside I just acted like the game never occurred. That's best for our marriage."
Forget the trash-talking, overheated fans who call the Paul Finebaum radio show based in Birmingham; the tree-poisoning antics of Harvey Updyke; the alleged criminal behavior of that notorious Alabama tea-bagging fan. It is the hardcore -- and yes, mostly reasonable -- fans like Kevin and Beth Butler who have helped the state of Alabama, with a 4.8-million population that constitutes about 1.5 percent of the total U.S. population, win the last three straight BCS national titles, an unprecedented event for two schools in the same state in modern college football history.
"I've been all around the country and I've never seen as much passion among the fans for college football as there is in the state of Alabama," said Chizik. "I've been and coached in states where football is king, but even high school football is king in this state. The passion comes from the fact there are no professional sports here. In this state all you hear fans talking about are Auburn and Alabama. And it's an every day thing, not just in season. It doesn't matter the month. And trust me, our players know that and that is a big selling point for both programs I'm sure: Just the passion of the fans. It all stems from that."
Saban agrees. "People in this state have tremendous passion for football," he said. "But that's true for the entire Southeast. There weren't any pro sports teams in the Southeast until the 1970s, so everyone grew up relating to college football. It's still that way in Alabama and there's a lot of good high school coaches here that do a great job of developing talent."
Of course, there are many reasons why Alabama and Auburn have combined to win the last three titles: the gameday acumen of Saban and Chizik; the Cam Newtons and Trent Richardsons at each program; the rich tradition of success at both schools; the recruiting ability of the staffs and the growing number of in-state talent (32 of the 88 players on the Tide's spring guide roster hail from Alabama). Yet even the Yellowhammer State's ability to churn out quality players -- at least too a degree -- can be tied to the intense passion for football that Alabamians possess.
"I remember playing Pee-Wee football as a six year old and we had big crowds and cheerleaders at every game," said Tide linebacker Nico Johnson, a native of Andalusia, Ala., who was recruited by Alabama, Auburn, LSU, USC, Florida State and Tennessee. "Even as little kids you understand the importance of football in this state, and that makes you take it very, very seriously. You have the right mindset for what it takes. In high school our stadium was always sold out. I don't want to take away from fans in other states, but I just can't imagine people caring for the sport like they do in Alabama. And trust me, recruits notice that and it makes playing in this state very attractive."
Even recruiting analysts are quick to point out the edge that this fandom gives both Alabama and Auburn. "No other state can rival Alabama in terms of fan interest," said Jamie Newberg, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com. "On average 80 to 100 D-I kids come from Alabama each year. The state doesn't approach the Big Four of Florida, Texas, California and Georgia in producing the number of college players, but Saban and Chizik excel at getting kids from those states. Remember Cam [Newton] was from Georgia and Trent [Richardson] was from Florida.... The last three great recruiting runs were Bobby Bowden at Florida in the '90s, Pete Carroll at USC in the 2000s and now Saban at Alabama. It's gotten to the point where he's now turning away great kids."
I've been living in Birmingham since 2004. Growing up in Lincoln, Neb., I took it as an article of faith that Husker fans were as zealous as any in the nation. I was flat wrong, as I've found out first hand. I'll never forget the first time I walked into the house of my girlfriend, April Dalgleish. In her den she has five framed Daniel Moore prints depicting Nick Saban and other Alabama greats along with an encased 2009 commemorative football celebrating the Tide's national title. In the front of her house she has a large Alabama flag that flies 365 days a year, and it's not coming down no matter what anyone says. In this state April's devotion is the rule, not the exception.
"People can give Alabama a hard time for certain things, but not our football," April said. "On that front, we've got y'all beat."
There's no question that passion has helped fuel this historic run of success.