THEY SAY college
football is religion in the Deep South, but it's not. Only religion is
religion. Anyone who has seen an old man rise from his baptism, his soul all on
fire, knows as much, though it is easy to see how people might get confused.
But if football were a faith anywhere, it would be here on the Black Warrior
River in Tuscaloosa, Ala. And now has come a great revival.
strained with expectation. The people who could not find a seat stood on the
ramps or squatted in the aisles, as if it were Auburn down there, or Tennessee,
and when the crowd roared, the sound really did roll like thunder across the
sky. A few blocks away 73-year-old Ken Fowler climbed to his second-story
terrace so he could hear it better and stood in the sunlight as that lovely
roar fell all around him. He believes in the goodness and rightness of the
Crimson Tide the way people who handle snakes believe in the power of God, but
in his long lifetime of unconditional love, of Rose Bowl trains, Bobby Marlow
up the middle and the Goal Line Stand, he never heard anything like this. His
Alabama was playing before the largest football crowd in state history, and
playing only itself. "We had 92,000," he said, "for a
It felt good. It
felt like it used to feel.
They came from
Sand Mountain, the wire grass, the Black Belt, the Gulf Coast and just wide
places in the road. They came in motor homes, private jets, $30,000 pickup
trucks, $400 cars and dime-store flip-flops to see Nick Saban walk the sideline
of Bryant-Denny Stadium in April.
They have welcomed
him as Caesar, as pharaoh, and paid him enough money to burn a wet dog. Now he
will take them forward by taking them back to the glory of their past—the 21
Southeastern Conference championships, the 12 national championships, the Team
of the 20th Century (as The Wall Street Journal called the Crimson Tide in
Saban has not
promised them so much—"I don't believe in predictions," he says—but
they believe. It may take two years, three, more, to be in the discussion again
when people talk about the best teams in college football. But they know he
will take them home.
"I've been on
this roller coaster for a long time," says Fowler, a self-made businessman
who could live a lot of places but settled on a house so close to the campus
that he can all but see his reflection in the go-go boots of the Crimsonettes
as they strut down University Boulevard before the homecoming game. "In the
'50s, under coach J.B. (Ears) Whitworth, we went 14 games without a win, and I
watched grown men cry. People said then there would never be another coach here
as good as Wallace Wade [who won national championships in 1925, '26 and '30]
or Frank Thomas [1934, '41]. They said it was over.
"Then in '58
we hired a coach who could do the things we needed to put us in a position to
win SEC championships again and national championships again. People used to
stare at him as he stood on the sideline, too, like he was about to turn a
stick into a snake."
His name was Paul
Bryant, and he was popular here. They named an animal after him. How people
loved that man. But it is time, past time, to love again.
never anything wrong with remembering the past, but you can't live in it,"
says Mal Moore, the Alabama athletic director who was all but dragged through
saw briars when it appeared that Saban and other marquee names—most notably
West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez—were passing Alabama by. Then on Jan. 3 he
brought Saban home with him on the school jet from Miami, where Saban had been
coaching the Dolphins. People who had been calling for Moore's resignation
praised his leadership.