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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, August 27, 2007
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 was a faith anywhere, it would be here on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa, Ala. And now has come a great revival. ¶ The stadium 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. 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, Fowler had 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 scrimmage."
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 welcomed him as Caesar, as pharaoh, and paid him enough money to burn a wet dog. Now he would 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 2000).
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 successful 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 a 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 was time, past time, to love again.
"There is 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 were passing Alabama by. Then on Jan. 3, 2007, 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.