But on April 21, 2007, 132 days removed from the season’s first game, a rumble of historic magnitude rocked the Pangea of major college football to its tectonic core. The implications are still being felt, still being debated, still being dissected. But there’s no doubting its significance. The epicenter: Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Ask anyone who was there – the fans, the staff, the media, Nick Saban himself – and they’ll tell you the game changed on that day, when 92,138 people put their lives on hold and made a pilgrimage to Tuscaloosa…for football practice.
It began with a legendary coach in the spring of 1966, when Paul “Bear” Bryant decided the best way to wrap up spring football drills was to hold an intrasquad scrimmage, open to the public, to whet everyone’s appetite for the fall schedule. Since that time, a spring football game of some fashion has been a tradition undertaken by college teams from coast-to-coast. At Alabama, they call it A-Day.
Over the past 43 years, the game has taken on various characteristics and designations. It’s been played at both Bryant-Denny Stadium on campus and at Birmingham’s Legion Field. One year they charged a miniscule admission fee. Former coach Gene Stallings abandoned the game twice in non-consecutive years.
But what was never lost on the fans, until now at least, was the simple perspective that A-Day was not Alabama football per se, but rather an Alabama football dress rehearsal. Essentially, it’s a glorified practice. A chance for the unconnected, perhaps strapped-for-cash fan to experience a taste of game day atmosphere for nothing more than the cost of a tank of gas and a couple of Coca Colas.
It culminated with another legendary coach, Saban, who resurrected the once-proud football program from the edge of irrelevancy and shot it back into the troposphere – on April 21, 2007.
That crowd, Bryant-Denny’s capacity, was a national record for a spring football game. But any team with a grand stadium and an above-average fan base can set an otherwise meaningless record in a given year. That day wasn’t a gimmick.
It was a revolution of sorts for a program that had seen the bottom and lived to tell about it. A program that, with the addition of Saban to its already impressive legacy of coaches, felt it was back in the catbird seat of major college football.
But, as is usually the case in college football, no one sets a record and figures it to go unchallenged. This season, Michigan and Tennessee openly implored their fans to break Alabama’s meaningless spring game record. Both schools own stadiums with greater seating capacity than Alabama’s (for now at least), meaning that the Tide would not only lose the record, but presumably, wouldn’t be able to get it back.
Last weekend was the third incarnation of A-Day under Saban’s watch and a chance for Alabama fans to defend their honor. Upon learning of the challenges laid down by their counterparts in Ann Arbor and Knoxville, Tide faithful were skeptical their devotion could be outmatched.
“We’ve heard that same thing,” said one fan in a group outside the Bryant Museum prior to kickoff after hearing of Michigan’s plot. “But it’s never gonna happen.”
“Not gonna happen, not gonna happen,” said another in the shadow of RV row near the baseball stadium. “You didn’t see the traffic that I saw coming in.”
As it was, both Michigan and Tennessee fell well short of reaching Alabama’s record, with both schools attracting just over 50,000 fans to their spring games. And, while the Tide fell short of a capacity crowd this year, the final tally of 84,050 now ranks as the second largest ever in college football history.
To those on the outside of the “Crimson Nation”, as the fan base has come to be known, rhyme and reason of all this hoopla is lost completely. Not just why these folks would devote their lives to a college football team, but why they would gas up the RV for football practice? There are two reasons.
Reason No. 1: Simply put, local cliché understood, Bama’s back. And Nick Saban is responsible.
After the 1992 national championship run, Alabama ran into arguably the thorniest patch of its 117-year history. Two bouts with NCAA probation, four losing seasons and seven head coaches, one of which was fired before he ever coached a game.
But then Saban came along, serendipitously, and the Tide began to turn. Aside from a few setbacks in his first year (2007) the momentum has effectively shifted around positively for the program, and the fans are well aware of it.
“Everybody’s pumped up,” says Stan Moody, one of the multitude of fans to attend this year’s A-Day game. “We finally have a good coach again, and the excitement is back.”
His friend, Dave Robinson, agrees.
“I think Coach Saban has a lot to do with it,” Robinson said. “It’s good to be back.”
Craig Rutherford, who spent the hours leading up to the spring game cooking ribs with friends Larry Johnson and Shane Dryden outside their RV, also credited Coach Saban with replanting Alabama’s flag at the top of the college football mountain once again.
“We’ve got the man down here now,” he said. “It takes a special coach to handle everything that goes on at Alabama, and he’s one of the few who can do it.”
“Everything that goes on at Alabama” is code for fan devotion, a theme that even Saban has had a hard time adjusting to, despite his noteworthy prior engagements at LSU and in Miami with the NFL’s Dolphins. It segues into our Reason No. 2: The fans, feeling the old swagger once again, are taking any opportunity available to express their pride, even if it means flooding the spring game.
Let’s face it, other than major college football the state of Alabama doesn’t have much to offer in the way of significant national sporting events. That has been the case for some time now. No NFL, no NBA, no MLB, just college football. The trade off for living in perpetual pro sports famine for Tide fans is the knowledge that their school arguably lays claim to the sport’s finest and deepest tradition. For all that our state has been lousy at throughout history, college football has been the one exception.
But now an entire generation of Alabama football fans has been reared during the locust years. They know of the twelve national championships, the 51 bowl appearances, the legendary shadow of the Bear, but they haven’t experienced the dominance for themselves. For the past 17 years, it’s been the lousy of our state that has assumed the forefront, rather than the exceptional. But now it appears that finally the natural order of things is being re-established and our much-maligned state is ready to be exceptional at something important once again.
With that in mind, Alabama fans are giddy at the concept of being back in front of the pack, to the point that they display a religious devotion to Saban, his boys and the legacy that he represents. David DeWitt, a professor of humanities at the Capstone who once taught a class likening Alabama football to a civil religion, refers to the game day phenomenon as “the Crimson cathedral.”
The fans certainly do not belie that point.
“He’s asking us for one day,” Rutherford says, referring to Saban and his call for A-Day support. “One day.”
His friend Larry picks up the thought.
“One day to lay everything down and come support the Crimson Tide.”
The lady in the Bryant Museum group takes it one step further.
“It’s like a religion, it really is,” she says. “You can’t describe it.”
So for now, 130 days before their first game of the 2009 season, the Tide can lay claim to at least one preseason victory and one preseason loss, as this year’s A-Day saw the Crimson squad defeat the White team, 14-7. But it’s the hope of what’s to come, if not this year, than certainly in the future, that has Tide fans anxious for the calendar to make haste for another September. The hope, if not the certainty, that Bama is indeed back.
This column was written collaboratively by Matt Hooper and Jesse Chambers.