When incoming Alabama Athletics Director Greg Byrne got the question about being Nick Saban’s boss, he deflected it nicely. “I consider it a partnership,” he said.
While the chain of command has the athletics director at the top of Alabama’s voluminous organizational chart, common sense has it that Saban has special status as the nation’s most successful college football coach.
Byrne also said that he adheres to the athletics directors’ creed of being responsible for providing coaches with the tools – facilities, personnel, travel budget, ad infinitum – to succeed.
And an athletics director has a myriad of other jobs, not the least of which is making sure the bills can be paid.
That brings us back to football, which is the breadwinner. Football is the primary reason that donors make contributions to The University -- to the athletics department, but also to business and engineering and the rest.
The athletics department fills its coffers in various ways. The lucrative television contract negotiated by the Southeastern Conference comes at a price (don’t make plans for when a game might kick off, and certainly not for when it might end), but it makes all things possible.
Obviously, Alabama also rakes in big bucks for its participation in bowl games to end the season and kickoff games to start them. And in between the Crimson Tide ordinarily has seven home games, all 101,821 seats sold out; and all Tide Pride programs sold out, all 159 skyboxes sold out.
Four of those games are against SEC opponents, balanced by four conference games on the road.
It is those other three games that have been an issue. Generally speaking, those non-conference opponents in Bryant-Denny Stadium give cupcakes a bad name.
There are at least two reasons for these games. One, these games are purchased, usually for $1 million or so, and Alabama does not have to make a return trip to wherever. Two, these games almost always result in a W for the home team.
These also provide an opportunity for many who would not ordinarily be able to attend a game in Bryant-Denny Stadium to see the real thing live as regular ticket-holders surrender their spots to children, friends, co-workers, etc.
And being realistic, Alabama could not be expected to fill its schedule with Power Five (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, in addition to SEC) heavyweights.
Saban’s first Alabama team in 2007 lost to Louisiana Monroe, but otherwise is 29-0 in non-conference games against the lightweights. Nonetheless, don’t suggest to the Tide coach that these are sure wins.
The overwhelming majority of Alabama fans are in the “Whatever Saban wants” camp. But it’s easy to get a read on the issue of non-conference games. The neutral site kickoff games are great, but many Tide followers would like to have a home-and-away game against a major college opponent. Bama fans are good travelers and would like to see Wisconsin’s Camp Randall or the Horseshoe at Ohio State, the Big House at Michigan, Darrell Royal Stadium in Austin, etc. – and like to see those teams in Tuscaloosa.
From 1958 through 1982, Paul Bryant was both athletics director and head football coach at Alabama. To be sure, Bama had its share of cupcakes in those years, but Bryant also scheduled big time opponents, particularly beginning in 1971 when the NCAA allowed teams to schedule 11 regular season games, an increase of one. Alabama started out big with a home-and-away schedule against Southern Cal, and the Trojans appeared on the Tide schedule later in the decade. Other major college opponents scheduled by AD Bryant to be played by Coach Bryant included the likes of Nebraska, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Washington.
A case could be made that tough scheduling cost Alabama a national championship in 1977. The Tide’s non-conference foes that year were Nebraska on the road, Southern Cal (which was ranked No. 1) in Los Angeles, and Louisville and Miami in Tuscaloosa. The Tide lost by a touchdown in Lincoln to the Cornhuskers, upset USC, went 7-0 in SEC play, and finished 10-1 in regular season. Alabama then blasted Coach Woody Hayes’ Ohio State Buckeyes, 35-6, in the Sugar Bowl. When fifth-ranked Notre Dame beat No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, it seemed the Tide would get the title, but in a controversial vote, the closest ever, the Irish edged Alabama for the championship.
In the past, Saban has said that he does not involve himself in making the football schedule, but it is reasonable to believe that he is made aware of possible non-conference opponents. Saban believes the neutral site victories have been important in the Crimson Tide record of success.
Mal Moore, whose list of achievements for Bama as athletics director is a long one, fell in love with the revenue model of a neutral site game against a big time opponent with a big payday coupled with three patsies. Saban has made it look like the right call as Alabama has run off season-opening, neutral site wins over Clemson (2008 in Atlanta), Virginia Tech (2009 in Atlanta), Michigan (2012 in Arlington), Virginia Tech (2013 in Atlanta), West Virginia (2014 in Atlanta), Wisconsin (2015 in Arlington), and Southern Cal (2016 in Arlington). In 2007, Saban’s first year, the Tide lost a neutral site game in Jacksonville to Florida State, but it was not a season-opening game (anymore than it was neutral).
In 2010 and 2011, Bama’s big name non-conference opponent was Penn State, played on a home-and-away basis.
The SEC recently established policy that its teams must schedule at least one game per year against a team from another Power Five conference. The Tide has been meeting that criterium for years and continues to do so through the kickoff games.
This year is another big one. Alabama will open the 2017 season in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta against Florida State on Sept. 2. Both teams are expected to be preseason top five. The other three non-conference games, all in Bryant-Denny Stadium, are Fresno State (1-11 last year and expected to be among the nation’s worst again this year), Colorado State, and Mercer. (Raise your hand if you knew Mercer had a football program before you saw it on the 2017 Alabama schedule.)
It doesn’t help that the SEC has only eight conference games. A couple of years ago it was proposed that the SEC join the Big Ten, the Big 12, and the Pac-12 in scheduling nine conference games. The straw vote of SEC coaches was Nick Saban For, the other 13 Opposed. If nothing else, the additional league game would result in one less non-conference patsy.
As for Alabama, the non-conference, neutral site competition seems to be in for a dip over the following two years. In 2018 it will be against Louisville (sans 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson) in Orlando and in 2019 the Tide will return to Atlanta to face Duke.
There is no way to know how Byrne will fill in future Alabama schedules, or how much he was able to do with the Arizona schedules in his time in Tucson. The 2016 non-conference schedule for Arizona was against BYU in Glendale and home games against Grambling and Hawaii. This season’s Arizona threesome is Northern Arizona, Houston, and at UTEP.
No one wants Alabama to schedule itself out of a national championship, but nor is there anyone in the Crimson Tide camp screaming “We want Mercer!” And not because the Bears went undefeated from 1941 through 2013…by not having a football program.
The 2017 Alabama Football Schedule
Sept. 2 Florida State in Atlanta
Sept. 9 Fresno State
Sept. 16 Colorado State
Sept. 23 @ Vanderbilt
Sept. 30 Ole Miss
Oct. 7 @Texas A&M
Oct. 14 Arkansas
Oct. 21 Tennessee
Oct. 28 Open
Nov. 4 LSU
Nov. 11 @ Mississippi State
Nov. 18 Mercer
Nov. 25 @ Auburn
Dec. 2 SEC Championship Game in Atlanta
Jan. 1 CFP semifinals at Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl
Jan. 8 CFP Championship in Atlanta
NEXT: A blockbuster non-conference game for Alabama may be on the horizon