During the last few months, rumblings by the national media have volcanically erupted over the airways and spewed on to the pages of newspapers, questioning schools with championship traditions holding dear to what they believe to be unreasonable expectations. Are the critics and parachuting journalists correct in their analyses about the changing landscape of college athletics and the suggestion schools should calibrate ambitions? Does a program continue an enduring legacy of excellence by accepting ordinary results and a lowering of standards?
The definition of tradition on the website dictionary.com is: the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc. from generation to generation, esp. by word of mouth or by practice.
The Alabama nation has had to resort to the word of mouth lately as opposed to the by practice method to promote the standard of excellence once commonly associated with the Crimson Tide football program.
In the fall of 2006 the celebration of the entire Crimson Tide tradition became a tangible realization with the dedication of the four bronze statues on the plaza outside the north end zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Each one represents an Alabama football coach who led Alabama to a national championship. The Walk of Champions is marked by granite slabs in the pathway leading to the stadium. These recognize all of Alabama's conference and national championship teams. A large contingent of Alabama fans have been bred to believe in their team because, as the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stated metaphorically, they "have been to the mountaintop and have seen the promised land" as in a national championship. Every time the faithful stroll past the statues and enter the hallowed grounds of Bryant-Denny Stadium, their perceived birthright of expectations that Alabama can and should win championships is revitalized.
Are those championship expectations from the faithful realistic considering the keen competition in a conference recognized by many as the best in America? Since reaching the promised land during the school's centennial season of 1992, Alabama has been dominated by Auburn (5-9) and has seen Tennessee and LSU win national championships, thus creating their own successful traditions against the Crimson Tide and the other schools in the Southeastern Conference. One of Alabama's rivals on the recruiting trail is a nouveau riche member of college football's elite. Florida, a program which did not record the first of its seven SEC titles until 1991, has achieved something that was unthinkable 25 years ago. Not only did the Gators win a national championship once with Steve Spurrier, last season Florida won with a second coach, Urban Meyer. That is what you call a tradition worth emulating. The ability of a program to win titles with different coaches over time will solidify a school as a storied program.
According to Alabama Coach Nick Saban in his introductory press conference, tradition cannot be refuted or discounted. He said, "I have a tremendous amount of respect for tradition. I have a tremendous amount of respect for all the people who created that tradition, all the players, the coaches..., all the people who worked hard to create that and that have created a legacy for The University of Alabama. That's important and needs to be respected, it needs to be recognized."
A successful tradition is the goal sought by every school. Tradition is a valuable asset in recruiting prospective athletes interested in contributing to a legacy. Look at some of the historically tradition rich programs across the country and their links to past successes. Do you think USC parades potential recruits past the Heisman trophies in the hallways of the Trojan football offices? Does Penn State still attract outstanding linebackers because of their tradition as linebacker U? Are the visiting prospects for Michigan acquainted with the maize and blue's record as college football's all time leader for games won?
The life blood of a college football program is sustained each year by the ability of a coach to engage a recruit's interest with the promises of a successful future. When recruiting young prospects today, the defining last five years might be the extent of their connection to the word tradition. The instant text messaging, DSL, cable fast world generation of young men will gravitate to something that is considered current.
Merging the successful past with a promising future requires perspective. Nick Saban's initial opening remarks at the press conference on January 4 seem to be the appropriate balance required by the new coaching staff and one the Alabama nation should embrace. Saban said, "I want you to know that it will be our goal to give you the kind of football program, the kind of football team that you can be proud of, that will complement the tradition that this institution has been so proud of through the years. That's going to be our goal with the football program."
Asked about tradition, he added, "At the same time we need to look forward in terms of what we're going to accomplish here, because even though that says that all those things have been accomplished here and can be accomplished here, we need to go through what we need to do to accomplish them now and in the future in terms of the kind of football players we're able to recruit here, the kind of things we do to show a commitment to having a standard of excellence that's going to help people be champions. I guess that's how I would look at it. I think it's what you do now."
Would Alabama trade its tradition for that of any other school across the college football galaxy? The comparative list of programs to consider would not be very long. Gene Stallings once said in his perceptive way of crystallizing a situation, "You don't have to flaunt your success, but you don't have to apologize for it, either." The Alabama family will never apologize for past successes and the restless clamoring for championships will continue until the return to national prominence is realized.
I propose that Alabama should refrain talking about their illustrious tradition of winning national championships in six of the last nine decades, only when USC, Penn State, Michigan, teams across the nation and the other SEC members discontinue their self celebrations. Alabama should be proud of its history of achievement which can be used to illustrate the program's potential. It is recognized that there are limitations of tradition's effectiveness with young men primarily concerned with the immediate future.
Will Nick Saban's tenure at Alabama be successful? Stallings said upon his hiring in 1990, "The expectation level is high at The University of Alabama, and it should be. What's wrong with people expecting excellence?" The administration's level of commitment to winning became apparent with the significant guaranteed financial obligation pledged to the new coach. Reaching for a shining star from the coaching sky of candidates was the proper strategy for a university in a race trying to catch up to and surpass its own tradition. Saban, now has the authoritative reigns firmly grasped in his hands with the intent of whipping the program back to the top of the college football world.
During the dedication of the plaza, Stallings made reference to the unoccupied space to the left of his statue. That is where a tribute to the next Alabama coach to lead a national championship will be erected. Stallings said, "Maybe I won't be at the end of the line too much longer." Stallings echoes the sentiments of hope surely to be present at the A-Day game this Saturday as the anticipated record crowd witnesses the beginning of a new era.
The Alabama nation's patience has been tested for more than a decade with the combination of probation and suspect leadership, but the standard of excellence defined as winning national and conference championships shall remain the same in Tuscaloosa. When Nick Saban consented to be the head football coach at The University of Alabama, he accepted the challenge implicitly set forth by the only living member of the glorified coaching fraternity memorialized in bronze along the coaches walk outside the north end zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium. This challenge steeped in hope is just as much a part of the football program as is the school colors of crimson and white, the cheerleaders and Big Al exhorting the crowd with "Roll Tide," and the Million Dollar Band playing "Yea Alabama". Restoring the luster to the Crimson Tide program is the goal, and his ability to prevail will depend on how Nick Saban competes with and for a statue.
Arnold P. Steadham is a special assignments reporter for 'BAMA Magazine and BamaMag.com