Commentary

Saban returns Alabama to top

Updated: January 8, 2010, 7:24 AM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

PASADENA, Calif. -- Texas played without its best player for nearly 56 minutes. There's an asterisk.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kirby Lee/US PresswireNick Saban could finally smile after defeating Texas to win the BCS championship.

And midway through the fourth quarter, Alabama started looking a lot like Phil Mickelson on the 18th tee at Winged Foot. The Crimson Tide played most of the second half like it had one foot on the trophy stage, nearly giving away an 18-point lead to a team playing a freshman backup quarterback.

It may not have been a fair fight, and it may not have been pretty. And someday, when the state of Alabama sobers up, when the echoes of the "Rammer Jammer" cheer fade from the Arroyo Seco and thoughts turn to next season, Crimson Tide fans still won't give a damn.

In the end, it doesn't matter how you won the crystal football, only that you won it. The record books will forever say that in the 2010 Citi BCS National Championship Game, Alabama defeated Texas 37-21.

On the Rose Bowl field, as the trophy presentation went on, someone asked SEC commissioner Mike Slive how he thought Alabama's first national championship since 1992 would go over in his hometown of Birmingham.

"It was cold this morning," Slive said. "But I understand it's very warm in Birmingham tonight. My guess is it will get much warmer."

Alabama has re-established itself as a colossus. It is easy to forget the long, painful struggle it took to get there. It has been 17 years that felt like 170; years marked by two NCAA probations, a narrow escape from the death penalty and one wrong coaching hire after another.

There were losses to Northern Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe. There were seven consecutive losses to Tennessee. Years later, there were six consecutive losses to Auburn.

[+] EnlargeAlabama Crimson Tide
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireAlabama ended its 17-year title drought with a 37-21 win.

No one at the Rose Bowl could have enjoyed this victory more than athletic director Mal Moore. Three years ago, Moore went all-in on Nick Saban, committing $32 million over eight years.

"It is really very difficult to express how proud I am of this team, of these coaches, in particular Coach Saban and the effort he has put into this program in the three years that he has been here," Moore said.

Before the game, as Moore weaved through the crowd to get to the press box, he couldn't walk 5 feet without grateful Tide fans stopping him to shake his hand.

"It's so great to be here," one fan said.

"Bless your heart," said another.

"To reach this level with a national championship is quite remarkable," Moore said after the game, "and it's so fitting that we were honored to play in the Rose Bowl for the national championship. It's so fitting for Alabama to accomplish that for the history of it, of many years gone by. Older generations remember that. Generations to come will remember this."

The Crimson Tide put southern football on the map on this field 84 years ago by defeating Washington 20-19. The Alabama fans are a proud people, which is why the cleansing breath of redemption flowed throughout the Rose Bowl.

The coaches prior to Saban proved that Alabama can make a coach out of anyone. Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula each had one 10-win season. But the pressure of the job consumed each man. The same thing happened to Mike Price, hired in December 2002 and fired five months later.

Saban arrived three years ago, taking over a team that went 6-7. The team's fifth-year seniors have stories to tell. As the Million Dollar Band played in the background, linebacker Cory Reamer tried to explain.

"It's been a long process," he said. "It's been five long years. We've been up and we've been down. And I never would have imagined that we'd have a chance to get this victory today and be in this position. We appreciate every bit of it."

[+] EnlargeMike Johnson
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesMike Johnson and Bama's fifth-year seniors took an unusual journey to the top.

"I don't think there's one word that encompasses the feelings you have when you've been on a journey like we have, and been through and seen the things we've seen," All-American guard Mike Johnson said. "Coaching changes and seven-loss seasons [2006] and six-loss seasons [2007]."

"The good thing is, the only place you can go from there was up," fullback Baron Huber said. "People say a lot of different things. Our coaches always had the belief that we could do this. We made it right. We learned from everything. I believe if we hadn't gotten embarrassed by Utah [31-17] in the Sugar Bowl last year, we wouldn't be here."

The head coach who brought this joy to Alabama is not of Alabama. Saban is a West Virginian by birth. He cut his college football playing and coaching teeth in the Midwest. He won a national championship at LSU, one of Alabama's biggest rivals. But in three years, Saban has come to understand the feelings that fuel the Crimson Nation.

"I'm really happiest for all the other people," Saban said, "to see them so happy about what was accomplished."

On a plaza outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium, there stand statues of Alabama's four greatest coaches -- Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Paul "Bear" Bryant and Gene Stallings. When Moore returns to Tuscaloosa, he said outside the locker room, he will recommend to Dr. Robert E. Witt, the university president, that a fifth statue be commissioned.

"Immediately?" someone asked.

"We'll talk about that," Moore said. "But yeah, hell yeah."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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