The Alabama Crimson Tide is one of the most successful programs in the history of college football, having laid claim to 15 national championships, 23 SEC titles and one Heisman winner.
It is a program that has won three of the last four national titles and is looking to go for its third straight heading into 2013. It has been a remarkable turnaround for a program that was on a downturn after a run of NCAA sanctions.
Nick Saban saved the day, and the Crimson Tide fans know it. How he went about this resurgence is nothing short of amazing, considering where the program had been.
The Shady Past
Alabama was hit with its first set of NCAA sanctions in 1995, when an investigation into Antonio Langham found that he had signed with an agent after the 1993 Sugar Bowl but decided to stay in school.
The NCAA placed Alabama on probation for three years, levied a one-year postseason ban and took away 26 scholarships over three years (h/t Ledger-Enquirer). The scholarship reduction seemed inappropriately harsh then, and by 1996 the NCAA agreed.
An appeals committee changed its ruling, returning nine scholarships to the program. The NCAA had admitted to overdoing it and chose to save face.
By 2002, that all changed.
Alabama received its second sanctions for football stemming from a recruiting violation that involved an alleged $200,000 payment to Lynn Lang, Albert Means' head coach (h/t Ledger-Enquirer). Lang was indicted by a federal grand jury for attempting to sell his star player to seven schools.
He signed with Alabama.
The program was in a tailspin, and there was no sign of recovery..
During all of the NCAA ups and downs, the Tide also had trouble holding onto coaches.
Mike DuBose was first up, hired internally to take over the program after serving seven years on the Gene Stallings staff at Alabama. DuBose was a defensive lineman for Bear Bryant and seemed to be everything the Tide wanted in a head man.
By 1999 a scandal involving his secretary (h/t Ledger-Enquirer) had him in hot water, and then a 3-8 year in 2000 led to his resignation.
Alabama then hired rising star Dennis Franchione. He stayed in town for two years, then jumped to the Big 12 as the head coach at Texas A&M.
He was replaced by former Alabama quarterback Mike Shula. But a 26-23 overall record led to his departure.
Then-athletic director Mal Moore needed a major turnaround and a splash hire. He went and signed Nick Saban.
A major point of emphasis in the Saban years has been recruiting. He has turned Alabama into one of the premier destinations in the country for 18-year-old rising college football stars.
The past four seasons have brought three consecutive (h/t 247Sports Composite) top-rated recruiting classes, which has led to two consecutive national titles. Saban has built the best program in the country with the best players it has to offer.
You would think Tuscaloosa was near Miami or L.A. given its ability to attract top recruits. But the draw is simply because of the NFL factory that the program has become under Saban's watch.
Since he arrived in 2007, the Crimson Tide has put 24 players through the draft, with an average of six players drafted over the past three seasons (h/t NFL.com). Heading into the 2013 draft,eight Bama players are likely to get their names called.
Defense wins championships. Saban has proven that since arriving on campus.
He has taken Alabama (h/t NCAA.org) from the No. 31 total defense in his first year to four top-five finishes every year since.
Here is a chart showing the strides of the defense over the past half-decade in five key categories.
This program is fueled by defense, and it produces a number of top-rated players on that side of the football. The powerful defense has been fueled by top-level recruiting. Recruiting and defense are the drivers that have turned this historic program into a modern-day juggernaut.
Nick Saban stepped into a tattered program at Alabama that had a lot of discipline issues far more severe than the average Division I football program.
Saban struggled to put a consistent product on the field. The program was full of stars who had issues with authority, and Saban is one of the most demanding coaches in the game.
It was a tough transition that led to a 7-6 season and an embarrassing loss to Louisiana-Monroe at home. The program was just as bad as the year before, and the hope that come with his hiring was beginning to fade.
In February, Saban told the media (h/t ESPN) that "It's a problem. It is a problem. Our team needs to have better discipline, judgment. We cannot tolerate poor judgment."
It was obvious that more than just winning football games was an issue in Tuscaloosa. Saban’s system is based on discipline—on and off the field.
Heading into 2013, those issues are gone.
There are still issues that crop up, but every school has issues and arrests. Since Saban has taken over the program, there has been a wholesale change in how the team approaches disciplinary issues.
It was the 2008 season that was the turning point.
The defense went from No. 31 to No. 3 in a year, and the rushing offense from No. 60 to No. 31.
Defense wins championships, and since 2008 the Tide have been in the top five every year.
The Tide began to win big, starting the season with a surprising 34-10 win over then-No. 9 Clemson. Alabama was the underdog in the game, but the win launched them onto the national stage.
The Tide ran the table, winning the SEC West, but lost to Florida in the SEC title game and eventually lost to Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
The Tide wasn’t winning titles, but within one year the program was playing in a BCS bowl.
This was the start of Saban's national championship run..
Entering the season in the top five, the Tide were expected to be one of the best teams in the country. By the end of the season,they were, throttling Texas 37-21 in the national title game.
Tennessee and Auburn gave the Tide some scares, but both games were pulled out by Bama in miraculous fashion.
Terrence Cody stood tall twice against Tennessee, blocking two kicks in the midseason win.
By the Auburn game at the end of the regular season, the kinks were expected to be gone, but Auburn’s fast-paced offense under Gus Malzahn gave the Tide issues. It took a fourth-quarter drive to win the game. But the issues were gone, as the Tide defeated Florida in the SEC Championship Game before winning the national title against the Longhorns.
The Alabama defense finished No. 2 in the country.
The Recent Years
Over the past three years, Alabama has won 35 games and two national titles. It has been a miraculous run that started with the cornerstone that was the 2009 team.
There is no other program in the country that is poised for more success than the Tide.
This program has risen thanks to disciplined football and strong defense. It has had a few top-rated offensive skill-position players, but this team wins on defense.
This year it will have another top-rated unit.
The program is still rising despite the heights it has reached, and with one of the best coaches in college football guiding the program, there is nowhere to go but up.