Alabama and Florida: The Issue of Tradition

Jay WortherCorrespondent IJune 9, 2009

2 Oct 1999: Bo Carroll #2 of the Florida Gators carries the ball during a game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Florida Field in Gainsville, Florida. The Crimson Tide defeated the Gators 41-40.

It’s a warm Monday afternoon in early June in Alabama, and what is the main topic of conversation? 

University of Alabama football, of course.

The discussion begins with the usual subjects—NCAA violations, Alabama’s superiority over in-state rival Auburn (and any other sports program in the history of the world), the eventual sainthood of Nick Saban—when a controversial call rolls in to a local sports radio program.

Somehow, a Florida Gator fan has infiltrated the airwaves of this Crimson Tide dominated show.  He displays his disdain for the Bama fan base by offering the idea that Florida is a superior football program to that of the Tide. 

Predictably, the remainder of the show is filled with Alabama fans questioning this man’s sanity, along with the arguments supporting the theory that nothing has ever existed that is greater than Alabama football.

While this is a battle that Alabama fans will never concede within the borders of their own state, the idea does bring up some questions concerning the measurements used to quantify success.

There is no denying that Florida is the current model of success in the world of college football.  Two of the last three BCS championships support that claim.  The argument begins when history is brought into the equation. 

Does Florida’s present-day success trump the history and tradition of a program like the University of Alabama?

First, we have to determine what to measure from the Crimson Tide program.  They have a trophy case that most schools would envy, though some people may question the legitimacy of their multiple national championships. 

Whether you accept the common Alabama fan’s claim of 12, or the general college football fan’s less generous award of seven, the Crimson Tide faithful have plenty to be proud of.

One point that all Alabama fans will agree on is that Paul “Bear” Bryant was the greatest coach in their history—possibly in the entire history of college football. 

His tenure generated six of the 12 claimed national championships and 13 of the 21 SEC titles.  The rules were a little different during the Bryant era, however.  Bryant was such a powerful figure in college football that at the end of the season, he would call an opposing coach and invite them to play his Tide in a bowl game. 

This was also a time before scholarship limitations—effectively allowing Alabama to sign as many players as they liked just to prevent them from playing at other schools.  This presents the chicken-and-egg question: did Alabama become great because of their ability to control so many aspects of their college football world, or was it their greatness that produced these advantages?

The University of Florida, on the other hand, has achieved their success during a period which has seen parity emerge in college football. 

Scholarship limitations have allowed less traditional programs to field teams that are competitive with the big boys of football.  The BCS is now in control of football championships, and while it still isn’t a playoff system, it’s the closest we’ve been to making sure the top two teams in the country face off to determine the champion. 

Winning national titles today is much more difficult than it was even as recently as 15 years ago. 

While it would be hard to argue that one BCS championship is equal to four or five championships that occurred before the BCS was instituted, you could at least offer the theory that two are not equal on a one-to-one basis.

The biggest question we need to address is—would a fan base rather have store rooms full of old national championship trophies, or a couple of nice, new, sleek BCS crystal footballs? 

I guess the answer to that question depends on your individual point of view, which leads me to the following story.

A friend of mine took a recent trip to France.  During his stay, he found himself in a cafe sampling some local French wines.  Before long, he found himself engaged in a conversation with a local Frenchman where he was defending the importance of the United States as a world superpower.  He began by listing several achievements of the U.S. military—including their role in the World Wars and other actions that influenced the balance of power around the world.  He mentioned the significance of the American economy and how it affects the resources of countries all over the planet.  He continued with examples of American athletics—the success of U.S. citizens in major sports leagues and consistent high medal counts at the Olympics.

The Frenchman listened to the list of achievements for a while, allowing my friend to finish his discourse.  When he had heard enough, he sat unimpressed and said, “That’s a nice little list you have, but you don’t know anything about tradition.  My country was winning wars and conquering other lands long before the United States even existed.  Your feats are a nice start, but come back to me when you’ve had more than a couple of hundred good years of success.  When you’ve proven that you can continue your triumphs over a significant period time, then maybe you can be in the conversation when we discuss great countries.”

I wonder which one of these guys is the Alabama fan and which one is proud to be a Florida Gator?