How Nick Saban Turned Alabama Football Around
Nick Saban arrived at the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport to a frenzied throng of Alabama fans with perhaps unheralded excitement and expectations.
Considering that excitement and those expectations came from Alabama, the idea of there being unheralded speaks volumes.
Many coaches have come to Alabama in hopes of bringing a multitude of national championships the way Bear Bryant once did.
Few have succeeded in producing even one.
Rather than looking at the treacherous mountain to climb and becoming intimidated, though, Saban trusted his “process.”
It had worked in the past. After all, Saban led LSU to the 2003 BCS National Championship. Him doing so within Alabama’s own division only further inflated already lofty expectations within the program.
In believing in the “Process,” Saban has returned Alabama to a level of national prominence not seen since the Bear roamed the sidelines.
The Crimson Tide has won three national championships in the first seven years under Saban. Last season, only Auburn’s miracle play in the final seconds of regulation prevented Alabama from having an overtime session to determine whether it would play for a third consecutive title.
Today, we take a look at the 10 most defining moments in Saban’s remarkable era at Alabama. The moments on this list should serve the purpose of either an incredible high or a noteworthy turning point.
Here is our list of Saban’s most defining moments since taking over as Alabama head coach, listed in chronological order.
The Airport Scene, 2007
Scores of Alabama fans turned out to Tuscaloosa Regional Airport on Jan. 3, 2007 to welcome their newest conquering hero: newly signed coach Nick Saban.
The impromptu pep rally served as a sign of things to come—a love affair from fans toward the most accomplished coach to arrive on campus since Bear Bryant.
Saban can be a tough man for a fanbase to love at times with occasional intentional potshots at even his own fans.
What’s not to love, though, about a coach who has led Alabama to at least 10 wins in each of the past six seasons and delivered three BCS National Championships?
Saban rewarded tenfold the overwhelming excitement and enthusiasm found at the airport.
He is one of only coaches in America—perhaps in a league by himself—capable of delivering the goods on such enormous demands.
The Aftermath of the Louisiana-Monroe Loss, 2007
Losing to Louisiana-Monroe in Year 1 could have been a devastating setback for Alabama coach Nick Saban and his “process.”
He eliminated any chance such a defeat would be accepted in the future, though, with his deliberately overdramatic comparisons.
Per the Associated Press (via ESPN), in the days following the humiliating defeat, Saban declared the loss a “catastrophic event,” listing other such events as Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
Saban drew heavy fire in the aftermath of his statements, getting publicly criticized nationally.
It’s worth noting, though, that Saban didn’t actually compare the loss to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, but rather used those tragedies as turning points leading to great rallies.
Looking back on his tenure at Alabama, it’s plain to see his team received the message.
Crown Jewels, 2008
Before Nick Saban started winning national championships on the field at Alabama, he won them on the recruiting paths.
It only took one year for him to accomplish the latter feat for the first time with the Crimson Tide.
Several future stars became part of Saban’s first full class. (He took the Alabama job approximately a month before national signing day in 2007.)
The class included 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, and all-conference standouts Barrett Jones, Don’ta Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Jerrell Harris and Mark Barron.
The Blackout, 2008
Before Alabama traveled to Athens, Ga. for a showdown with Georgia and quarterback Matthew Stafford, Nick Saban’s program already showed the tide was turning in Tuscaloosa.
The Crimson Tide opened the season with a thorough 34-10 beating of No. 9 Clemson, opening eyes that Year 2 had promise.
Alabama went into the game confident.
When Georgia announced a blackout—the team donned all-black uniforms—Alabama assistant coach Scott Cochran proclaimed in practice it was because the Bulldogs were headed for their own funeral.
Turned out, Cochran was right.
Alabama controlled the battle of Top 10 team from the start, sprinting out to a 31-0 halftime lead on their way to a 41-30 victory.
Two touchdowns in the final three minutes made the final margin appear much closer than this game actually was.
The outcome showed Saban’s team was ready to compete at a championship level.
Taming Tigers, 2008
As much as Alabama delivered a message in beating Georgia, it still had two more significant obstacles to overcome.
First came a November showdown with Alabama coach Nick Saban’s former program, LSU.
The Crimson Tide went to Baton Rouge with a two-game lead in the standings, having virtually sewed up the division crown.
Any chance LSU had of overtaking Alabama for the SEC West died shortly after Rashad Johnson intercepted a Jarrett Lee pass in the end zone.
Quarterback John Parker Wilson scored the game-winning touchdown three plays later.
Then, at the end of November, the Crimson Tide had to deal with a reeling Auburn team that nonetheless had won seven consecutive meetings in the series.
Alabama, already headed to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, massacred the Tigers in Bryant-Denny Stadium, beating them, 36-0, in a game that could have been 70-0.
Not only did the game cap Alabama’s perfect regular season, it also marked the final game Tommy Tuberville coached for rival Auburn.
Taking Down Tebow, 2009
Alabama’s national championship dreams died in the 2008 season when Tim Tebow and Florida dropped the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship.
The two teams opened the 2009 season on a collision course, and both fulfilled their parts of the story by running the table in the regular season.
Tailback Mark Ingram, who would win the Heisman Trophy the following week, helped the Crimson Tide win the rematch in decisive fashion, 32-13.
Ingram ran for 113 yards and three touchdowns and added 76 receiving yards.
Meanwhile, Alabama’s defense frustrated Tebow by limiting the Gators to just 20:23 in time of possession and just four third-down conversions on 11 attempts.
With the win, Alabama claimed its first SEC championship under Saban and advanced to the Rose Bowl, where it would play for its first BCS National Championship.
Messing with Texas, 2010
Alabama squared off with Texas in the Rose Bowl in a BCS Championship Game laced with college football iconic programs and perhaps the most recognizable setting.
The two unbeaten teams from power conferences entered a much-hyped extravaganza, though, only Alabama would live up to expectations.
Texas quarterback Colt McCoy suffered a shoulder injury on the first drive and didn’t return to the game, allowing Alabama to take advantage of freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert.
The Crimson Tide awoke after a slow start to score 24 unanswered second-quarter points.
Though the Longhorns made it a game in the fourth quarter, Alabama put the rally to rest with a pair of touchdowns in the final two minutes for a 37-21 victory.
Alabama’s defense harassed Gilbert into four interceptions in giving Saban his first national Championship at Alabama.
Capital (One) Punishment, 2011
A number of departing seniors proved too much to overcome for Alabama in its title defense the following season.
The Crimson Tide lost three regular-season games, including a heartbreaking second-half collapse against rival Auburn, which went on to win the 2010 national title.
However, coach Nick Saban rallied his team to turn in a statement performance in the final game of a disappointing 2010 campaign.
Alabama faced off with one-loss Michigan State, which tied for the Big Ten championship with Wisconsin and Ohio State.
What looked like a great Capital One Bowl pairing on paper turned into a blowout.
Alabama rolled up the first 49 points on its way to a dominating 49-7 victory.
The Crimson Tide racked up 546 total yards of offense and held the Spartans to just 171 (including minus-48 rushing yards).
This game served as a springboard into a dominant two-year stretch.
Revenge Served Cajun Style, 2012
A season of buildup came to a head when Alabama faced off with LSU in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5, 2011.
The two SEC West rivals seemed destined for a game that would dictate which of them would advance to the SEC Championship Game and—in all likelihood—the BCS National Championship Game.
What was billed as “The Game of the Century” hardly lived up to the hype because the two dominating defenses rendered their offensive counterparts helpless at times.
Neither team scored a touchdown in regulation, which ended in a 6-6 tie. In overtime, LSU fittingly won when Alabama missed its field goal and the Tigers made theirs.
To everyone’s surprise, though, Alabama found itself back in the title picture when Iowa State upended undefeated Oklahoma State.
Alabama finished the regular season by thumping Auburn, enabling it to claim the No. 2 spot—behind LSU—in the final BCS rankings.
So LSU and Alabama would meet again, this time in New Orleans for the national championship.
Given a second chance, the Crimson Tide found enough ways to move the ball that it managed five field goals through the first three quarters.
Considering Alabama’s utter dominance of LSU’s offense, that lead was insurmountable even before tailback Trent Richardson scored the putaway touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Alabama held LSU to 92 total yards of offense, allowing its fans to celebrate a second national championship in three seasons.
Luck of the Irish Can’t Stop Saban, 2013
Again in 2012, an early November loss meant Alabama needed late-season help to win the national championship.
When undefeated teams Oregon and Kansas State faltered, though, the Crimson Tide earned the opportunity to defend its title against No. 1 Notre Dame.
Once there, coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide left no doubt about belonging in the title game.
Alabama dominated the undefeated Fighting Irish, 42-14.
It wasted little time in putting the game to rest, either, scoring the first 35 points and jumping out to a 28-0 halftime lead.
With the victory, Saban and Alabama celebrated one of the greatest four-year stretches in recent college football history, complete with three national championships.