Navigating out of the Doldrums: Saban provides wind for Alabama's sails.

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Navigating out of the Doldrums:  Saban provides wind for Alabama's sails.

The Crimson Tide's tumultuous voyage in recent years has landed it in the middle of the Doldrums.  Packed full of talent, The University of Alabama's historical ship sat upon the silent and quiet waters for the better part of a decade, waiting for the right Captain to provide the necessary wind and navigate the flagship back to national prominence. 


1999 – Mike DuBose has an affair with his secretary.

2002 – The NCAA and SEC places The University of Alabama on probation for 5 years for the Albert Means and Kenny Smith scandal.  Alabama loses 21 scholarships and two years of bowl eligibility.

2002 – Dennis Franchione asks 40 juniors to remain loyal to the program and forego any transfer and NFL draft intentions.  Shortly thereafter, Franchione leaves the aforementioned audience in the middle of the night for the head coach position at Texas A&M, in a fashion that some might call cowardly.

2003 – Mike Price is fired after he is sighted in a Pensacola strip club, heavily intoxicated.

2006 – Mike Shula is fired after only four seasons, and a productive record.  Among those to witness Shula's firing is a discouraged stand-out center, Antoine Caldwell.  Joe Kines assumes the interim role.

2007 – February 1, 2007, the NCAA lifts sanctions against The University of Alabama Football Program.


Enter Nick Saban.


Nick Saban was a breath of fresh air, desperately needed to fill the sails with confidence and guide the Crimson Tide back into the national limelight.  This is the Captain with the proper sea legs, equipped with a compass which pointed directly at the BCS National Championship. And the rest is history, right?  Not so fast.


Saban assumed control over a broken and battered team, full of conflict and turmoil.  Outside of an SEC Championship, which was the result of a win over Florida in 1999, there really wasn't much to be proud of.  In his first year, Saban witnessed 30 suspensions accompanied by 10 arrests.  Two of the arrests included armed robbery and felony drug trafficking.  To call this team The Bad News Bears would be an understatement.  This is a team that would make Pacman Jones blush out of embarrassment.


However, despite text book scandals and felonies, Nick Saban somehow mustered the strength to lead his program to a 7-6 season.  This was just enough to land Saban's Tide in the Independence Bowl against Colorado.  Saban would prevail and defeat Coach Dan Hawkins and the Buffaloes 30 – 24.


Now what about that compass?


Tide fans remain anxious after Saban's lackluster first year.  Haunted by Alabama's historical past, and the notoriously impatient fan base, great pressure was put on Saban to produce and to produce fast.  After all, this is Alabama.  This is the stomping ground of Paul "Bear" Bryant and 12 National Championships.  This is… well, a broken program.


Amidst all of the hype and expectations, Saban calmly took the helm and demanded that the alumni and the fan base take the back seat and not buy into sensationalism.  For a compass to be effective, you need an accurate map.  To draw an accurate map, you need to research and lay the pen to the paper.  That's just what Saban did.


Outside of a prideful Alabamafan base, no one would have believed that a second year coach in a topsy-turvy program could attract the nation's most highly recruited athletes.  No one, in their right mind, would have believed that February of 2008 would yield the nation's number one recruiting class for Nick Saban's first harvest.  It couldn't happen, how could he… number 1?  And then it happened.  Saban put the pen to paper and formulated his map.


Saban's 2008 Freshman Class included superstars, such as Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Tyler Love, Mark Barron, and Jerrell Harris, just to mention a few.  Okay, here's a few more:  Star Jackson, Alonzo Lawrence, Don'ta Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, and the most surprising immediate impact player, Terrence Cody.


Alabama fans celebrated the 2008 #1 recruiting class as if they'd won another National Championship and The Bear's ghost was sited smiling at the 50 yard line.  Spring and Summer practice ensued and the hype about Julio Jones leaked its way to the national media.  The local legend soon became the center of attention as video of extraordinary catches streamed on the internet.  Although this class was definitely something to be proud of, Nick Saban still cautiously warned of the long road ahead.  Despite St. Nick's warnings, the fans knew that pen had been laid to paper and the map was drawn.


The First Leg of the Journey:  Establishing Credibility.


Nick Saban's Crimson Tide faced a daunting task for the 2008 season opener.  Saban's Tide would face the 9th ranked team in the nation, the Clemson Tigers, in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on August 30th.  The Tide entered the game as a 4 ½ point underdog.  Saban could care less.  Part of his mental conditioning included the old adage, give respect only to those that deserve it.  At this point in the season, respect had to be earned. 


A mere number beside a team's name wasn't enough to stop Alabama from dismantling Clemson in a brutal manner.  The Tide held the nation's preseason hopefuls, Harper, Spiller, and Davis, to just 188 yards, while producing 419 yards as the byproduct.  With a final score of 34 – 10, Saban's Tide was off to a phenomenal start.  Bowden would later feel devastating pressure which led to his demise as the Clemson Tigers head coach.


The Second Leg of the Journey:  The Fundamentals.


After the pummeling of Clemson, Alabama fans and some of the media were sold on the Nick Saban Program.  If you can open the season and dominate a top ten team to the point of embarrassment, it's all downhill from here, right?  It's not that simple. 


Saban immediately followed-up in a press conference, again preaching adamantly against hopes and expectations.  Saban reiterated the value of stamina and consistency, stating that once this pinnacle point is reached, we all can celebrate.  This fell on deaf ears for the Tide faithful.  I wouldn't be surprised if a few fans prematurely booked a flight to Miami.


Saban's words proved to be words of experience.  After an ugly win over Tulane, it was back to the drawing board.  After observing the Tulane game, some fans couldn't believe that this was the same team from the week before.  As if Alabama enlisted stunt doubles for the match against the Green Wave, it was evident that quick jubilation could easily be followed by quick disappointment.  It was time to go back to boot camp and practice the basics.  After all, you can't walk until you crawl.


The Third Leg of the Journey:  The Value of Consistency.


Nick Saban's fourth week of practice would be in preparation for the first of many SEC foes.  Although Bobby Petrino's Arkansas Razorbacks were also in a rebuilding phase, any SEC fan knows that both the great and the feeble can fall on any given Saturday in the SEC.  When you're playing in the SEC, many would contend that you're playing in the nation's premier conference.  No one is to be taken lightly, regardless of record or circumstance.


Going back to the basics would prove to be a wise decision, as the Crimson Tide rolled over the Razorbacks with relative ease.  With a final score of 49 – 14 it was evident that Saban was ahead of the curve, and Petrino has yet a few years to go.


However, the fifth week wouldn't pass so easily.  Kentucky, another SEC foe, bolsters a defense compared to that of Alabama's and LSU's.  Alabama's Glen Coffee would have a break-out game, rushing for 218 yards with a 78 yard touchdown run, but Kentucky's defense would soon adjust and hold the Crimson Tide to a nail-biting 17 – 14 victory.  Tide fans gasped for air in the final seconds as they watched Kentucky complete passes to Dicky Lyons. 


The overall sentiment after the Crimson Tide narrowly defeated Kentucky was that of exhaustion, rather than excitement.   It was evident to Saban, after a few fumbles and a lack of total offensive dominance, that it was time to regain focus and get back to the basics, again.


The Fourth Leg of the Journey:  Rest.


Nothing can be as helpful, or devastating, in the SEC as a well deserved bye week.  Sure, it provides the necessary rest to push through a grueling and punishing schedule, but it also allows your competition to gain the advantage.  The weekend of October 11th proved that hungry dogs are always nipping at the heals of the top dog.  First, no. 5 Texas defeated no. 1 Oklahoma.  Second, Oklahoma State defeated no. 3 Missouri.  Third, LSU was swamped at the swamp by Florida.  Fourth, and last, Auburn was defeated by Arkansas. 


As a result, Alabama would be the only SEC team to remain undefeated.  With the fall of the mighty Sooners, and the defeat of no. 3 Mizzou, Nick Saban's Crimson Tide would inevitably become the heir apparent for the coveted throne and number 1 spot.  After all, Saban's Tide was holding strong in the AP polls as the nation's second best.


Devastatingly enough, while on a bye, the number 1 spot passed the Crimson Tide "bye".  Did Nick Saban care?  Absolutely not.  In fact, some people claim that they saw Saban crack a smile.  Not because he now held the number 2 spot on the coach's and AP polls.  Not because in-state rival, Auburn, was beaten by Arkansas.  Not even because LSU was obliterated by a team who lost to Ole Miss.  Nick Saban was thrilled that his team had a productive week in practice.


Much can be said about Nick Saban.  Some may say that he's egotistical, while other may say he's disloyal.  However, he's proven thus far that he knows the terrain and layout of the SEC landscape.  He's also proven that he knows when to put on tennis shoes, and when to lace up the work boots and conquer the mountains and valleys.  All in all, he's proven that he is a great football coach.  Like him or not, I'm sure he doesn't care.  I'm sure that right now he's focused on what really matters to him:  Beating Ole Miss on October 18th.


The Fifth Leg of the Journey:  A Means to an End.


(to be continued on week 11)

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