January 08, 2010

PASADENA, Calif. -- Outside the north end zone at Bryant Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., four statues stand sentinel. Next to bronze replicas of Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Paul "Bear" Bryant and Gene Stallings is a concrete ring, empty save for a fuse box. After Thursday night, we know who will occupy that fifth ring.

Nick Saban, who came to Tuscaloosa in 2007 from the NFL's Miami Dolphins to return Alabama's football program to the pinnacle of college football, accomplished his mission in his third season. Thursday at the Rose Bowl, Saban's Crimson Tide knocked out Texas star quarterback Colt McCoy, and then they knocked out the Longhorns with a 37-21 win in the BCS championship game.

With the win, Saban became the first coach in the AP poll era (since 1936) to win national titles at two different schools. Saban led LSU to the BCS national title in 2003. Alabama, meanwhile, hadn't won a national title since 1992.

Shortly after kickoff, a win seemed a remote possibility for the Tide. Texas safety Blake Gideon intercepted an ill-advised throw on a fake punt, giving Texas the ball at the Alabama 37-yard line. McCoy easily moved Texas to the 11, where the Longhorns' nightmare would begin. McCoy tried to run on first down, but he was hammered by Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, whose hit knocked McCoy shoulder-first into the back of Texas center Chris Hall. McCoy went to the sideline, where trainers examined him briefly before taking him to the locker room.

"Colt McCoy is a great player," Saban said. "And as much as I enjoy winning, you always hate to see a great competitor who's had a great career not be able to participate in a game that he's probably worked his entire career to be a part of."

McCoy, successfully fighting back tears in the locker room, said he suffered a pinched nerve that kept him from throwing accurately. He tried to throw until halftime, but he simply couldn't. "To handle my emotions right now," he said, "is really tough."

Texas coach Mack Brown said he wished his seniors could have gone out with a title, but his next challenge is helping the Longhorns -- who have won at least 10 games in nine consecutive seasons -- return to college football's biggest stage. "They understand what it takes, and we've just got to go back to work and try to get back here," Brown said. "That will be our goal."

Garrett Gilbert replaced McCoy, and though Texas kicked two quick field goals with Gilbert running the offense, Alabama's defense terrorized the true freshman -- whose only previous experience came in garbage time against lesser opponents. At halftime, Gilbert was 1-of-10 passing for minus-four yards with two interceptions.

The second interception crippled the Longhorns. Gilbert tried a shovel pass to tailback Tre' Newton, but Newton bobbled the ball. Dareus grabbed it, and the 296-pound sophomore danced through the Texas offense -- his run included a stiffarm and a spin move -- for a 28-yard return for a touchdown.

Early in the third quarter, it was announced that McCoy's shoulder injury would keep him out the remainder of the night. Gilbert rallied the Longhorns 44- and 28-yard touchdown passes to Jordan Shipley to make it 24-21. Just when it seemed Gilbert had settled, he stared at an Alabama defense that looked prepared to unleash an all-out blitz. The menacing movement was a ruse; as soon as the Texas line slid to stop the bulk of the would-be blitzers, the defenders dropped away. On the other side, linebacker Eryk Anders zoomed in untouched and sacked Gilbert, jarring the ball loose in the process. Alabama's Courtney Upshaw recovered on the Texas 3-yard line with 3:02 remaining, and Ingram scored to seal the win.

Alabama's win should put to rest many of the demons that have haunted the program since the Tide clinched their previous national title against favored Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl. Alabama burned through four coaches, including one (Mike Price) fired for scandalous behavior before he had even coached a game. The Tide also endured NCAA probation and national scorn after boosters essentially purchased the services of Memphis, Tenn., defensive tackle Albert Means from Means' high school coach in 2000.

"If you would have told me five years ago that we'd be here," Alabama fifth-year senior linebacker Cory Reamer said, "I don't think I would have believed you."

But since Saban arrived, the Tide have improved exponentially. Saban recruited stars such as defensive tackle Terrence Cody, receiver Julio Jones and tailback Mark Ingram, who won the 2009 Heisman Trophy and who scored two touchdowns Thursday. Those recruits meshed with Mike Shula recruits such as quarterback Greg McElroy, guard Mike Johnson and linebacker Rolando McClain, who committed to Shula and signed after Saban came aboard.

It was McClain who, after Alabama won the SEC title Dec. 5, refused to allow his teammates to dump a bucket of Gatorade on Saban because the Tide hadn't completed their mission. Thursday, Alabama players doused their coach. "I wish they'd do the water," Saban said. "You know, the Gatorade is awful sticky."

In a 2008 interview, Saban described the "process" required to build a championship program. Needless to say, that process took less time than Saban anticipated. "I've always had this driven, perfectionist-type personality to just work to be the best," Saban said. "I guess my parents instilled that in me. God willing, I'll have enough energy to continue to do it. Hopefully, we can build something special here."

He already has, and now it's time to build something else. There's an empty concrete ring outside the north end zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium just waiting for its Saban statue and a fuse box waiting to power the spotlight that will shine on it for eternity.

But Saban won't be the only one who goes down in the lore of one of college football's most sentimental programs. All the players who wore Crimson on Thursday left the Rose Bowl with a little piece of immortality. "They're never going to forget us now," Reamer said. "We're always going to be part of this Alabama tradition."

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