TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When it comes to the University of Alabama's 18th national championship, the Crimson Tide pulled off a season that was nothing short of jaw-dropping.
It ran the table, going undefeated. It won a staggering number of awards, everything from the Heisman Trophy to the Manning Award. It even won a game without having Nick Saban on the sideline due to COVID-19 protocols.
In the process, an interesting parallel has developed with the 2011 national champions, the team that barely lost the Game of Century only to come back and impressively shut out LSU in its back yard of New Orleans.
Both Saban-coached teams did so while dealing with extreme adversity.
The 2011 Crimson Tide, of course, won following the tornado that ripped through the heart of Tuscaloosa. Alabama was subsequently profiled on the cover of Sports Illustrated and recognized with the Disney Spirit Award, given annually to college football’s most inspirational player or team, for its efforts to aid victims, help rebuild the community and bring hope to the community.
Also winning national championships following the tornado were the Crimson Tide gymnastics (2012, it had also won in 2011), softball (2012), women's golf (2012) and men's golf (2013-14) teams. Ask anyone on those teams and they'll tell you the disaster provided an extra level of focus and motivation.
Saban notched titles again in 2015, 2017, and 2020, but outside of football Alabama hasn't won a national title since the turbulence of the tornadoes began to subside. Granted, there's been success, as golf and softball have been close, yet not at the same level.
This year feels different, though.
Just about every Crimson Tide team competing this winter/spring is ranked and men's basketball just won its first SEC title in roughly 20 years. Maybe it won't win another national title, but it's been 45 years since football and basketball have captured league crowns the same year.
It's an over-simplification, especially since 2011 was more localized adversity while the pandemic is worldwide, but it's not a coincidence that Alabama has thrived through both time periods.
"Look at the way the NFL handled it, no canceled games and got to a Super Bowl and finished the year," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "Alabama, with that NFL approach, that professional approach that Nick and his staff have. They kept everything together. These guys were in it to win it. They came back for a reason ... to win a national title, and they also improved their draft stock."
Kiper was referring to the likes of DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, Alex Leatherwood, Dylan Moses and Landon Dickerson all returning for this past season, although they all made the decision before the pandemic led to sports shutting down. They helped form a team leadership that was devoted and focused on the finish line.
Somewhat similarly, veteran leaders were a huge part in LSU winning the 2019 national title, and before that Clemson with its defensive linemen returning and leading a championship season.
"Nick can use this as a little bit of a teaching moment to other guys," Kiper continued. "Look at what happened with DeVonta Smith. Look where he's going, top group of the draft instead of the mid-to-first.
"Look where Najee Harris is going to go, not third or fourth round, but first or second round. Again, the benefit of going back, and being on a mission, and that professional approach, and the greatest job, Hall of Fame, the best coaching in the history of the game, Nick Saban has done, he probably proved it more this year than any other."
Even so, one can't help believe, if not conclude, that Alabama has proven once again that it handles adversity better than any other program in the nation. It's also obvious as to who's at the heart of that success.
The Don James influence
When asked about his mentors and coaches who influenced him, Saban is always quick to mention the man who got him started in coaching, Don James.
A common thing he'll say about his coach at Kent State is: "Don James, who was the first guy I worked for, used to say the quality of your team long term is going to get determined by the bottom 40 guys on your team not the top 40,"
Sports Illustrated/FanNation analyst Jim Mora Jr. was also familiar with James. He was a walk-on at Washington (1980-83) and began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for the Huskies.
So what does he think Saban learned from his college coach?
"Toughness, discipline, consistency, hold people accountable," James said. "Presenting a sense of mystery at times.
"Coach James' office door was always open and he'd always say, 'Hey, come on in and talk.' No one dared breach that door, and it was out of a tremendous amount of respect. There was a little bit of fear in there as well, but they're very, very similar."
It's partly why Mora says: "I'm a Nick Saban fan from a professional standpoint. He does it the right way."
With that in mind, combine the championship, winning with adversity and Coach James, and it puts the following Saban quote from 2016 into perspective:
"I don't think that you ever don't remember how special it is to be a part of a championship team. I think you've heard me say this before, there's a sign up in Monongah, West Virginia — which I'm not encouraging anybody to get on Travleocity and try to visit there — it says 1968 state champs. That still means a lot to me. The players who played on that team, the work that they did, togetherness we had, it was special. It certainly was something special at Kent State. It was something they hadn't done very often and it was a long time coming. We actually, being a part of Don James' program, those guys did a great job of coming together and winning a championship.
"That's not something that you ever really forget how special it is to be a part of that. Each one that we've been a part of since, because of the great group of people, the coaches and players, the togetherness, the team chemistry, all those things are what you always work for and I was always proud to be a part of that. So, it really means a lot. I know when I watch film and I see that little banner they have in the end zone that says '1972 Tangerine Bowl,' it reminds me of something that … the players that did the work to do it, and the coaches, and Coach James and the great leadership he had as coach."
• To follow up on Make Way for Alabama Quarterback Mac Jones as a Top Pick, which explains why its highly likely that he'll be a top-15 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, consider what Archie Manning said when Jones won the Manning Award (the only major national honor that's announced after the bowl games): “We had a lot of outstanding quarterbacks around the country, but I don’t think any player directed his offense as efficiently and as effectively as Mac. The Crimson Tide’s performance all year was so impressive; and seeing them roll to wins in the Rose Bowl and the CFP Championship really showed what an amazing team they have put together. And a lot of credit for that goes to Mac, who bided his time before taking over and showing the country what he could do."
• Something to keep in mind when filling out NCAA Tournament brackets this year, per KenPom.com, Alabama ranks third nationally in adjusted defense, trailing only Memphis and Loyola Chicago. Also in the top 25 are four other SEC teams: Tennessee is 6th, Arkansas 13th, Mississippi State 24th and Kentucky 25th.
• In conjunction with March being Brain Injury Awareness Month, the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA) has launched the CrashCourse Concussion Story Wall to document and help explain the seriousness and consequences of concussions. The interactive database includes 700 different stories and first-person accounts, relating everything from how an injury occurred, the symptoms experienced, how they were impacted (athletes, parents, coaches, officials, teachers and military veterans). It's worth a look.
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Christopher Walsh's notes column All Things CW appears weekly and will soon be part of premium BamaCentral+.