It really didn’t register until about six weeks ago, when Alabama softball nearly produced a national championship. The Crimson Tide fell short in the Women’s College World Series, but won the SEC before its ultimate pursuit ended in the national semifinal. That got me thinking, when was the last time a university was as strong in athletics as Alabama was last year?
Well, it depends, and it’s somewhat subjective the further back you look.
Sure, the football program won its thousandth national championship, or so it seems, but the formerly unsuspecting Crimson Tide teams won big, too, like men’s basketball, which captured both the regular season and tournament crowns of the SEC in coach Nate Oats’ second season running things.
Other Alabama programs picked up similar slack, too, like fellow conference champions of gymnastics. Add some impressive postseasons to the list—women’s swimming and diving (fourth place in the SEC; fifth place nationally), men’s track and field (third place in indoor at SEC Championships; second place in outdoor at SEC Championships), and women’s cross country (second place in the SEC; eighth place nationally)—and you have quite the list of widespread success in Tuscaloosa.
So, whose lineup of athletic successes is that deep in one calendar year?
Florida comes to mind, specifically the Gators of 2006-07, when coach Urban Meyer led the football program to a national championship in January then watched colleague Billy Donovan lead Florida basketball to the same feat a few months later.
After winning it all in 2006, beating Meyer to the big, bright stage, Donovan had done it again the next spring, accomplishing the first back-to-back in college basketball since Mike Krzyzewski and Duke won two consecutive national titles in 1991 and ‘92.
Then-Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley hired them both, Meyer and Donovan, and both produced a national championship in the same year.
Later in the fall of ‘07, Gator quarterback Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy before impatiently waiting with Meyer to capture the program’s second BCS crown in three seasons in the 2008-09 season.
Kind of like Alabama football in 2020 with wide receiver DeVonta Smith also winning the Heisman and the team capturing its 18th national championship, huh? If Crimson Tide hoops was able to then win the big prize of March Madness, absolutely, it would’ve been historic in its most organic form.
It likely would’ve been the most impressive one-year run ever from the same university in the two most notable NCAA sports.
Could’ve, should’ve, whatever, the point is Alabama, under the leadership of athletic director Greg Byrne, will consistently be in contention of something similar to Florida under Foley.
Since Byrne was hired from Arizona in 2017, the Crimson Tide are viewed as more than a football power. Alabama always was capable of such, but only now is it being realized across the board, as the saying goes.
Oh, and Foley hired Kevin O’Sullivan, too, the coach who led Florida baseball to a College World Series title in 2017.
The parallels are, well, parallel; Byrne has built a Foley-like athletic department on a broad scale, though this time, at Alabama, the standard has already been set and goes by the name Nick Saban.
He's to college football what Foley was to athletic administration.
He’s the standard to which all coaches of the Crimson Tide strive to reach, however (un)realistic that seems, and Byrne does his part in making that success resonate throughout the university and the fanbase.
That brings me to Alabama’s mantra of ‘Championship School,’ first publicly introduced by Oats after the basketball program won its second SEC crown of the 2020-21 season. It signifies the influence of Crimson Tide football, and it caught on immediately among those who desired a day when this would all be more than hopeful thinking.
Hopeful, wishful, take your pick ... it wasn't always this good for Alabama fans post-January.
Counterintuitively, coaches of all sports gravitate to Tuscaloosa because of the intersection of Alabama football and the other programs on campus. Perceptually, it always appeared to be a deterrent to high-level coaches who would assumedly feel unwelcomed at a strictly football-type school. And, I, among many, didn’t realize how the paths could cross until Byrne was hired and capitalized on it.
The negative, at first appearance, to basketball, baseball, softball, gymnastics, track and field, and basically all coaches of all sports actually morphed into a net positive of Crimson Tide athletics.
Previously, Alabama football was always good enough to compensate for sub-par, even just par performances of other sports. Now, though, it’s become the model of the entire athletic department. It’s the standard, like I said, and because of Byrne leading the charge, Crimson Tide football is one of more than a dozen UA sports that are expected to perform at a high level nationally.
This all due to, of course, Byrne hiring some of the best people for the job regardless of sport.
Gone are the days of Alabama football season being year-round as a byproduct of others’ not being ‘up to snuff.’ It’s voluntarily year-round for fans now. It’s multiple choice: follow Saban and Co. in early spring, watch another sport win the SEC and compete for a national championship, or do both while shouting Championship School! as the basketball team captures another trophy.
Or the softball team. Or gymnastics. Take your pick. That's the point.
‘Championship School’ as a mantra is, in other words, the prerequisite to it becoming a reality. The standard has to be set before it can be met, and Alabama has quickly accomplished both while many schools can only admire from afar.
Just now is it being used promotionally, but the objective was established before Oats said it, and before he was even hired to coach Alabama basketball. It was established by the guy who hired some of the new coaching faces who’ve already won big, and, by the way, Crimson Tide baseball isn’t too far behind under coach Brad Bohannon, who was brought to town via Byrne.
Byrne didn’t have to ‘reinvent the wheel,’ no, he just had to take advantage of being one of the most promoted athletic departments in the nation, thanks to Alabama football and its many cross-sport benefits like revenue, notoriety, and championship-level ideology.
It's my thinking that championship expectations naturally permeate when the right people are calling the shots, and when the smartest people in the room want the company of fellow highly-successful individuals who share the same vision.
Last year might've been nothing more than a preview of years to come for Alabama athletics under the direction of Greg Byrne.
It really didn’t register until about six weeks ago, when Alabama softball nearly produced a national championship. The Crimson Tide fell short in the Women’s College World Series, but won the SEC before its ultimate pursuit ended in the national semifinal. That got me thinking, when was the last time a university was as strong in athletics as Alabama was last year? Subscribe for full article
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