The biggest name in the game remains the same: Alabama

Christopher Walsh

For any longstanding college football fans who were fortunate enough to be in the room, it was the highlight of the offseason.

As part of this year’s ongoing celebration surrounding the 150anniversary of the sport, the Southeastern Conference put Steve Spurrier, Archie Manning and Herschel Walker on a stage together as a panel during media days in July.

It was like the equivalent of the after-party for “SNL 40” in 2015 when Prince, Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift — a combination no one ever thought they’d see together — playing late into the early-morning hours. Similarly, no one wanted to leave the main room at the Wynfrey Hotel.

All three had fun, and, predictably, Spurrier showed that he could still fire off zingers with the best of them. When asked about the state of college football, the former Duke, Florida and South Carolina coach immediately fired back: “Looks like Alabama to me.”

Yes, it does.

With Nick Saban having won five of his six national championships with the Crimson Tide since 2009, nearly any discussion about college football history these days has to begin with the Crimson Tide. Between he and Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, Alabama’s arguably had the two most successful coaches the sport has ever had, plus another three who won titles.

No other program has been at the top on such a regular basis, just ask Manning. When he was a stellar quarterback at Ole Miss (1968-70) the Crimson Tide was between its dynasties under Bryant, and his best team still took a loss to Alabama.

“Well, 150 years, it makes me feel old,” he said with a laugh. “Every night someone sends me a photo, a picture or something, and in 1969 I was a junior at Ole Miss. So that was the 100th year and we wore 100 on the helmets.”

Spurrier was also a Crimson Tide nemesis, and still likes to remind everyone his Gamecocks notched the first win against a No. 1-ranked opponent in program history when it upset Alabama in 2010.

Yet every win against Alabama is still special to him, especially the four in the SEC Championship Game.

“Florida-Georgia is still big, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But to win it all you’ve still got to beat that big red elephant from Tuscaloosa just about every year.”

Over the course of the 2019 season, there will be a lot of talk about the Crimson Tide’s place in history, and with good reason.

Sports Illustrated has already named Alabama its choice for the top all-time program. CBS had three Crimson Tide players on its All-Time All-American Team: Ozzie Newsome, John Hannah and Derrick Thomas.

ESPN’s plans, which include numerous documentaries and multi-part series, will be extensive as various people have been working on the project for three-plus years. It’ll name its version of the 150 greatest coaches, games, players, and teams over the course of the season.

Saban, of course, will be a prominent figure in all of it, just not as a fan.

“I’ve never been to a — what do you call it when you get in the parking lot? A cookout, tailgate? I’ve never been to one of those. So I can’t give you a perspective from a fan standpoint,” he said.

“But I think college football has been really good for a lot of players. I’m sure it’s very entertaining for a lot of fans. It’s created a lot of opportunity for a lot of young people to have a better chance to be successful in life, whether it’s getting an education because of their ability to get a scholarship which they may or may not have been able to go to college without. And I think the programs that so many good coaches through the years have had that so many players come back and say, I learned so many good lessons from Coach Bryant or Woody Hayes or whoever they’ve played for — George Perles, whatever. So that’s the perspective I see the game from.”

However, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have his own favorites, or a unique view of the game. It’s why he’s such a popular broadcast figure at the national championship game when Alabama isn’t participating.

For example, when a reporter recently asked him who was the best quarterback he’d ever seen, Saban was initially stumped by the question because there have been so many. He then rattled off numerous names beginning with, “John Elway was a really good quarterback at Stanford when I was at Ohio State and he impressed me a lot.” Saban even included Clemson quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson, who Alabama faced in recent title championship games.

Nick Saban press conference, Sept. 7, 2019
Nick Saban has been reflecting a lot during the 150th anniversary of college football. Christopher Walsh/BamaCentral

“Tom Brady played really good against us when I was against Michigan State,” he added. “We actually won the game, 34-31 or 31-28, but it was because they played a different quarterback half the game. If they’d have played him the whole game I don’t know what would have happened.”

That game may not come up among the 150 greatest of all-time, but one that certainly will may be the performance Manning’s best known for at Ole Miss. It’s the one he alluded to before, the first nationally televised night game in college football history, at Legion Field on October 4, 1969.

The Rebels were considered the team to beat in the SEC, but coming off a 10-9 loss at Kentucky were desperate for a win to stay in the chase.

In one of the rare true shootouts Alabama played before the game became so offense friendly, Scott Hunter completed 22 of 29 passes for 300 yards, while Manning was 33 of 52 for 436 yards and ran for 104 more. The duo combined for 842 yards of total offense and in the process set numerous school and conference records.

Even though Bryant supposedly told his assistants they were fired numerous times while storming up and down the sideline, Alabama won 33-32 on George Ranager’s 15-yard game-winning touchdown reception with 4:32 remaining.

“I’ve been to Birmingham a lot through the years, and I’ve played a lot of golf tournaments and have a lot of friends, and everybody I see says ‘I was there,’” Manning said. “As best I remember Legion Field in those days only had about 50,000, 60,000 seats. I’ve had 400,000, 500,000 people tell me they were there.

“It was a great game, though.”

Archie Mannning playing in 1969
<em>Archie Manning came up on the losing side against Alabama in 1969.</em>Courtesy of Ole Miss

Crimson Tide football obviously hasn’t been around for all 150 years, as the sport began in the Northeast and took a while to migrate into other parts of the nation. But Alabama embraced it with gusto beginning in 1892.

It was the first Southern school to play in the Rose Bowl, which for a long time was considered the college football’s marquee game. From that first national championship in 1925, through the poll era and even the College Football Playoff, Alabama has set a standard like none other.

It’s also earned an unparalleled level of respect.

“I never got a chance to play Alabama and I looked forward to playing Alabama because I had been recruited by Coach Bryant,” lamented Walker, who some consider the greatest to ever play the game. “I thought it would have been awesome to play against a coach like that.”