In the twelve-season stretch from 1985-1996, you would be hard pressed to find many programs in the nation with a more impressive resume than Alabama. Of those twelve seasons, we won nine games or more nine different times -- an extremely impressive feat in an era of eleven game regular season schedules -- and the two "bad" years saw us go 7-5 twice, with wins over the likes of Auburn, Tennessee (twice), LSU (twice), and Penn State. That stretch included an undisputed, undefeated national championship, two conference titles, eleven bowl appearances, seven bowl victories, and four appearances in Atlanta in the first five years of the modern SEC format. Again, you would be hard pressed to find many other programs with a more impressive resume. You would put Miami ahead of us, and perhaps even Nebraska or Florida, but in that span that stretched more than a decade, we were easily one of the top four programs in the country.
By the time kick-off of the 1997 season drew near, however, the glory years of the post-Bryant era were about to come crumbling down, regardless of whether or not anyone knew it.
Much has been said and written about the shortcomings of Mike Dubose. It has been eight years now since he roamed the sidelines at Alabama, and in that time his abilities as a coach, or lack thereof, have been analyzed a million times over, and there is really no reason to rehash all of those old arguments again. I suppose all that really needs to be said is he was the wrong man for the job, and that he should have never been hired in the first place.
The 1997 season quickly became a disaster. Things started off well enough at 3-1 -- though a close loss, at home, to a very bad Arkansas team should have been a sign -- and then things fell apart, losing six of the last seven games to finish 4-7. And the losses were ugly. We were physically dominated by Louisiana Tech, and lost to Kentucky for the time since around the time most of our grandparents were born. Tennessee blew us out, and LSU -- the very same team that we had dominated 26-0 the year before on the heels of Shaun Alexander's 291 yard, four touchdown performance -- returned the favor on a dreary day in Bryant-Denny. A mediocre-at-best Mississippi State team handled us with ease, and we threw away a game in Auburn that we should have won.
I think the fact that the past ten years have been so terrible kind of shields us from just how shocking the 1997 season truly was at the time. Before our decade-long roaming of the desert, we as a fan base really knew nothing but winning. You have to keep in mind that, notwithstanding the Whitworth era, from 1904-1996, we had only three losing seasons. In those 90 seasons that came between our 3-4 campaign in 1903 in Winston Blount's debut season and the end of the Stallings era, 87 times we posted a record of .500 or better. So when we went 4-7, everyone was simply shell-shocked.
1998 came along, and everyone thought we were seeing improvement, but it was all smoke and mirrors. We went from 4-7 to 7-5, but in reality there was little or no improvement. Our record improved, but it was mainly due to a variety of factors that had nothing to do with us actually improving our on-field performance. The complete and total collapse of both LSU and Auburn were the biggest difference -- those two teams combined to go 20-5 in 1997, but fell to 6-14 in 1998 -- but an easy non-conference schedule and a lot of luck played big roles, too.
And no one should underestimate the way that pure and simple luck factored in. It was nothing short of an absolute miracle that we beat a truly terrible LSU team in Baton Rouge, and we needed a blocked extra point returned for a two-point conversion to beat lowly East Carolina by a single point. The fact that we were absolutely crushed in the worst way possible by Arkansas, blown out by Tennessee, and lost easily to Mississippi State all showed that the improvement was essentially non-existent, and the blowout loss to Virginia Tech only further confirmed that fact. People looked at the raw record and assumed there was progress being made, but in reality there was none. We weren't really any better than we were in the disastrous 1997 campaign, but a few factors from outside of our control made it seem that way.
And then the scandal hit.
In May of 1999, Internet rumors started to emerge that Dubose had an affair with an employee in the athletic department. Once the rumors reached the point to where they had to be publicly addressed, Dubose publicly denied them to both the general public and the Alabama administration, adamantly declaring that the rumors were complete fabrications. And then three months later in August, mere weeks before the Tide was set to kick off the season against Vanderbilt, Dubose's long-time secretary, Debbie Gibson, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Dubose and the university. Shortly thereafter, the university chose to settle the lawsuit out-of-court and settled with Gibson for approximately $350,000.00. Dubose, merely 90 days removed from his vehement denials, publicly admitted to the affair. Sorensen and Bockrath acted quickly and did not fire Dubose, but instead removed two years from his contract and deducted $360,000.00 in pay that he was set to receive.
Over the years, many have openly wondered why the terrible twosome didn't use this opportunity to fire Dubose. After all, they never wanted him in the first place, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to get rid of him -- Sorensen himself publicly stated after the settlement that he was "not sure" if he could trust Dubose to comply with NCAA rules -- so why not just pull the trigger? On the surface it doesn't quite make sense, but if you look a bit deeper things become more clear.
First and foremost, even if they did not want him, he was their selection and they were on the line for his performance; firing Dubose would have only confirmed that they dropped the ball by hiring him in the first place. Moreover, Bockrath and Sorensen liked how easily Dubose could be pushed around, he gave them little resistance when the marching orders were sent down through the ranks. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, neither of the two had the fortitude or the leadership abilities to fire him. Just like they didn't have the guts to go against the grain and hire a quality football coach three years earlier, they didn't have the guts to fire the football coach weeks before the season started. So, for better or for worse, they spared Dubose.
And honestly, though most did not know it at the time, that move marked the beginning of the end for both Bockrath and Sorensen.
When those two acted unilaterally in retaining Dubose, the Board of Trustees effectively exploded with rage. They did not agree at all with how the situation was handled, but at the time being there was really nothing they could do about it. The decision was final, and they had to live with it. But they did have the power to prevent that sort of thing from happening again. By this point, they were fed up with Sorensen and his antics, and decided that his blank check with the athletic department had lasted long enough. As a result, the Board of Trustees formed the Athletic Oversight Committee to keep Sorensen under control. And from that point forward, at least for a while, Sorensen was effectively a lame duck president.
As crazy as all of that was, though, we had a football season to play. The season officially kicked off on September 4th against Vanderbilt in Nashville, where the Tide won 28-17 in a fairly middling performance. The next week brought more of the same with a 37-10 win at Legion Field over a mediocre-at-best Houston team. And then things went haywire.
The following week brought Louisiana Tech to town, in what many expected to be a payback game from the debacle two years earlier. Yet shortly after halftime, Alabama found itself trailing yet again, this time 15-3, as we simply could not stop Tim Rattay. Naturally, Shaun Alexander came up big for us, with a long kick-off return for a touchdown followed by another long touchdown run, followed by another touchdown run. With our offense suddenly dominating the Louisiana Tech defense, we probably should have put the game away in this stretch, but unfortunately an Andrew Zow interception set up an easy touchdown for the Bulldogs, and our lead was only three after Alexander's final touchdown run. We got the ball back late, and moved it nicely. We had a first down at the Louisiana Tech 20 with under three minutes to go, but then they held tough and on third and long, Dubose and company went the conservative route with a draw play. We kicked the field goal, which gave us a 28-22 lead, and Louisiana Tech had found new life. Tim Rattay got the ball back, and quickly marched down field. Eventually our pass rush came through, though, and we garnered two sacks in a three play stretch, the final one by Kenny King which knocked Tim Rattay out of the game. His back-up, Brian Stallworth, came into the game, and he was sacked too. After a short dump-off pass on third and long, suddenly Louisiana Tech found itself staring down the barrel of a 4th and 22 from the Alabama 28. Stallworth dropped back and heaved a Hail Mary into the end zone, where it found the awaiting arms of wide receiver Sean Cangelosi. Louisiana Tech wins, again, 29-28.
All hell broke loose afterward. Though we weren't physically dominated like we were two years prior, it was still another loss to Louisiana Tech and combined with the lawsuit and the lies and everything else, something had to give. Someone's head had to roll for this one, and someone's did.
That someone turned out to be athletic director Bob Bockrath. On the Monday following the Louisiana Tech debacle, news leaked in various media outlets that Bockrath was on his way out, and so it came to pass. It was really no surprise that Bockrath's head was the first to roll, the man was literally hated by nearly everyone (sans Sorensen), and with good reason. He bore the brunt of the criticism for the resignation of Stallings, and rightly so, and he caved to fan pressure in hiring Dubose. Moreover, he earned the nickname "Bottom Line Bob" for putting the football program on a tight budget -- prior to his arrival, the program really had no such thing as a "budget," per se, it generally got what it wanted when it wanted it -- and he thwarted almost any and all facility upgrades. The new Alabama logo, the infamous constipated elephant, was introduced in large part as a strategy to increase sales of Alabama merchandise. His handling of the ticket situation for the 1998 Music City Bowl was a complete debacle. He was also sued for fraud and accusing of trading a skybox in Bryant-Denny in a sweetheart deal in exchange for a greatly discounted price on the lot in which he built his home in Tuscaloosa. Again, small wonder Bockrath's head was the first to roll. It would be unfair to say his departure was all because of the Louisiana Tech loss, but that was certainly what tipped the scale.
As an aside, a year later Bockrath turned back up with yet another athletic director job. This time it was with Yavapai College, a tiny community college in Prescott, Arizona, and now he enjoys personally writing his own correspondence and piddling in his flower garden when he gets home from work each evening. And if all that doesn't tell you all you need to know about his abilities as an AD, nothing will.
Anyway, back to the main topic, it seemed like Dubose would be the next to go. After the Louisiana Tech loss, it became a question of not if, but when regarding Dubose's departure. Many were surprised when he was not fired in the next seven days, but many expected that once we played Arkansas -- the same team that had embarrassed us 42-6 the previous year -- we would lose big and that would seal the deal. Except that we won. Shaun Alexander had a huge day, as did Andrew Zow, and Freddie Milons threw a long touchdown pass on a trick play that turned out to be the difference maker. It all culminated in a 35-28 victory over the Hogs, who admittedly they were nowhere near as good as they were the year before, and Dubose lived to fight another day.
The thinking then became that once we went to play Florida the following week in the Swamp, they would surely annihilate us and that would close this chapter in Alabama football history. We had an off week after that, and surely Dubose would be fired then. Funny thing happened there, too, though. We won... somehow. The truth was we had no business winning that game. Florida had us beat late, forcing us to punt, while trailing by a touchdown, with only about two minutes left to play in regulation. All Florida needed to do was cleanly field the punt, and victory was all but secured. The Florida returner, however, muffed the punt, we get the ball back, scored, and next thing you know we are headed for overtime. Florida scored quickly, as expected, but then made another critical mistake by missing the PAT. Shaun Alexander then came up big again, but we too blew the PAT. Fortunately, Florida made yet another critical mistake with a pre-snap penalty, and we re-tried the PAT and it narrowly went inside the right upright. We won 40-39. Somehow.
With two upset wins in the bag, Dubose had been saved. We went into the off week with some confidence, and the following week we went to Oxford and beat a fairly mediocre Ole Miss team in a tight game. Suddenly we were sitting at 4-0 in the conference, and we were in the driver's seat to win the SEC West. The problem was, though, we weren't playing all that well. Naturally, Tennessee came to Bryant-Denny the following week and won with no major problem, extending their streak to five straight, though in all fairness we did play well the following week against Southern Miss. After that, it was back to the middling performances. We needed a time-expiring goal line stand at home to beat a terrible 3-8 LSU team with a lame duck head coach. The 19-7 win over Mississippi State the following week effectively clinched the West and looked relatively impressive on paper, but it probably wasn't. MSU came in 8-0, but it was because they had played a terrible schedule -- of those eight teams, not a single one of them finished with a winning record, and the best of the bunch was easily a 6-6 Kentucky team -- and not because they were particularly good. After that we went to Auburn, where we were physically dominated by a bad Auburn team for three quarters before Shaun Alexander finally took over and led us to victory in the final stanza.
After the Iron Bowl we were heading to Atlanta, and good fortune remained on our side. Florida, the SEC powerhouse of the 1990's, seemed like a daunting opponent, but it was daunting in name only. The Gators ended up 9-4 in 1999, which was actually the worst year in Spurrier's tenure in Gainesville, and moreover Florida came in walking wounded with both of their top two quarterbacks playing hurt. It was a close game until late, and finally we broke through with a couple of big plays, and shortly thereafter our 21st SEC Championship became official. A trip to the Orange Bowl ensued, which actually turned out to be a major disappointment. There was the Chris Samuels melodrama, and it ultimately ended with us losing a game to a Michigan team that we probably should have beaten.
Now, while all of this was going on, Finus Gaston was acting as the interim athletic director and we were actively searching for a new athletics director. Sorensen was allowed to hire the new athletic director himself, but it was obviously a decision that was not entirely his. As I mentioned earlier, Sorensen was effectively a lame duck president regarding athletics when the Athletics Oversight Committee was formed, and as a result he hired Mal Moore a couple of days after the Iron Bowl. It wasn't what he wanted, of course, but he was essentially powerless and had no other choice. By this point, Sorensen had probably checked out mentally and looking for his next abomination.
Fresh off of an SEC title in 1999, with nearly everyone returning for 2000, Alabama fans were effectively going nuts with excitement. If they thought they were seeing progress in 1998, you can only imagine what the feeling was after 1999. In reality, though, it was all a sham. Regardless of the hardware that they collected, our 1999 team simply was not that good -- it should be pointed out that they had the fewest Pythagorean Wins of any SEC Champion since the current format went into place, sans LSU in 2001 -- and they were major overachievers. We lost to the likes of Louisiana Tech, and barely squeaked by several other very bad teams. It was nothing short of an absolute miracle that we did what we did. Our success was almost entirely contributed to sheer luck, a few great seniors, and a very weak SEC West. You have to keep in mind that both LSU and Auburn were still terrible, MSU only had a good record because of a ridiculously easy schedule, and both Ole Miss and Arkansas were mediocre-at-best. We essentially won the SEC West by default, and we lucked into facing a depleted Florida team that was having a bit of a down year once we made the trip to Atlanta. The problem of it all was, of course, none of those three factors -- sheer luck, a few great seniors, and a very weak SEC West -- were sustainable in the short-term, much less the long-term. Though we were all going nuts with enthusiasm about being a national championship contender again, the harsh truth was that we were much closer to an absolute collapse than we were to moving to the next level.
And in fact, the success of the 1999 campaign made things only tougher on our chances in 2000 team. All of the problems we had anyway -- lack of leadership, coaching ability, discipline, an effective S&C program, fighting between the staff, big egos, character cases, etc., etc. -- simply got that much worse with all of the hype that we had going into the 2000 campaign. It was almost as if nearly all the entire team and coaching staff simply thought that we were going to have national success handed to them on a silver platter, and that they weren't going to have to work for it. This is a big enough problem in its own right, but it was even more so in our case because we actually had a lot of problems that needed correcting. We just all convinced ourselves with these delusions of grandeur that these problems did not exist, but we would learn the hard way the lessons of hubris and arrogance.
The 2000 season unfolded, in all honesty, in a fairly predictable fashion. In August, the team showed up overweight and out-of-shape, thanks to months of a lack of conditioning, and by that point it was too late. Once we traveled to UCLA, a mediocre Bruin team physically dominated us, and it was simply a tailspin that we would never recover from. We kind of sleep-walked through Vanderbilt, and then were absolutely embarrassed by Southern Miss in Legion Field. After the game, Dubose gave his resignation to Mal, but Mal refused to accept. Dubose knew he had lost the team and just how badly things had gotten, but from Mal's perspective there was really no use in letting Dubose go at that point in time. They wouldn't be able to hire a coach for months anyway, and who knows? Maybe a miracle will strike twice. And actually, it seemed for a while that may happen. We played much better against Arkansas, and lost after two controversial penalties late, but then beat South Carolina and annihilated a decent Ole Miss team. It wasn't easy, but we fought our way back to 3-3 before going to Knoxville, and we were still very much in the thick of the SEC West race. Trailing 20-10, we were making a serious rally early in the fourth quarter with a first and goal inside the Tennessee 10, but Brandon Miree fumbled and that was effectively the end of it. From there Dubose was mentally absent in his search for God and our football team had gone straight to Hell. After that loss we packed it in for the season, and finished up 3-8.
Again, it really wasn't anything all that shocking. As I mentioned earlier, what fueled the successes of 1998 and 1999 was not sustainable in the future, and it all finally fell apart in 2000. Lady Luck finally caught up to us, as we suddenly starting losing all of those close games we were winning the previous two years. We did not have the great seniors from the year before, and that took away the running game -- which in turn showed that elements of the passing attack that we all thought were so good were in fact nothing special when opposing defenses weren't selling out to stop the run -- and the bite out of the defensive line as well. And as should have been expected, the rest of the SEC got much tougher. Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Arkansas all stayed about the same, and Auburn and LSU improved by leaps and bounds. LSU made arguably the best decision in school history by hiring Nick Saban, and they responded by having one of their best seasons since they collapsed under Archer in the late-1980's. Auburn, on the other hand, rode JUCO tailback Rudi Johnson and a strong defense to an SEC West Championship.
The funny thing of it all was that Alabama really wasn't that much worse in 2000 than it was in 1999, despite what you probably think. We had 4.98 Pythagorean Wins in 1999, and 4.80 Pythagorean Wins in 2000, and actually that was far more than we had in 1998 (3.34) when we went 7-5. At the end of the day, Dubose was the wrong man for the job in the first place, and any progress it seemed like we were making in 1998 and 1999 was nothing more than smoke and mirrors. It was all a sham, and those who had convinced themselves otherwise were just fooling themselves. The 2000 meltdown did little more than to prove that point once and for all.
At the very least, the twelve-year run that saw Alabama as a national powerhouse in the post-Bryant era had come to a depressing end, and with the NCAA investigators coming to town for the second time in a seven-year stretch, it seemed like it would be a long time before we would be sitting on top once again.
Next Up: Rebuilding Time