Alabama has once again ascended to the throne of college football, but while the Crimson Tide shows no present signs of relinquishing its crown, the future remains riddled with obstacles and challengers abound almost everywhere for the Tide.
With yet another crystal football currently awaiting its installation and display in the Mal Moore Athletic Facility, the once vanquished and embarrassed Alabama program, whose smoldering ruins produced such abominations as Debbiegate, Sunday afternoon sermons with Mike DuBose, Albert Means and his Moon Pies, Fridays with Fran, "It's Rolling, Baby!", and Darby up the middle, has somehow managed to defy the odds, the detractors, and even the expectations of many of its own supporters, and has since returned to its former greatness even against the backdrop of the most daunting competitive landscape that the SEC has ever produced in the storied history of the conference. Let it not be mistaken, to the extent that there indeed exists the proverbial mountaintop of college football, Alabama has firmly planted its flag atop the summit, above all others.
The present and ongoing ascendancy is arguably the absolute zenith of the program, perhaps even surpassing the highest of highs achieved even under Paul W. Bryant. To be entirely certain, the overall run of on-field success lasted far longer under Bryant – in excess of two decades – but even he never beat Texas, Notre Dame, or won three undisputed national championships in four years, all of which Nick Saban has accomplished in the past four seasons. With the sweet residue of the dismantling and disfigurement of the Fighting Irish still fresh, Alabama fans are faced squarely with the sobering reality that it may, in fact, never get any better than this.
But rhetorical discussions aside, the more pressing concern for Alabama followers is this: How long can this current run continue? For the time being there is no real indication of an approaching cliff, and to the contrary there are numerous indicators which portend a bullish outlook in the near-to-intermediate future. Then again, the history of dynasties reveals nothing if not the underlying admonishment that nearly all such programs tend to flourish for only very short periods of time, all of which directly suggests that the end of such a tear is near in Tuscaloosa. And regardless of how well-positioned the Alabama program may be at this particular point in time, the caveat remains that circumstances can change very quickly and the challenges, both internal and external, are numerous.
The present upshot for the Tide is that, despite the routine end of year attrition, the current state of the roster is nothing short of superb, with tremendous talent returning at nearly every position on both sides of the football. Moving forward, at this juncture, recruiting has essentially been placed on auto-pilot in Tuscaloosa, even notwithstanding the prep persuasive prowess of Nick Saban. Ongoing dynasties with rabid fanbases, opulent facilities, and almost-direct pipelines to the NFL rarely have any real issues with recruiting, and that remains true for Alabama. Individual prospects may be a hit or a miss depending on individual circumstances, but in general Alabama continues to bring in heavily-recruited prospects who could, and who often typically do, have their choice of any program in the country. Moreover, on the heels of its recent success, Alabama has expanded the recruiting map, effectively becoming a national program – the current recruiting class has commitments from thirteen states different states – eschewing the traditional Alabama recruiting territories, which typically entailed a heavy in-state focus complemented by more targeted ventures into border states.
Given that the overall talent level looks to drop relative little, if any, in the years ahead, the foremost concern in Tuscaloosa is the possibility of the slow and potentially crippling creep of institutional complacency taking hold. Nick Saban and company have done nothing short of a tremendous job in minimizing such effects to date, but that will be a continuing battle moving forward, and it will have the capability to dramatically slow the program. Once heavily-coveted prospects begin arriving on campus with the grandeur of delusions that winning is a natural end result of merely gracing the field with their presence – as opposed to the by-product of years of toil and sweat by even the most talented of players – and once that sets in then only a complete overhaul of the culture of the program can reverse such trends. Nor is the same a small concern for Alabama, even despite its recent success in fighting such tendencies, and that is precisely what, above and beyond all else, has felled recent powerhouses such as USC and Texas.
Facilities, too, must remain an institutional focal point moving forward, even as costly as maintenance and further expansion may be. Inadequate facilities limited the program throughout much of its struggles which began in the mid-to-late 1990's, and that was an underlying problem which was not fully rectified until nearly a decade later. The current state of the physical athletic infrastructure is as impressive as advertised, complete with the ongoing construction of a new weight room and the recent expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium bringing its capacity to over 100,000 spectators (Bryant-Denny, in fact, arguably has excess capacity now, which could become a problem in the future). Nevertheless, though, despite how opulent the current state of facilities may be, the fact remains that the facilities arms race will only proliferate, both around the SEC and across the nation, especially given the continued growth of already-massive broadcasting contracts. As has been the case in decades gone by, the opulence of today can quickly become the relative slums of tomorrow, and the institutional commitment to facility upgrades must remain strong if the football program is to maintain its standing, even in an age of relative austerity which has resulted in steep budget cuts for many educational institutions.
The competitive landscape, too, remains nothing short of daunting, with threats abounding almost everywhere. The SEC may not get any stronger than it currently is, to be sure, but the opposite truth of that statement is that the SEC is unlikely to get little, if any, weaker than it currently is, especially given the recent addition of a suddenly reinvigorated Texas A&M program. Once internal struggles hit in this league, the afflicted fall quickly, fall hard, and generally remain on the canvas for an extended period of time. This is simply not a conference where a declining program can maintain at least a semblance of its grasp on the crown, there are just far too many other potential programs poised to complete an overtake maneuver. To the contrary, in fact, in the SEC, once a former power falters, opposing programs tend to quickly circle the weakened and gnaw at the carcass until there is nothing left but the bones. As a general matter, there are no soft landings in this league, not even for a traditional power like Alabama. If 'Bama slips in the years ahead, it will, yet again, learn that lesson the hard way.
And, of course, the proverbial elephant in the room, the one looming event that all of the Alabama faithful abhors even the mere mention of: The Day After Nick Saban. Perhaps that day comes tomorrow, perhaps that day comes fifteen years from now, or perhaps it comes at any point in between. Regardless of when that day comes, however, it will eventually come to pass, and when it does Alabama must simply be prepared for life after Nick Saban.
The enduring myth of the post-Bryant, pre-Saban era, which is accepted by many otherwise knowledgeable college football observers, is that Alabama became an also ran during this time frame. That assertion is demonstrably false – on the whole Alabama remained one of the most successful programs in the country between 1983 and 1996, and its subsequent collapse, beginning on the field in 1997 was far removed, both in time and in causation, from the departure of Bryant – but even so the immediate aftermath of the Bryant era was by no means a resounding success for the Alabama program. In the six seasons that immediately followed the resignation of Bryant, the best season posted by Alabama was arguably in 1985, when Alabama went 9-2-1 and ended the season with a victory in the Aloha Bowl, and in three of those remaining five seasons the Crimson Tide posted four or more losses. Again, on the whole it was far from outright failure, and no one went over the proverbial cliff, but it was simply not the level of success most had hoped for, much less what nearly all have become accustomed to in recent years under Nick Saban.
Now, to be entirely clear, the decline of the program began before the ultimate resignation of Bryant in December of 1982, and the current state of the program is far stronger than it was some thirty years ago, but even so Alabama will need to hire a relatively comparable replacement (or as comparable as realistically can be to someone like Nick Saban) for this current run to continue in anything resembling its present form. It is exceedingly easy to overstate the importance of one individual to an entire organization, of course, and it is undoubtedly true that it is a necessity to have the correct individuals in place throughout the organization, but Bryant himself perhaps said it best:
"But it's still a coach's game. Make no mistake. You start at the top. If you don't have a good one at the top, you don't have a cut dog's chance. If you do, the rest falls into place. You have to have good assistants, and a lot of things, but first you have to have the chairman of the board."
Even a good coach with a great program is never going to achieve truly great results, so that alone likely will not be enough to continue the current run. Stated somewhat differently, Nick Saban must be adequately replaced whenever that day comes, in so much as that is feasibly possible. In the interim, the Alabama faithful can only hope that Saban remains in Tuscaloosa and this his run of unparalleled success continues into the near-to-intermediate future.
For now, Alabama followers should simply rejoice in the ascension its recent success has created, a position that many thought the Tide would never reclaim and to which most other mortal programs can only dream. Even so, as delectable thoughts of a trampled Notre Dame and South Beach indulgence slowly fade away, moving forward the harsh reality is that even the strongest of grips on control of the college football world is tenuous at best, and heavy is indeed the head that wears the crown. For this day Alabama stands alone atop the mountain, but the challenges ahead remain no less daunting for the Tide.
Hope for the best.