Saban Turns the Tide; after Series of Letdowns, Alabama's Title-Hungry Fans Delighted with Coach

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Byline: GARRY SMITS

Veteran Alabama columnist and radio host Paul Finebaum wrote a piece about the Crimson Tide's football team earlier this season, and its success in the second year under coach Nick Saban.

Never one to resist the urge to tweak people by the nose, Finebaum titled the column "Bear Who?"

He braced for what he was sure would be a flood of angry e-mails and phone calls.

They never came.

"Not one," Finebaum said. "I know it sounds sacrilegious, but you really don't hear that much talk about Bear anymore."

If Saban accomplishes nothing else in a season that so far has produced a 12-0 record, the Southeastern Conference's West Division title and a spot in Saturday's SEC championship game against Florida, it might be that he has erased the longest memories in college football: that of Alabama fans yearning for the glory days of Bear Bryant, when the Crimson Tide won six national championships and 14 SEC titles from 1958-1982.

And for the moment - pending, of course, the results Saturday and in either the BCS national championship game or the Sugar Bowl - Saban appears to be putting his stamp on the program.

"There's no question he's the man for us," said Jenny Baars of Pensacola, an Alabama cheerleader in the 1970s and vice president for the Florida region of the Alabama Alumni Association. "I was in school for the best years under coach Bryant, and he is still revered. But we have seen that coach Saban is serious, a hard worker and someone who will leave no detail unattended when it comes to the football team. It's fun to be an Alabama fan again."

Of course, Saban is riding high, undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the nation and a week removed from breaking a six-year losing streak against rival Auburn.

But what if the Gators put a beating on the Tide? The temptation might be to assume Alabama fans will turn on him.

However, Bama Magazine editor Kirk McNair said Saban has captivated the fans so much that the disappointment would not linger.

"If he loses his last two games, that's a 12-2 record, and if you asked Alabama fans before that season if they'd take 12-2 and beat Auburn, they'd have jumped on it," McNair said. "I think they would be like fans anywhere if they lose their last two games. They'd be upset, but come next September, they'd be excited about the team again."

That would be a change in fans' attitude about the previous men who followed Bryant.

Ray Perkins, Bill Curry, Gene Stallings, Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula all had winning records. Curry, Stallings and DuBose won SEC titles, and Stallings won a national championship.

It never seemed enough for Alabama fans, even with Stallings, who reminded fans the most of Bryant.

Finebaum called the Stallings era "The Godfather II."

"He sort of looked like Bear, talked like Bear and acted like Bear," Finebaum said. …