Thursday, August 28, 2014
How to pull back the Crimson Tide of old
By Alex Scarborough
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban opened fall camp with a lofty bit of rhetoric. Speaking with reporters for the first time since spring practice ended, he said how important it was for players to understand that, "The time is now." Everything they'd done during the offseason -- "from conditioning to running the stadium steps" -- had led to this.
How the season would play out, he said, was up to them.
"The challenge is to sort of resurrect our identity, in terms of what we want Alabama football to be," he said.
The morbid imagery was interesting -- and intentional. A few days later, Saban reiterated the theme in his opening comments, saying that, "The message really doesn't change. The time is now to resurrect the identity of the Alabama football program." There was even more conviction the second go-round: Alabama flatlined last season. Losing in the last second to Auburn was the knock-out punch. Getting blown out by Oklahoma was the death knell and the eulogy.
Only in Tuscaloosa would a 10-2 record and a berth in the Sugar Bowl be considered an abject failure. Only a coach like Saban would insist that resuscitation and rebirth was required.
"With a program like Alabama if you don't win national championships people think that's a failure," said safety Nick Perry.
But resurrection? Isn't that a little over the top?
At the very least, it's ambiguous. How exactly does one resurrect themselves? It's not as defined as becoming a better zone-blocking team or mastering the two-minute offense.
"I think he just means that we need to be one," said offensive tackle Austin Shepherd. "We don't need to be little pods of people in groups. When he talks about it to us, he just says that we need to be a group, get out there, play together, and then once you're off the field you guys need to hang out because that means you guys are going to click better on the field."
Jonathan Allen, a promising young defensive end, agreed. He said the team wasn't as connected as it should have been. The chemistry wasn't there.
"We lost it toward the end of last year," he said.
"We want to be a team," Saban said, "and we want the identity of our team to include 'we,' which means all players are together, take care of each other and take responsibility."
That's fine and all, but how will that ultimately be measured? How will we know if Alabama dusted off the ashes and began anew?
The problem is we won't know for quite some time. In fact, it might not be clear until the games are over and the history of the season is written.
After all, who outside the program noticed trouble brewing before the Iron Bowl debacle? Anyone claiming to have heard forlorn whispers when Alabama was still No. 1 might be stretching the truth. Even after the loss at Auburn, many expected the Tide to pick back up and wipe the floor with Oklahoma.
Complacency? Please. That wasn't an issue, we were told time and time again. That is, until back-to-back losses put Alabama on its back. Then the explanations came in waves, most notably from AJ McCarron, who said how "success was our killer” and that there was a sense of entitlement that permeated the locker room.
To keep those demons away, Saban wants a fresh start. He wants the focus on togetherness and chemistry and all the intangible things we're told make a champion.
But the truth is winning cures all. Winning makes for good teammates and happy coaches. Winning means not having to say you're sorry.
It's why Blake Sims and Jake Coker are currently entangled in a quarterback battle. Coker has the arm. Sims has the locker room. And, in the end, it's not who has the most friends in the huddle, it's who can throw the ball down the field best.
If you want to know the identity Alabama is trying to resurrect, all you have to do is look up as you enter the Mal Moore Athletic Facility from the players' parking lot. There, in full view on the second floor, are three crystal footballs. Once inside, you'll see the number 15 everywhere. That number -- Alabama's total number of national championships -- is the only thing that matters.
If Alabama wants No. 16, it will take a quarterback coming into his own, a freshman left tackle learning in a hurry, and a defense returning to form.
Call it resurrection if you want. How it's done -- whether it be with a festive locker room or a business-like sense of purpose -- is only window dressing.