A season with Alabama
There is a small but compelling museum that sits a couple of touchdown drives' distance from Bryant-Denny Stadium on the campus of the University of Alabama. It's official title is the Paul W. Bryant Museum, and true to the name, there is about as much houndstooth per square foot as any place in Tuscaloosa, in spirit if not in cloth.
But the museum is devoted to the entire history of a football program, and some of the most interesting exhibits for an outsider are those pertaining to a time that predated Bryant's arrival and Alabama's ascent as a gridiron superpower. You learn about William G. Little, an Alabaman who brought the game to the state after learning it in the Northeast in the latter years of the 19th century, a time when the schools of the Ivy League ruled the sport.
These days it's mind-bending to imagine there was a time when football didn't rule the state. That it first had to take root before it could flourish. Before it could be perfected, if you ask the locals, who treat the sport like a religion.
A century after football arrived, Alabama again proved to be fertile ground. This time the seed was softball. And there may well come a day when it's hard to imagine it was ever not thus.
When Arizona beat Washington in the championship game of the 1996 Women's College World Series, not long before the United States won Olympic gold medal in Columbus, Ga., there was no softball program at Alabama.
Current Crimson Tide All-Americans Kayla Braud and Jackie Traina were walking, or at least toddling, through the world in 1996, but the program with which they would win a national championship had yet to take its first steps.
When Alabama coach Patrick Murphy won his first game as head coach in 1999, the program's third season in existence, his team played in front of friends and family at a public park far removed from campus. He had to take down the outfield fence when the game was over, just as he had to set it up before the game could begin.
When Alabama beat Michigan on May 25 to advance to the Women's College World Series, there were 2,557 fans in attendance at Rhoads Stadium, the last of 86,108 fans who filed into the Tide's home last season. No other school drew 56,000 fans. The Crimson Tide averaged 25 fewer fans per game than the combined averages of Arizona State, California and Oklahoma, the three schools that joined them on elimination Sunday in the World Series.
And that was before those fans had a national championship to brag about.
It is remarkable how quickly this all happened. Alabama reached the Women's College World Series for the first time in just its fourth season. It got to Oklahoma City in 2000 by beating Arizona State twice in a regional. Those were the Crimson Tide's first wins after 10 consecutive losses against teams from what was then the Pac-10, softball's unquestioned ruling family and still the source of 10 of the past 12 national championships.
"That was kind of like the major obstacle, was just to beat a Pac-10 because they were so far ahead of everybody," Murphy said. "I mean, it wasn't even close. To finally do it in the fourth year, that set a really, really good tone for the entire program. After that, it was just keep going up, keep getting better and better."
Eight World Series appearances and the SEC's first national championship later, it keeps doing just that. And it keeps becoming more and more a part of the culture.
Throughout the 2013 softball season, espnW will give you an inside look at the Crimson Tide as they embark on an attempt to defend their national championship. As we did with Stanford women's basketball during the 2011-12 season and Tennessee women's basketball this season, we'll try and use words, pictures and videos to tell the stories not just of wins and losses but the people and the place.
Repeating won't be easy, even as Alabama opens the new season ranked No. 1 in the USA Softball Top 25. Gone are six seniors who got a lot of credit for their intangibles and posted a lot of tangible statistics. Outfielder Braud and pitcher-slugger Traina remain, along with espnW second-team All-American Kaila Hunt at shortstop and veteran Courtney Conley at third base, but newcomers and returnees alike will find a lot of playing time to compete for.
As things tend to in Alabama, football provides the roadmap. Murphy estimated half his team was in Miami to watch the Crimson Tide win a second consecutive football title. To see that performance and to see that team go about its business throughout the fall, new faces stepping in for former stars and focus maintained throughout, is to know what is required.
"I think it's a tremendous learning experience for a student-athlete at one school to watch another team win," Murphy said. "It just fires you up. You want to do it again, and you want to do it for your team.
"So I think it's a really special time to be at Alabama."