The “State” of Alabama
By BJ Bennett
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For college football's top program, there is no measure of excellence. There is no period of reflection.
With mighty Alabama set to play for its third national championship in four years, opponents and pundits alike are scurrying to identify what makes the Crimson Tide unique. What makes them consistently, seemingly irreproachably, successful. Some say it's a talent level that has served as a direct professional pipeline for the better half of the last decade. Others will point to a certain physicality, a distinctly-efficient-yet remarkably-simple style of play that has been the brand in Tuscaloosa for generations. Speed and strength, determination and grit; that is the only the beginning.
While Alabama's prowess is oftentimes on clear display between the lines of scrimmage, their biggest advantage may truthfully come between the ears. Most programs teach their players to reach for the stars. Nick Saban, and those before him, teach the Crimson Tide to push right through them.
"A lot of people have asked me what it was like when the game ended and we won the national title," explained former Alabama tight end Colin Peek. "My feeling was 'what's next?' We were trained to always believe there was always something better, something greater that you are striving for. I think that goes back to Alabama, Coach Saban and what he teaches. I think that is why you see Alabama consistently in the hunt, the race, the title game. Three out of four years, there is a reason why there is no complacency on that team and why they always want more. One championship is good, well what about two? Two is great, but what about three? It just keeps compiling on, what you can do that nobody else has done."
For college football's top program, there is no measure of excellence. There is no period of reflection. The mindset is always forward, the direction constantly onward and upward. Even when greatness is reached, building upon it is the next scheduled task. That mantra has widespread reach.
"I keep my championship ring in a box. When I first got it, I put it on and it looked great. I set it in the box because it's something you look at where you accomplished something magnificent in life, but, it all goes back to Coach Saban, there is always something else," Peek acknowledged. "Although that was great, that can't be a pinnacle. There will always have to be something greater. That was something I was blessed to have been apart of and to have gained."
For Peek, a Georgia Tech transfer once Paul Johnson replaced Chan Gailey and implemented the triple-option offense, Saban had an immediate influence on his life. That impact changed Peek both as an athlete and an individual. The head coach drawing comparisons to the great Bear Bryant has had such an effect on many. As Saban currently prepares to win his fourth BCS National Championship, he does so with a specific plan in mind.
"When I first met Coach Saban, we were sitting in his office and talking. I think this is the most resounding statement as to why Alabama is so good. He said, 'there are two pains in life, Colin. There is the pain of disappointment and the pain of discipline. If you can handle the pain of discipline, you will never have to handle the pain of disappointment.' That is why Alabama is good. Because we know how to handle the pain of discipline," Peek stated.
That understanding isn't gained overnight. Like an apprentice working diligently towards his craft, new players come to campus given a very real set of guidelines and instructions. The indoctrination isn't a glorious one, and it isn't easy. Many see the end result of Alabama's work. What is far less chronicled is how the Crimson Tide get to that point. Though the difference between winning and losing may be one score, a play here, a moment there, the underlying forces are, in many instances, decisions made much earlier in the year.
"We are so disciplined, we are so rigid. When other people are afraid to put extra work in, we are disciplined to do that. Whether it's the cold tub, the hot tub or the film study, or to be a brotherhood with each other, we are disciplined enough to do that. We understand that football is a grind," Peek nodded. "It's those who understand how to withstand that and how to find the joy in that grind that make you successful and create a heritage, a legacy and a tradition that you are proud to leave for others. That's what Alabama stands for, it's that discipline."
In the SEC Championship Game, a veritable national semifinal, the Crimson Tide were down 21-10 midway through the third quarter. They outscored Georgia 21-7 to finish the game. In early November, Alabama rallied with less than a minute to play in Death Valley against LSU with a 72-yard game-winning and season-defining drive. This program's ability to finish is no fleeting coincidence. It's, instead, a stitch in the fabric that makes teams coached by the likes of Saban, Stallings and Bryant exactly what they are.
"That's why you see them in the tough parts of the game never wear down. Because we are disciplined enough to go through the training in the summer and understand that the reason we are doing that now is for something far greater in the future. Beyond just striving for greatness and the integrity of the group of men, I truly think it's the discipline that Coach Saban instills and the understanding that there are multiple pains in football and in life in general, but if you remain disciplined and work harder than others you will always achieve more than others," Peek detailed. "I think that's something the University of Alabama, especially the football team, embodies more than any other school in the country."
It's a drive that knows no bounds.
"When we are all dog tired, we know how to fight through that tiredness and fight through the pain from the hits we have been taking and just keep rolling," Peek, who graced the cover of SI after the 2009 SEC Championship Game, remarked. "I think that's truly what's been Alabama's tradition and their heritage, being relentless. That's the one word Coach Saban always preaches, being relentless in your pursuit of excellence."
That inculcation isn't limited to work ethic. It's a mindset, a belief that a core commitment simply can't be overcome. Football may be a game with many deep complexities and varied influences. The coaches at Alabama do their best to keep their players insulated from those distractions. To date, it's proven to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"I remember we actually went into the title game ready to throw all over Texas. The first drive they were throwing a lot of things at us. Coach Saban came up to some of the guys and said 'get the offense ready, we are running the ball the rest of the game'. Texas had the number one run defense and we ended up putting up 350 yards on them," Peek recalled. "It's just understanding that there is a task ahead. If you play smart and hard-nosed football, at the end of the day that always wins. If you are disciplined enough to understand what you have to do, it doesn't matter if you tell them what you are doing. That's what we have always been taught."
An iconic meeting with undefeated Notre Dame awaits Alabama. The Fighting Irish haven't lost since last season's Champs Sports Bowl and boast the nation's top-ranked scoring defense, allowing merely 10.3 points per game. The Crimson Tide, 10.7 points per game, follow just one spot behind. For both programs, the goal isn't only winning the national championship. It's building on a legacy that has been in place well before these current players ever took the field, one that will last long after they are gone. That's the appeal of a place like Tuscaloosa, becoming another chapter in a book filled with stories that never end.
"That's why I went to Alabama," Peek admitted. "Because I understand that there was such a heritage and tradition there that if I was able to build a foundation and win a championship, then a building block would be created that would never be forgotten, the initial building block of a dynasty. I think now there is the opportunity to look at it and say, we were possibly the greatest era of a dynasty that may be unmatched through the rest of time. In their minds, you have to let go of it and not think about it, but it is something that they truly do have now. A moment, if they are mature enough to realize, that they can accomplish something that will never be forgotten."
Alabama has long had legendary players and coaches. This current crop on the roster is no different. Under Saban, the Crimson Tide have won 26-of-their-last-28 games. One of those losses came by three points to a foe they would later dominate in the national title game. The other was a four-point falter against college football's first freshman to ever win the famed Heisman Trophy. It will be over a month from when Alabama edged Georgia in one of the most memorable games in recent history to when they collide with Notre Dame. In the mind of the Crimson Tide, who they are facing is in some ways irrelevant. How they handle the situation is what they believe will determine the victor.
"Are you mature enough to understand the significance of what you are doing at this moment? When you are a young man, most of the time you don't understand exactly what the moment is. You're playing the game and you don't even recognize that there are 100,000 people watching you play and that's just inside the stadium. What you do truly does live on for a lifetime," Peek added. "If you are mature enough to understand what's going on at that moment in time, then you can maximize it."
Once the BCS National Championship Game arrives, Alabama will again be on the national stage. Alabama, in this instance, isn't just a football program, isn't just a state. Alabama stands for so much more. It's a brand, it's a mindset. From the wrought iron days of Bryant up through Saban today, Alabama is a way of life.