Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Alabama tradition didn't start or end with Bryant

Alabama tradition didn’t start or stop with Bear Bryant

Last week, sports talk radio in Birmingham took up a topic close to my heart- the tradition of University of Alabama football. Well, sort of. What happened was that the “Bald Smirky One” went fishing for some controversy.
Paul Finebaum, in one of his columns, pondered a question, “Is Nick Saban bigger than Bear Bryant?”

In past years, this subject would have been like John Lennon saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Bryant is an icon to Alabama fans in particular and college football fans in general; he is to Alabama football what Robert E. Lee is to the South, what Elvis is to music fans and what John Wayne is to Hollywood. Here in the year 2008, however, the topic was not that big a deal.

Many Alabama fans actually conceded that it was time to let Bear Bryant’s memory be just that- a sepia toned snapshot of good times gone by, always warmly remembered but not overpowering the present.
It’s funny that many Auburn fans get their Under Armour all in a wad anytime Bryant is mentioned. I don’t blame them. Bryant beat Auburn 19 times in 25 years, including nine in a row from 1973-1981. It must have sucked to have been an Auburn fan during those Crimson years.

None of the current Alabama players were even alive when Bear Bryant coached at Alabama. Few of them have any clue as to how life was during that time, and I would guess none of the players decided to play for Alabama because of the legacy of Bear Bryant. The past two recruiting classes have come to Alabama to play for Saban, a guy who has two SEC championships, one national championship and an NFL stint on his resume.
What seemed left out of the debate about Bryant and Saban’s respective hold on Alabama consciousness is the overall tradition of Alabama football.

Alabama football tradition didn’t start or stop with Bear Bryant. Alabama football began in the late 19th Century and began to excel in the early 20th Century. When Alabama football started, Civil War veterans were still alive. Reconstruction was still fresh in the minds of southern folk. When the Crimson Tide whipped up on some Yankee schools early on, the Tide became a symbol of regional pride.

Much like Saban, Bryant was hired to bring back what was already an established championship tradition. In the late 1950s Alabama, the same school that boasted Rose Bowl appearances and national championships and legendary coaches Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas, had fallen on hard times. The Tide won a handful of games in three seasons before The Bear’s arrival. He immediately made them respectable again, and in four years he won a national championship. When Bryant won championships in the Civil Rights era, it once again gave Alabamians and Southerners something to be proud of amidst adverse circumstances.

Times are much different now. Saban is not in the same historical position as the first Alabama coaches in the early 1900s or as Bryant in the 50s and 60s.
But Saban has the chance to do what Bryant did. He can cement himself in the tradition of Alabama football by competing for championships in the next couple of seasons and by WINNING championships thereafter. That has always been expected of Alabama coaches BEFORE and AFTER Bear Bryant, and it will continue to be expected of coaches at Alabama long after Saban has gone.

"No one can help but be aware of the rich tradition that is associated with this team and this University. Tradition is a burden in many ways. To have a tradition like ours means that you can't lose your cool; to have tradition like ours means you always have to show class, even when you are not quite up to it; to have tradition like ours means that you have to do some things that you don't want to do and some you even think you can't do, simply because tradition demands it of you. On the other hand, tradition is that which allows us to prevail in ways that we could not otherwise."- Former Alabama President David Mathews

Monday, March 17, 2008

Real off-season sport is played on the radio

Hunter Ford

The University of Alabama’s 2007-08 basketball season was finally shot in the head like the lame nag that it was.
The Tide was rejected by the glue factory of the NIT and turned down the notion of being chopped into Alpo in something called the CBI (College Basketball Invitational).

As I’ve said previously, basketball is a nice diversion during the winter and early spring when the sport is being played well by Alabama, Auburn or UAB.
But whether or not any of those schools fields a competent roundball squad, the inevitable black hole of summer descends upon those of us who are only truly satisfied by the winds of autumn and the pigskin smorgasbord.

In the vacuum of this dreary time, there are a few rays of light. Local talk radio in Birmingham keeps college football fans inflamed year-round. The largest sun in this galaxy is The Paul Finebaum Show. The Finebaum Show is a Jupiter sized planet, mostly made of noxious gas. Around this monstrosity orbits a host of entertaining and provocative callers. Some of these satellites “Jim from Tuscaloosa”, “I-man”, “Elmo” and “Pluto” occasionally drift from orbit or are deemed unworthy of notice for a period of time.

Such was the case a few weeks ago when “Shane from Centerpoint” drifted out of the gravitational pull.
Shane has become the front-man for the Million Dollar Band, unabashedly singing the praises of the Crimson Tide and largely defending his beloved Red Elephants through fair and foul weather.

Shane, who has also become a popular columnist for the Paul Finebaum Network website, was checking the back of his Crimson family in a recent column. Fed up with the media’s incessant spotlight on the few Alabama football players who have run afoul of the Tuscaloosa PD, Shane decided to dredge up the ledger on some folks in Lee County. Armed with Orange and Blue fingerprints, Shane presented his case in his weekly column on the PFN.
Mysteriously, this column was not only rejected by the “management” of the PFN website, Shane’s column and photograph have been conspicuously removed (as of this writing).

Why? Finebaum is a shrewd gamesman. The fact that he makes his living poking his finger in the eyes of the most powerful sports figures in our state is almost inconceivable. Finebaum got his start by sending poison pen pal messages to former Alabama head coach Ray Perkins. Perkins had a glare that would give most sports writers a rash. Perkins has a metal plate in his head. As a player, Perkins took a pair of pliers and yanked off a crushed toenail, laced up some cleats and went back in the game. It’s hard to imagine Finebaum playing golf badly. It is unfathomable to imagine him playing football.

No, I could imagine Finebaum as a field goal kicker, scooping up a bobbled snap and throwing it left-handed like a girl into the hands of a linebacker who runs it back for a touchdown.
But I digress. Although lacking in any athletic capacity, Finebaum has a black-belt in playing the passions of we college football fans. Shane is not an unwitting accomplice.

Although Shane is true and authentic in his love for the Crimson Tide, he is also fully aware of his ability to place a bee under the bonnet of Tide and Tiger fans alike. And Shane is a big part of the popularity of Finebaum, the PFN radio show and, until now, the PFN website.

Out of coincidence, I recently attended a conference of the most powerful lawyers in our state. The keynote speaker (who followed the Chief Justice of The Supreme Court of Alabama) was none other than Mr. Finebaum himself.

Finebaum told this group of heavyweight hitters that the most often asked question of him is: “Is Shane really your brother-in-law?” One of Tommy Tuberville’s lawyers, former Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley no less, even asked Finebaum the same question.
Finebaum answered this way: “I have two actual brother-in-laws. I have a sister in Memphis who is married, and my wife has a brother. One night at a holiday dinner, my wife’s brother turned to me and sincerely asked ‘Is Shane really your brother-in-law?’”

For now, Shane has taken his ball and is playing at an excellent website called The Capstone Report, check it out at capstonereport.com. Shane will also be a guest columnist for The Western Star this fall. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Alabama basketball used to be fun

Alabama basketball used to be fun

Alabama’s basketball program used to be extremely entertaining and provided a nice diversion for Alabama sports fans struggling through the football off-season.

From the mid 1970s through the early 1990s, Alabama basketball was second only to Kentucky as the most competitive team in the SEC.
Fans could count on Alabama being in contention for an SEC championship and for a bid in the NCAA Tournament.

One man, Wimp Sanderson, was largely responsible for the team being competitive. And while Sanderson had some great players like Robert Horry and Latrell Sprewell, Wimp himself was often the star of the show.

Wearing eye-popping, ugly plaid blazers and keeping his face in the referee’s ear holes, Sanderson became a legendary character in the annals of Alabama sports history.
Many people may not remember why Sanderson retired from Alabama in 1992. Look across the page at that smirking bald fellow.

In a former life Paul Finebaum was a hard-nosed investigative reporter. If you were a top sports celebrity in our state you didn’t want Paul digging bones out of your closet.
Wimp Sanderson had been at the University of Alabama for 20 years as an assistant before he became head coach. As head coach he won nearly three hundred basketball games, took Alabama to the Sweet Sixteen several times and won four SEC championships.
But he had a mistress- a secretary who he had a unique working relationship with.

One night before a big NCAA Tournament game, Wimp and his mistress had some sort of misunderstanding.
In the secretary’s version, Wimp got angry and punched her, giving her a black eye.
Wimp’s version was that the secretary was having a conniption fit and he simply stuck his hand out to defend himself. Her face accidentally smacked into Sanderson’s hand.

Now, the story gets leaked to Finebaum (probably through the secretary’s lawyer) and Finebaum proceeds to rake Sanderson over the coals.
The story I heard, directly from Finebaum, was that Sanderson literally begged him not to go public with the story. It didn’t work.
Sanderson and the University ended up paying the secretary about $300,000 to soothe her black eye. Sanderson limped over to Arkansas Little Rock for a couple of seasons before retiring altogether.
It’s been 16 years now since Wimp left Tuscaloosa. Basketball has been mostly terrible in the dark ages of David Hobbs and Mark Gottfried.

It is sad that a coach of Wimp’s caliber left on such a sour note after dedicating more than three decades of his life to Alabama.
The moral of the story is “Don’t have affairs with secretarys and don’t under any circumstance be involved with giving them a black eye, accidentally or otherwise.”

But, if you are old enough to remember the glory days of Wimp on the court, you might remember that, as good as his record was, critics had come out of the woodworks. They were complaining that Wimp didn’t win enough with a team loaded with NBA prospects. He couldn’t get past the Sweet Sixteen!
Can you imagine? If Wimp had been able to make a final four in his last couple of years he might have been able to pile drive his secretary on center court and get away with it.

Wimp had set the standards pretty high. And all of a sudden he was eaten by the same monster he created.
David Hobbes was an empty suit who lost to UAB in the first and only meeting between the two sister schools. Alabama basketball began the slow process of becoming completely irrelevant and having no standards whatsoever.
When Hobbes exited there was some excitement over Mark Gottfried. Gottfried had become a hot commodity as an assistant at UCLA and a young gun head coach of Murray State.

Finebaum, ironically, promoted Gottrfried like a carnival barker promotes the bearded fat lady.
What Alabama basketball fans, (the last 10 or 11 of them that still care) have gotten in Gottfried is a freak show of mediocrity. There was an oasis of success one year when Gottfried lucked into the Elite Eight, but that was a mirage in a desert of failure.
In an interesting twist of fate, Finebaum, who pulled the trigger on Sanderson, and ballyhooed Gottfried as if he was the second coming of John Wooden, has now got his ax sharpened and resting on the back of Gottfried’s neck.
Chances are Gottfried won’t be around much longer.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Spring football could be truly fan-tastic

Last year Alabama football fanatics lost their collective minds when more than 92,000 of them showed up for a spring football game in Tuscaloosa.
The Crimson Nation was euphoric over the arrival of a real football coach (Nick Saban)- the first it had seen since Gene Stallings retired in 1996.

The giddiness of the fans was repaid with a 7-6 season, a sixth consecutive loss to Auburn and a trip to sunny Shreveport for the Independence Bowl.
The lasting impact of the huge spring game crowd was that some marketing firm in New York is trying to capitalize on the passion for college football.

This year, Alabama, along with 19 other football-crazy universities, will participate in something called The Gridiron Bash.
The idea is to sell tickets to a Friday night concert and pep rally before the spring game on Saturday.
Each school that participates will be in a contest to see if it can produce the biggest fan response. The winner of the contest will get $1 million for its general scholarship fund.

It’s not a bad idea. But it has some serious flaws, and it doesn’t go far enough.

For starters, it’s mostly for the commercial benefit of the promoter, MSL Sports. Secondly, there is unfairness in the system of gauging crowds at the concerts.
Country music superstar Alan Jackson will perform the concert in Tuscaloosa. Jackson is a good fit for the Alabama fan base, but there are other schools that will be getting musical acts I would much rather see, and some schools getting musical acts I have never heard of or wouldn’t go to see if you paid me.

For instance, Iowa fans will be subjected to Kelly Clarkson. In South Carolina, Gamecock fans will get to rock with The Black Crows, and in College Station, TX, Aggie fans will get to roll with ZZ Top.
It’s not an even playing field if one school gets an American Idol reject and another school gets a Led Zeppelin reunion.

Trying to put some spice in the spring football experience is great. But concerts and flim-flam promotions cannot make up for the fact that spring football scrimmages are boring.
What college football fans really need this time of year is to see some real games.
Forget the yodeling country crooners, the whining alternative rockers and the posing American Idol wannabes. Give me some honest-to-God REAL football.

Instead of a vanilla intra-squad scrimmage, I would like to see each major university play a spring game against an intersectional opponent.
Put the games on TV over a two-week period and call it Spring Football Fest or something.
Schools could enter into two-year home and home contracts or they could agree on some reasonable neutral site game.
Alabama has done this for regular season games with Florida State last year in Jacksonville and with a game scheduled with Clemson this year at the Georgia Dome.

Can you imagine how popular these types of spring games would be with shaking, cold-sweating, feverishly withdrawing college football fans?
Sometime between late March and mid April, rabid college football fans could be treated to an Easter basket full of actual college games.

You could turn on your TV set Friday night and watch Florida State vs. USC.
On Saturday morning you could watch LSU vs. Penn State followed by an afternoon tussle between Auburn and Texas and culminating with a nightcap of Alabama vs. Notre Dame. The possibilities are gloriously endless.

If fans really want to see how the third string quarterback handles throwing against zone coverage, there could be rules set up to ensure each team plays at least three different players at each position. Other than that, all regular rules of the game would apply.

The games would not count for anything other than pride and bragging rights. Would that not be a “real” breath of fresh spring air? Oh, I guess promoters could still have fan contests and sell tickets to concerts.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Metaphysical Crimson Universe

The guy who played Bear Bryant: ‘The truth requires no questions.’
Saban: ‘It is what it is! No more questions!’

By Hunter Ford

I didn’t even bother to watch the Alabama-Auburn basketball game over the weekend. Tide roundball is such a waste of brain cells. It is a meandering, nonsensical, enigma wrapped in a mystery.

No, it’s really not. The truth requires no questions. The truth is Alabama has a lousy coach with a lousy record who has proven he can’t recruit, train or motivate players to win SEC basketball games.

I was watching the Academy Awards show over the weekend and I began to wonder why nobody had ever made a good movie about Bear Bryant. Last night I saw Gary Busey (the guy who played Bear Bryant in a bad movie) jump into an interview on the red carpet. While E!-News reporter Ryan Seacrest was trying to interview two Hollywood starlets, Busey invaded the scene, kissing the starlets and then lurking to the side of Seacrest, making everybody uncomfortable.

Later, Busey called in to a radio show hosted by Seacrest and apologized. Busey called Seacrest an “Innocent champion of honesty.” Busey also reminded Seacrest’s audience to “Pay attention to the light.”

Here are some other nuggets of psychedelic wisdom from Busey.

"The truth requires no questions."

"The word fan is an obsolete word to me. It means two things: fantastic or fanatic. Or something that hangs on a ceiling or sits on a table and blows wind in your face."

"And I know you must remember to chase and catch your dreams. If you don't, your imagination will live in empty spaces, and that is nowhere land."

"Who's going to win American Idol? Oh, that's right.
You're [Ryan] really good there with that Mr. Simon."

"When you commit to making to film, you must commit 150 percent—with no distractions, no substance abuse. Always start every conversation with a compliment, consider other people's feelings first before you consider yours, because you're working with a family and a team on a set."

This is coming from the only man ever to play Bear Bryant as the featured character in a full-length theatrical release.

The editors of E! Online commented on Busey’s radio ramblings.

“It’s all bizarre and nonsensical, but it makes sense in some strange way on a whole other level. Thanks for keeping the red carpet wacky, Gary. We are definitely paying attention to the light now.”

It wasn’t until I heard Nick Saban’s press conference today that I decoded what the brilliant Busey was really trying to say! You see, in the metaphysical Crimson Universe, everything from Mike Price to Mike Shula’s contract extension to Mark Gottfried’s coaching style makes sense if you give it time; in much the same way that Shane from Center Point makes sense on the Paul Finebaum show. And Busey, by virtue of donning the houndstooth onscreen, is part of that great metaphysical Crimson Universe.

Saban felt it was important enough to call a press conference to address a rash of discipline problems on the current football squad. Saban, however, emphatically stated that he would not answer any specific questions posed by reporters. He even laid down cold-hard cash and bet the reporters that, despite his determination not to provide answers, they would still ask specific questions.

Saban delivered a passionate oratory on how the football program at Alabama strives to prepare its players, not only for the football field, but also for good citizenship.

The Master of the Crimson Universe (who last year used a loss to La. Monroe as an opportunity to draw parallels to the terrorist attacks of 911) of course, never could give specific examples of how this is accomplished. He specifically said he would not go into that!
The state of the Crimson Universe was summed up (once again) by the Master’s all-encompassing answer for everything… “It is what it is.”

Remember to pay attention to the light.