2018 Enterprise Winner: Christopher Walsh, SEC Country

Comment by the judge: “Expansive and thorough story on the current Alabama football dynasty. Extensive research went into the  reporting of this story. Excellent presentation by the writer.”

By Christopher Walsh

SEC Country

First of 10 Parts

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It all goes back to the plane and the day that changed Alabama.

On Jan. 3, 2007, Tuscaloosa’s airport was overrun by giddy football fans who had flocked to welcome their new coach, Nick Saban. They did so with chants of “Roll Tide!” and loud cheers that only began to demonstrate their excitement.

In a part of the country where the word “savior” is frequently used, Saban was immediately viewed as being the football equivalent by University of Alabama followers. After years of mediocrity and a fair dose of humiliation, they longed for adulation again and hoped for greatness.

What they got was a whole lot more.

When Alabama last played on Jan. 9 it came a second short of winning the 2016 national championship, which would have been its fifth under Saban. Regardless, it concluded a decade unlike any in college football history.

The numbers and the accomplishments both on the field and off are staggering, especially for an era in which such sustained success was thought to be impossible. Dynasty was no longer a sufficient description.

Consequently, Crimson Tide football is nothing like it was in 2007. Neither is the university, Tuscaloosa nor the state of Alabama.

“Attitude,” Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox said is the biggest thing Saban brought to Alabama. “It’s a belief that we can win, and sustain it. So every year brings real expectations of success. It’s something that you can feel. It’s something that people want to be a part of.”

Prelude: The decade before Saban

That feeling didn’t exist during the previous 10 years, when the Crimson Tide became just another team on the college football landscape.

From 1997 to 2006, Alabama had more losing records (four) than 10-win seasons (three), one of which had to be vacated. The program endured a major investigation and subsequent NCAA sanctions, the Mike DuBose affair, Dennis Franchione’s stunning departure following the 2002 season, the Mike Price scandal, and numerous other incidents and symbolic black eyes. It was a mere shadow of its glory years under Paul “Bear” Bryant and the other championship coaches.

“It dates back to the Wallace Wade era,” said Steve Townsend, a special assistant and close friend of former athletic director Mal Moore. “That tradition of being considered a premier program in the country, and even when that languished after Gene Stallings left, the expectation level among the fans didn’t diminish.

“Among Alabama fans, a lot of them didn’t understand the impact of the probation. They still expected to win on a level where it probably would have been hard for anyone to have won at a high level.”

It took former university president Dr. Robert Witt and Moore to make football a priority again, and nearly every athletic facility was upgraded, including Bryant-Denny Stadium with the north-end zone expansion for $45 million.

Without that initial undertaking, Alabama never would have lured Saban from the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.

“This has been a university commitment,” ESPN college football analyst Tom Luginbill said. “Not an athletics commitment, not a football commitment. That university has committed to athletics as a whole and as a result everything on the campus, from enrollment to things that have nothing to do with athletics have benefitted.”

The transformation ratcheted up when Saban proclaimed during his first press conference, “We want to be a champion in everything that we do.”

The players started to catch on that something special might be happening when despite being shorthanded they destroyed No. 20 Tennessee 41-17. The fans followed suit after a top-notch recruiting class was signed and a 32-10 win against No. 9 Clemson in the 2008 season-opener. For the national media, it was a jaw-dropping 31-0 first half at No. 3 Georgia.

“That helped a lot,” Townsend said. “That served as a calling card that we weren’t going to sit on our butts. Alabama had sat on its reputation, of ‘We’re Alabama and players will come here.’”

The ripples really started to spread when Saban and Alabama won the 2009 national championship. Some have been so wide-ranging that they simply can’t be adequately measured, even economically.

“It’s so hard to quantify, because the impact is so large,” Maddox said. “I’m fearful that I may underestimate it, the true magnitude.”

Here are three:

1 | The University of Alabama

Before Saban arrived, the school had already begun an enrollment push, topping 20,000 in 2003 (20,333), and reaching a then-record 23,878 for the 2006-07 academic school year. For that fall, it received 15,761 applications.

For the fall of 2016, it received 42,802 applications. Enrollment was 37,665.

Normally when a school significantly expands the quality of its student applications dips. That wasn’t the case at Alabama. The average ACT score went from 24.2 in 2006 to 27.07 a decade later. The average GPA for the incoming freshmen rose from 3.4 to 3.69.

The geographical makeup of the student body also has changed dramatically. In 2004, 72 percent of freshmen came from within the state. Just four years after Saban arrived the university had more students from out-of-state for the first time.

That’s a huge boon in the bottom line. In 2006, tuition was $4,864 in-state, $13,516 for those from somewhere else. Following a steady stream of tuition hikes, the latest announced just last month, it’ll be $11,580 in-state, and $28,900 out-of-state for the 2017-2018 academic year. Room and board is another $13,224.

Alabama’s become more of a national destination for top athletes as well.

“Young people want to be a part of something exciting,” men’s golf coach Jay Seawell said. “When they’re choosing schools, what Coach has done and what he brought to the university is a great attraction to 18-year-old kids. That’s why I believe kids from all over the country are interested in Alabama. There’s a lot energy on our campus because of what Coach has done.”

Pre-Saban, Alabama’s gymnastics team under Sarah and David Patterson was the only program other than football to win a national championship. In the wake of a devastating 2011 tornado, which helped bring numerous Crimson Tide teams and the Tuscaloosa community closer together, gymnastics (2011-12), men’s golf (2013-14), women’s golf (2012) and softball (2012) all won titles.

So many things must go right for a team to win a championship that they’re almost always due to a variety of factors and key decisions. Nevertheless, nearly all of the athletes involved in those triumphs were recruited after Alabama won the 2009 national title in football.

“Winning is infectious,” Seawell said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all our championships all kind of ran there together.”

2 | The City of Tuscaloosa

Saban always comes up when people talk about Tuscaloosa.

“You have to go to Moody’s and S&P in New York and defend the city’s credit rating so people will buy city bonds,” Maddox said. “In those credit analysis meetings, Coach Saban’s always brought up when you start talking about Tuscaloosa. It’s a very positive thing for us because the guy’s a winner and he chooses to live in our community.

“It’s made my task as mayor much easier.”

Before Saban, the Tuscaloosa area enjoyed two obvious growth spikes due to the Mercedes-Benz International assembly plant, which commenced production in 1997 and completed a $600 million expansion in 2005.

In 2000, the population was 77,925 in the city and 164,875 in the county, which in 2006 had grown to 86,158 and 175,339, respectively.

Despite the 2011 tornado, which destroyed 12 percent of the city and forced a lot of people to relocate, the U.S. Census estimated the population to be 99,543, and 206,192, on July 1, 2016.

That obviously translated into growth and development. For example, when Saban’s plane landed in 2007, Tuscaloosa didn’t have a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Starbucks could only be found at a stand in the student union or at Target. Now there are so many coffee shops around town that one can sit and watch many of the fast-rising condominiums being built.

From hotels to the new federal courthouse, the changes have been eye-popping. According to the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, Tuscaloosa has seen more than $3 billion in new construction since 2005. Like with the football team there are no signs of slowing down.

“There have been all kinds of business and opportunities that benefit from success on the field,” said Ken Gaddy, Director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum. “Our attendance here reflects that. We can chart it pretty easily, up years and down years.”

3 | The State of Alabama

According to the UA Center for Business and Economic Research, the university had a statewide economic and fiscal impact of $1.8 billion in 2006-07.

In 2015-16, it was $2.597 billion.

The breakdown is as such: 13,217 jobs (up from 9,000), $25.1 million per home football game ($21 million), and $128.3 million in taxes ($71.8 million).

Most of that is specific to the Tuscaloosa area, which gets a financial boost of $19 million for every game at Bryant-Denny Stadium (up from $13.9 million).

The financial windfall was even more extreme considering that Alabama still played some home games at Legion Field in Birmingham until 2003. When the Crimson Tide played only four games at Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2000, the economic impact in Tuscaloosa was just $42.2 million ($10.6 million average).

While Crimson Tide football doesn’t rank among the state’s top industries (the Alabama Department of Commerce reports that distinction goes to automakers as for the second straight year more than one million cars and light trucks were produced in 2016), it still stands out:

  • •Alabama football reported $103.9 million in revenue for 2016, with $47.7 million profit — $18.7 million after helping fund nearly all other Crimson Tide sports.
  • • In media rights alone the school made $42.4 million.
  • • In terms of wholesale licensing sales, Alabama went from netting $41 million in 2006-07 to $100 million in 2012-13. It hasn’t been able to match that figure since (it came close with $95 million in 2015-16), and retail sales are usually twice that of their wholesale counterparts.How much of that is a result of Saban?But with Saban in tow Alabama didn’t wait to start construction. Even after bumping capacity from 92,138 to 101,821 when the nation was in a recession, the wait list for season tickets topped 32,000 by the 2014 season with an estimated wait time of 10-12 years.There’s no telling what kind of impact Saban might make by then.“The moment that plane touched down, Tuscaloosa changed.”
  • “I just think the airport scene puts it all into perspective, of who he was and what people thought of him before he even got here,” Seawell said. “But I don’t think they expected like what we’ve had.
  • That’s why Witt told 60 Minutes in 2013 that Saban was the best financial investment the university ever made. Saban received a contract extension in May that will pay him at minimum $7.125 million a year and more than $65 million should he stick around through the 2024 season.
  • Alabama almost certainly would have hired a pretty good coach had Saban turned Moore down. Things like the south end-zone expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium still probably would have happened eventually.
  • Consequently, the Crimson Tide brand has never been stronger.

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  Part 6  Part 7  Part 8  Part 9  Part 10

 

Christopher Walsh

Christopher Walsh

BamaCentral.com (stories appeared on SECCountry.com)

Age: 50

College: New Hampshire

Background: After graduating college I was so determined to be a sports journalist that I rode a 10-speed bike to two part-time jobs, including as the agate clerk of the News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla.  I find myself thinking back to that a lot recently as the last three jobs I’ve had over the past four years the entire staff was let go. So I’ve decided to be my own boss and recently started the first college football site on the Maven platform, BamaCentral.com. Like most things in my life, my career has been somewhat backward as I covered three NFL teams and other pro sports before college football. Since moving to Tuscaloosa in 2004 to cover Alabama I’ve authored 25 books, got married and last season celebrated the birth of our first child, Evelyn. My wife, Megan, also made me have hobbies other than work and hockey, so I started collecting signed first-edition books and record albums (again). What goes around, comes around.

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