Alabama coach Nick Saban used the word rebuild in relation to his football team Wednesday, citing the need for a new quarterback to “take the bull by the horns” in fall drills before the Crimson Tide can successfully defend its SEC title and earn a CFP playoff berth.
But that message fell on deaf ears in the lobby of the same hotel where Saban assessed his squad. The grandfather in the Paul “Bear” Bryant outfit, a lifelong Alabama fan, made it clear that he expects Saban’s squad to be more just an SEC contender this season.
“I expect 12-0,” said Alton White, 78, a retired carpenter from Birmingham. “That’s what I expect every year.”
White created a buzz during the third session of SEC media days by bringing his grandson to the proceedings while dressed in a crimson jacket and crimson tie covered in Alabama logos. He topped off his look with a houndstooth fedora that was the spitting image of the one Bryant wore while leading the Tide to six national championships in his 25 seasons as the school’s football coach from 1958-82.
White said he collected the items in his Bryant ensemble “at the thrift store” but used them to send a message to his grandson, who wore a T-shirt that celebrated Alabama’s last national title — way back in 2012, during the dying days of the BCS era.
“I’ve been an Alabama fan all my life and I’m raising the next generation,” White said, eyeing his grandson.
A few steps away, another member of the school’s “next generation” of fans proudly displayed a WWE-style championship belt with the Alabama logo on the buckle. Shannon Villa, 25, also was quick to show off Saban’s signature on his hat, the one shaped like the Crimson Tide’s latest national championship ring.
For Villa, a produce supervisor at a Birmingham Walmart, the ring-shaped hat was nothing new. He unveiled it during his debut at the 2013 media days. But the title belt was a fresh touch, although he considers it a mere “warm-up belt” that will require updating in January.
“We’re the SEC champs. We’re not the main champs, but that’s OK. The other belt is coming,” Villa said.
And so it goes in Alabama, where Saban earns more money than any coach in college football ($7.2 million last season). But he deals with more unrealistic expectations than anyone else, too.
Say what you want about the pressure to win at Texas or Oklahoma. But I’ve yet to see a fan from either school show up at Big 12 media days to hang around a hotel lobby dressed like Darrell Royal or Bud Wilkinson. And I don’t expect to see that next week in Dallas, either.
But in Alabama, things are … different. Although longtime SEC observers considered Wednesday’s crowd subdued, Saban and his players still ran a gantlet of roughly 200 well-wishers who filled the hotel lobby as their heroes entered and left the building to chants of “Roll Tide.”
The fans’ presence, center Ryan Kelly said, served as yet another reminder about expectations at a school that claims 15 national championships, including an NCAA-best 10 of them bestowed by wire-service polls or BCS officials.
“At Alabama, the bar is set very high for a reason,” Kelly said. “The goal every year is to win the national championship. Last year was a letdown for us.”
If that is the standard, this is the reality: Barring a miraculous season of quarterback development and play-calling from offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Alabama fans should brace themselves for another letdown this fall. Based on a dearth of proven playmakers on offense, the Tide will be hard-pressed to be the best team in its own state, let alone the SEC or the country.
The roster still features more than its share of five-star signees, including defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson of Fort Worth Arlington Heights. But over the last two seasons, Alabama is 0-3 against teams that finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll and 23-1 against the rest.
Expect the Tide to play multiple top 10 opponents this season during a schedule that includes road games at Georgia (Oct. 3), Texas A&M (Oct. 17), Mississippi State (Nov. 14) and Auburn (Nov. 28). Expect them to lose when placed in that setting, based on Saban’s Wednesday comments about his leaderless offense in transition.
Just don’t expect the fan base, or Alabama players, to embrace that line of July reasoning. Linebacker Reggie Ragland pointed to Saban as the reason for players’ unbridled optimism.
“We know we’ve got a great coach,” Ragland said. “Coach Saban is going to tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. We think we’re going to get back to the way things were around here. So we’re working to make sure we’re the SEC champs and the national champs.”
Based on what we know today, that seems unlikely. Even if the guy in the houndstooth hat tells me otherwise.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760