Alabama’s dynasty will never really be over

Photo illustration by Karyim Carreia
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On January 7, 2019, the University of Alabama’s football team had a very, very, very bad day.

The Crimson Tide lost by 28 points to the Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff Championship Game — easily the worst of the Nick Saban dynasty, both in terms of the scoreboard, and in terms of execution. Alabama’s impregnable defense blew coverages against Clemson’s passing attack, while its offense failed to score a single point in the second half.

It was the rarest of things for the Tide this decade: an unmitigated and complete disaster.

To anyone not versed in how Alabama football has worked over the past 12 years of dominance, the fallout from the game looked like a continuation of the collapse against Clemson. The coaching staff disintegrated in the weeks following the debacle. By the time the smoke cleared, the defensive coordinator was gone to the NFL, all but one member of the offensive staff had departed for other jobs, and just one member of the 2017 coaching staff remained.

This would normally indicate a program in crisis. But since 2007, only one coach has really mattered at Alabama: Nick Saban. Everyone else is just administration, and the resume is proof. Alabama has won five of the last 10 national championships, and six of the last 10 SEC Championships.

Those titles didn’t happen in streaks, either. Alabama, like clockwork, comes around about every two years to pick up its trophy. The three-year gap between the 2012 and 2015 national titles is as close as Alabama has gotten to a title drought in the past decade.

Alabama has lost just 20 games in Saban’s tenure, and 11 of those happened in the first three years. It will slip exactly 1.13 times a year, and only 1.13 times a year. The rest of the time — if a team doesn’t pull that golden ticket like Clemson did this January and hand Alabama its yearly loss — it will lose, and lose badly. Since 2008, Alabama has outscored opponents by an average margin of 22 points a game.

It’s not that they’ve just been better than the rest of college football. It’s that for a solid decade, the Tide has been three touchdowns better than the rest of college football. They’ve done it in a conference and region more rabidly devoted to the sport than any other, and done it with everyone else hiring their assistants, hoping to steal the secrets of the factory for their own.

Alabama has weathered this, seemingly with ease, all while being the best at what it does in a state not known for a whole lot of bests.

Alabama being great at making good college football teams is not a new thing. The program has had dynasties before: In the 1920s under coach Wallace Wade; and then in the 1960s and 70s under Paul “Bear” Bryant. But, this. This has been, is, and will likely continue to be different. Alabama has sustained success like no other previous Alabama dynasty, and like few other college football programs have ever done period.

That all ends up with the figure of Nick Saban, a singularly obsessed figure unlike any other coach of his generation. But it starts with the foundation — the place, the people in a state where football is built into the very power structure of Alabama itself — and lines up all the way from the state, to the school, to the field, and the players who make the program the rare monster that it is.

They had a bad day on January 7th. But the odds say that despite that, there won’t be many bad days to come. The program, after all, has averaged a national title every other year for the past decade. The Crimson Tide failing to win a national title in 2018, by the odds, is probably just an excuse to double down on them winning it all in 2019.

There are a lot of reasons why. We are gathered here today to look at the highest level resources that go into 11 of the best and biggest college football programs, and how one of them repeatedly stands out among all of them. It’s the one you think it is.

Your team does not have enough talent

They just don’t, and there are numbers to back that up. The first and greatest indicator of a college football team’s potential success is the amount of talent on that team. Since Nick Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa in 2007, no one has brought in more four- and five-star rated recruits than Alabama.

No one. That margin isn’t even a small one. Using 247sports.com’s class composite rankings, a comparison of Alabama to a cohort of 11 other elite college football teams that have consistently been in the top 10 from 2007 to 2019 shows that only Ohio State comes close, with the Buckeyes recruiting 192 total four- and five-star prospects since 2007.

In the same time span, Alabama signed 236 four/five star recruits. The 44-recruit difference between Ohio State and Alabama represents two full recruiting classes all by itself. That kind of depth and talent gap is massive — and it’s the one faced year to year by the only other program coming close to the Crimson Tide in talent acquisition.

If that is what Ohio State faces, imagine the uphill climb everyone else faces in competing with Alabama. It sounds like an exaggeration, but the backups really could be a starting first-string for most other teams in college football. The full second-string as listed by Alabama for the 2018 season on offense and defense includes just four players who did not rate as four- or five-star prospects. And one of those — three-star running back Josh Jacobs — was last seen piling up 158 yards of total offense against Oklahoma in the semifinal this season.

The talent gap is real and quantifiable. Unfortunately for everyone else, it is also growing. Alabama’s incoming class for 2019 is one of its best yet, and exactly the kind of results to expect when a believable and documented part of the recruiting pitch is winning a national title every other year.

TL;DR: Alabama finished first in the nation in recruiting again in 2019, and will probably do the same in 2020. The boot is still the boot, and it will resume stomping the face immediately.

Your team is not supported by the very special and unique state of Alabama

The University of Alabama’s dominance as a football program starts with its host state. It’s a myth that the state of Alabama is poor, or at least a half-truth. There’s money there, but it’s distributed unevenly, even by American standards. Alabama is 27th in total GDP, but it sits 47th in GDP per capita.

Translated in plain English: A few people in Alabama hold a lot of the state’s money.

A lot of those people and their businesses are tied one way or another into the University of Alabama — and by extension, they are tied to its football program, the network of people around it, and the businesses and institutions that keep it all going.

At the center of a lot of those connections is the biggest example of that interconnected power behind the program, Paul Bryant, Jr. — the son of Alabama’s legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant — who built his fortune through banking and a lucrative portfolio of investments including dog tracks, insurance, and catfish farming.

In 2005, Junior founded Bryant Bank, a project he describes as his “winding-down project.” Bryant Bank is not a titan of Alabama banking; it isn’t even one of the biggest banks in Alabama. But it is one of the most prominent organizations when it comes to roping in a lot of people near to the cause of Alabama football — people who also happen to be on the Board of Trustees for the University System of Alabama.

This is all enough to feed a thousand SEC message board conspiracies, but the facts are easy enough. A good number of people associated with the oversight of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa are already tied together through business.

Those people have money and shared interests, and don’t have to take much input on how they do things. The Board of Trustees is a self-nominating committee, and approves replacement members and chairs of committees itself. Unlike Auburn’s board of trustees, it is a closed system — one where 12 of the standing 15 members have close ties to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

A UAB source puts it bluntly: “They tend to mix what’s good with the football program with what’s good for the schools and what’s good for the state of Alabama.”

That small, committed group of people works with the wind at their backs when it comes to both Alabama football, and with the solid amount of local power they represent. There is no competition for Alabama football in terms of entertainment, and little incentive to stand in their way when they want something.

“There’s no pro teams here,” says the UAB source. “Nothing else. You don’t want to be on the bad side of the Alabama BOT in this place. It’s a pretty powerful group.”

That all creates a sweet spot for making and implementing decisions quickly. Sometimes too quickly, it turns out. See: the failed shutdown of UAB’s football program in 2014, a move the BOT initially tried, but had to backtrack on publicly.

Even with its failures, it is a small community of well-bankrolled people with common interests and little in their way. When those people think football should get something, they do everything they can to make sure they get it.

Your team does not spend enough money on football

Don’t tell me they do. I looked it up, and they don’t.

This is not a perfect measure, but it is a start. To get an idea of how big football is as a financial entity relative to the rest of the university, I took the overall expenditures for the university for the most recent available fiscal year. Then I took the claimed football program expenditures, and compared the football expenditures as a percentage of total university spending.

There are a lot of caveats and clarifications to be made here. The money football programs spend does not necessarily come from the university, and could and does come from a lot of other sources: donations from alumni; ticket sales; TV contract money; merchandise and licensing, etc. That money isn’t even necessarily counted as university expenditures sometimes due to athletics and booster organizations being housed under tax-exempt non-profit 501(c)3 organizations.

The chief purpose of the comparison is to paint some picture of how relatively huge or small a program is compared to the university’s other reasons for being a university. It’s not science, but it is a visualization of how much of the overall economy at a school is dominated by football.

The size of a university has a bit to do with some of the discrepancies here. Ohio State and Texas, for instance, are both huge state schools with large budgets. Even an extravagantly funded football program would be a small piece of the overall financial picture at a behemoth like either of these.

Yet even compared to universities of its size, Alabama’s comparison is staggering. Florida State, another football-forward state school in the same region with just a slightly larger budget, spends what would be 3.48% of its total university expenses on football. Clemson and Oklahoma — both around the same size on the spreadsheet — spend around 4% each on football. Auburn, Alabama’s closest rival and another school of comparable financial scale, ups the ante by spending what would be about 5% of total expenses.

It’s widely known that Alabama spends the most annually on football. In 2017, the Crimson Tide spent $62.3 million on football alone, the highest budget in the sport. What’s new here is seeing that even on a scale relative to other schools its size, Alabama spends disproportionate amounts of cash on football.

As a percentage of total university expenses, Alabama’s football budget would equal 7.18% of overall spending, the highest in the 11-team sample here. That is a staggering sum given what other schools spend — even other schools like Clemson and Oklahoma, where football is openly and rabidly supported by the administration and community.

Following the money — even through a pretty simple comparison like this — shows how committed the university is to football. How committed are they? By the relative numbers, Alabama is more committed financially than any other team in the nation.

You don’t spend that money quite like Alabama does, or count it the same way

To understand how important football is to the university in 2019, consider what the university did in the 2000s just to get here. Most observers around the state will tell you that the big change happened with the arrival of one very important person not named Nick Saban: Dr. Robert Witt, who became President of the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa in 2003.

Witt became the instrument of many boosters who believed the University had fallen behind as an academic institution and as an athletics program. According to a high-ranking source at UAB, “Some of the prominent alumni, Paul Jr. being among them, got very concerned that Alabama was becoming a very average school and a very average program.”

The two — the football program and school — were an inseparable brand. Rather than fight that, Alabama embraced it, mostly because they had no choice. Football was woven into the network of people who controlled the University of Alabama, and the brand was arguably as valuable as any other asset the University had.

That same UAB source says the message became clear. “Together they decided that Tuscaloosa was, and always had been, honestly, the crown jewel of the university system and that they needed to get that in order.”

The crown jewel of the university’s public face was football, and to reboot the school’s image and fatten enrollment, football had to be a visible, successful asset. And in the early to mid-2000s, Alabama football was visibly and painfully unsuccessful. Alabama’s facilities were average, their teams inconsistent, and their coaches a source of boredom at best (see: Mike Shula), and scandal at worst (see: Mike DuBose, Mike Price). Worst of all, the school was losing games to hated in-state rival Auburn, at one point dropping six in a row to the Tigers.

The creation of the Crimson Tide Foundation in 2005 embodied Witt and the boosters’ complete commitment to football. A 501(c)(3) non-profit, the Crimson Tide Foundation’s paperwork listed Paul Bryant, Jr. as its Chairman, and under its “exempt purpose” section stated that that the Foundation “... provides a channel through which gifts are solicited for the University of Alabama’s intercollegiate athletics program, including facilities, scholarships, and other areas of support.”

Using a nonprofit to channel a university athletics program’s finances is common in college athletics. A search of Guidestar’s nonprofit database pulls up nine programs in the SEC alone that filed the Form 990 that nonprofits usually send to the IRS yearly. Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, and South Carolina all submitted forms for 2017. LSU, Texas A&M, and Arkansas all at least filed in 2016. There are archives showing basic financial statements going back to most of these organizations’s founding, sent in dutifully to the feds each year by administrators.

The University of Alabama’s charitable arm, the Crimson Tide Foundation, has one 990 on record: Filed in 2005, it lists the aforementioned officers, purpose, and basic information on finances, and an Astra SP — an upgrade from the Cessna the program had been using to make the rounds.

The jet would end up being a huge tool in Alabama’s endless football recruiting tours, but even that disclosure was enough for the program to give up reporting altogether. Since 2005, the Crimson Tide Foundation — still claiming 501(c)(3) non-profit status — has claimed it is exempt from filing those pesky 990s.

Instead, the Foundation’s numbers are included annually in the University’s financial reports. In their own words, the Crimson Tide Foundation is a “blended unit.” Translated: The Crimson Tide Foundation is a private organization that works under the umbrella of the very much public University of Alabama. The university includes some numbers about the program in that report, and the university also files required basic information about the program with the NCAA.

But overall, compared to other athletics programs in its conference alone — some of which produce their own 40-page annual audited summaries like small companies would — Alabama operates with a lower degree of transparency and a different reporting system than other schools do.

That unique approach to program support pops up elsewhere. Alabama already made waves by poaching a sitting NFL coach when it hired Nick Saban away from the Miami Dolphins. Paying him $4 million a year was unprecedented at the time, but that number seems like a bargain compared to the $11 million Saban made in 2017 — not just the highest salary of any college football coach that year, but possibly the highest salary of any American sports coach.

The bulk of that salary is paid out by the Crimson Tide Foundation, which has found other ways to keep the coach happy.

Some of those ways don’t even necessarily show up in the form of salary numbers. In 2013, the Foundation purchased Nick Saban’s house in Tuscaloosa for $3.1 million, letting the coach live there for free while picking up the tab for the existing property taxes. Future property taxes would not be a problem for the Crimson Tide Foundation. As a non-profit, it does not owe property taxes on the home.

None of this has to wind up with anyone wearing tinfoil hats talking about football conspiracies. The basics are all right there. Alabama has money. They will spend it on football quickly and decisively, and account for it in the way of their choosing. Everyone at the university and its oversight board will be fine with this when the team wins championships, generates all kinds of ancillary benefits for school enrollment and the surrounding business community, and regularly beats Auburn. (Especially when they beat Auburn.)

When it comes to some things, they will spend whatever it takes. #1 on that list for more than a decade running: Nick Saban, the head coach and an investment Alabama believes has been worth every penny, and more.

You don’t have Nick Saban

The final piece of the equation that makes this all work is their coach, a singular and obsessive manager in a place singularly obsessed with football as a brand and as a pastime.

The match starts with philosophy, is backed up by on-field success, and maintained by a ruthless focus on process and message control.

If the administration prefers to work drama-free with an emphasis on information control, then Nick Saban is the perfect control freak to feed that silence, forbidding players and coaches from talking to the media for most of the year, and instead doing the heavy PR lifting himself. There is no leaking, no divergence in message.

A former assistant no longer with the program says it’s all done with control and efficiency in mind.

“One thing you notice over time — nothing is social media driven at Alabama.”

It’s true. Nick Saban isn’t on any form of social media, and his assistants generally keep a low profile across the board. Press conferences feature Saban, and Saban only, with the exception of playoff and bowl appearances by players and staffers. The recruiting happens mostly via phone calls because Saban doesn’t even text, much less send DMs to people.

“In today’s world, look at everything that’s social media driven. You can’t pressure them, you can’t get them to overreact, you can’t them to acknowledge it.”

That also lets assistants focus on things other than messaging or putting out fires, says the former Tide assistant.

“It also eliminates something on their schedule that can be replaced with more effective use of time.”

That ruthless efficiency is everywhere, even if it borders on the performative, like ... the button. Yes, Nick Saban has a button on his desk to open his office door, because the seconds it takes to get up and down from his desk are seconds he could spend doing something productive and football-related.

Yes, Alabama players came in from a weather delay against Missouri in 2012 to find the chairs arranged by position group, dry shoes, and briefing materials ready to go.

Yes, a Tuscaloosa condo complex with a solid view of Alabama’s practice field requires its residents to sign an agreement that they won’t stand on the balconies during Alabama football practices.

Yes, the process involves so much detail in scouting and game planning that it even exceeds the required paranoia of Saban’s mentor Bill Belichick. Belichick’s run with the Patriots mirrors that of Saban’s with Alabama for its secrecy, focus, and success, but not even Belichick wants the number of options Saban has on game day. Saban draws up multiple looks for a given game situation, while Belichick — the one who coaches professional players who have all week to look at this stuff — just wants his staff to choose one.

Yes, the Alabama defensive playbook — in PDF form at least — is 430 pages long, longer than many NFL playbooks.

Yes, he employs a squad of consultants, analysts, and former coaches and assistants, constantly gathering new information on his program. No one comes closer to running a football program like the RAND corporation, analyzing threats to the program and counter-programming accordingly. The program sheds assistants hired away by other programs to steal a little piece of The Process, and simply replaces them with new assistants without losing a step.

That begins and ends with the head coach, who from the jump has been on the same page with his management.

The former Saban assistant says that, more than anything else, is the envy of other programs and coaches.

“People who visit the program or coaches who come through, do you know what they’re jealous of? It’s not the buildings or stadiums. Everyone is in complete alignment. From the administration down to everyone in the department or the coaches, anyone who touches [the team]. Same goals, same philosophy.”

Success deepened that control, so much so that Saban operates the program with greater autonomy than any other coach in college football. Alabama — as a state, as a university, and as a power structure — wanted to give football everything it needed to succeed. Once Saban got rolling with a national title in 2009 and repeated trips back to the trophy case, he got whatever he needed.

“He just doesn’t have to fight the battles. He doesn’t fight any battles at Alabama for anything. Every request is granted. There’s implicit trust ... he will make the right decision and they will execute on it.”

At other programs there will be questions about every single request, often from different levels of management above the coach. The athletic director may question the hire of an assistant, for example, or the president may get involved in program affairs, or a booster might have demands in response to a request for donation. At some programs there is quite a lot of that, leading to conflict and power struggles within the department itself.

At Alabama, Saban asks, and the university provides.

“Now he has 100% autonomy. No other coach has that. No other coach has the ability to execute on exactly what he wants for his program.”

Per the former Alabama assistant, there is only one question when it comes to an ask for Alabama football.

“Does it help you win? Win in recruiting, win in player development, win in coaching? If the answer is yes, the decision is yes.”

Without Nick Saban, you won’t get Nick Saban-level results

That drama-free marriage between Nick Saban and Alabama’s football-industrial complex gets results that have been, and likely will remain horrifying for everyone else in college football. The endless bumper crops of four- and five-star recruits into Tuscaloosa has already been covered, but what happens when they get there?

The answer is they win, and play at a level that has been the standard for the better part of a decade.

Per Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings since 2007, it’s clear: No one has been better than the Crimson Tide in doing everything a good football team should do. Since 2007, they’ve been better on offense and defense than anyone else in college football. Since 2010, they’ve either been first or second in the nation every single year.

In terms of player development, the Crimson Tide gets results beyond the field, too.

Only a thin slice of college football players get to play in the NFL, but if that’s the goal then no other school is more likely to put a player in the league besides Alabama. Eighty players from Alabama have been drafted since 2007. Starters who spend a year or more at Alabama at the top of the depth chart have a 55% chance of getting picked in the NFL Draft, a margin of 10 points higher than the next best competitor, Ohio State.

At this point, Alabama football is in a powerful feedback loop for program success. The school and its management buys into football hard, and wants it to be good, so they spend the money to make it happen. The generational talent at coach both recruits and develops talent to keep it successful on a level no other program can match for more than a year or two at a time.

That talent wins titles — which pleases the administration via football revenue and all the other ancillary halo benefits Alabama football has for the university — and then gets drafted by the NFL. Getting drafted sells the next class of recruits on Alabama, and now we’re back to square one of the Alabama Success Loop.

That rolls downhill in the form of six national titles, eight SEC titles, a 141-20 record overall since 2007, and a merciless, decade-long grip on college football’s throat.

You probably won’t have much luck replicating any of this

Everything about Alabama’s particular spot in college football has been unique for a long time. Yet even in the long history of the state, its football program, and its obsession with football, the Nick Saban era represents something unique within all that already exceptional and exceptionally weird history.

It’s not just that Nick Saban wins football games. It’s that the particular alignment of place, school, and personalities created this, a time and place in the history of the sport where Alabama can book championship appearances every other year on the calendar without being overly presumptive. That’s what has happened: Alabama will win a championship every other year at this point, and most likely appear in the playoff or championship game itself if it doesn’t manage a title.

That is a rare thing, one the former assistant doesn’t think could be done quickly anywhere else — and possibly not at all.

“I guess you could replicate it somewhere else if you had enough time. But I think what he has here is different than anywhere else he’s been.”

The future — at least until Nick Saban rusts out or retires — is more of the same, with little reason for anyone else to hope to compete.

LSU can come close in talent level, but fades badly on the same field, with the Tigers losing six in a row to Alabama at this point. Ohio State doesn’t spend like Alabama does, and sits just a thin margin behind the Tide on the field.

Even Georgia — the school who has gone furthest in trying to mirror Alabama’s blueprint — has come up short so far. The Bulldogs hired longtime Alabama assistant Kirby Smart, who recruited Georgia’s best classes ever, built a Saban-style defense in Athens, and brought some of Saban’s control-freak tendencies over with him. For instance: Smart took part in discussions with lawmakers in Atlanta to delay responses to open records requests about the football program at one point, a move so extreme Nick Saban has never even tried it.

Georgia made the playoff championship game in Smart’s second year in Athens. The Bulldogs lost in OT after leading for almost all of the game. The two teams met again in the SEC Championship, and Georgia lost again at the end of the game, this time only surrendering a lead or a tie when Jalen Hurts scored a touchdown with one minute and four seconds on the clock. Even at full throttle, they’re still one minute and four seconds behind the University of Alabama in the race to be college football’s best.

Only Clemson has caught up to the point of being considered Alabama’s equal at this point. The two teams have split their last four games, with Clemson taking the last installment in shocking fashion. Clemson has done this by doing a lot of things Alabama does — recruiting well, fundraising aggressively, and being committed to football down to the roots of the program.

They do a lot of things differently, though. Unlike Alabama, they keep a lot of the same staffers from year to year. They’ve played the same aggressive spread offense for years now, before even Alabama eventually switched to a variation of college football’s default attack. Alabama’s football facilities are a streamlined tribute to football efficiency. Clemson’s are, too — but there’s also an adult-sized slide in the football facility, and a general sense that things are looser than they might be at other huge, world-beating college football programs.

The Alabama machine will recalculate, though. When Clemson meets Alabama in the 2019 College Playoff — which they probably will — Alabama might be doing all those things, too, and sometimes even doing them better. A team facing Alabama is in trouble already. But if the 2019 offseason has Nick Saban putting a fireman’s pole and Fortnite lounges into the players’ facility at Alabama? If he’s caught wearing a Hawaiian shirt on a newly instituted Casual Friday, telling his coaches how much he loves every single one of them?

That’s how everyone will know they’re in real, unavoidable trouble.

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