What does the end of the dynasty look like?
At some point in the past three months it has become acceptable to describe the Nick Saban tenure at Alabama as a "dynasty." Three national championships in four years fits just about anyone's definition of the term and, indeed, the inevitable off-season comparisons between the current Crimson Tide era and previous programs popularly accepted as dynasties have begun to emerge.
Yet it is inescapable that dynasties eventually come to an end. Just more than a year ago, Spencer Hall dared mention the unmentionable and concluded it's all a matter of time. "Precision fails. Details slip by the wayside. One day the mail shows up a little late, and then five years later there's a Visigoth sleeping on your doorstep." This, in Nick Saban's lexicon, is known as "slippage."
And so we can say with certainty that this period of Crimson Tide football will slow, falter and grind to a halt. It's is as inevitable as the sun rising in the east. And no one is more aware of this than Alabama fans who only have to recall the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1980 to understand how fast entropy can overtake greatness.
But lets start with how the Crimson Tide got to the top of the mountain in the first place. Paul W. Bryant arrived in Tuscaloosa in 1958 to take over a Crimson Tide program at its nadir. He quickly turned things around and returned the Tide to the top of college football. Between 1961 to 1966, Alabama went 60-5-1, which included three national championships, four Southeastern Conference Championships. Dynasty-type achievements. Then the bottom fell out.
Between 1967 and 1970 Alabama was unable to muster ten wins. Two five-loss seasons had Bryant at a crossroads and he responded by completely changing things in two dramatic ways. He integrated the program and actively recruited the best black athletes in the state. He also dumped his previous offense and embraced the Wishbone developed at Texas. The result was a resurgence of the program and, arguably, a second "dynasty" under Bryant.
During the 1970s Alabama became the first team to cross the century mark in wins over just a decade's time -- earning a record of 103-16-1. In that period the Tide won eight SEC titles and three national championships. As the calendar turned onto the 1980s it seemed no one in college football could contest the Crimson Tide Juggernaut.
Over the first eight games of the 1980 season, there really wasn't anything to suggest there were significant cracks in the Alabama facade. At the end of October, the Tide had gone 28 straight games without a defeat and had been ranked the No. 1 team in the country for seven weeks. A third straight national championship seemed almost inevitable.
But things had changed. Alabama's recruiting advantage over many conference rivals due to integration had disappeared by 1980 and the wishbone wasn't a particularly exotic offense anymore. Sure the advantages of being one of the premier teams in the country remained but between "slippage" and Bryant's deteriorating health, the competitive edge was not the same.
Following the championship run in 1978 Bryant confessed to having considered retirement two years earlier, going so far as discussing it with the university president. "I thought maybe they should bring in somebody younger. I was getting old and I didn't think I was doing a good job. I still don't think so, but I'm surrounded by good people and it wasn't very hard to talk me out of it."
Mississippi State, in contrast, was led by the man who invented the Wishbone, Emory Bellard. And while the former Longhorns assistant had only been in Starkville a short time, he was targeting the Tide from the start. Bellard put together a stout defense designed to contend with his brainchild then did everything he could to put his charges in a position to win when they took the field in Mississippi Memorial Stadium.
Over the course of the game the Bulldogs held the powerful Tide rushing attack to 116 yards, about a third of what it had been averaging up to that point in the season. Four turnovers stymied whatever progress the Alabama made on offense and the final one proved fatal. A frantic Alabama 44-yard drive in the waning minutes of the game ended when Crimson Tide quarterback Don Jacobs was tackled on the four yard line and fumbled.
The Bulldogs had defeated the Bear, 6-3. In Starkville, joy was unconfined. In Tuscaloosa, the outcome defied belief. "I've never seen them lose," said one incredulous UA sophmore.
In his weekly television show the next day, Bryant said he thought his team was not ready mentally for the game noting that on the bus ride to Jackson there had been a lot of "foolishness."
"Something was lacking, I don't know what it was," Bryant said of his team. "I think the whole thing was [Mississippi State] wanted to win the game worse than we did."
While Bryant said his team's chances for a national championship had dimmed, they were not extinguished. "It is still possible but its not probable," he said. Actually, it was worse than that. The Visgoths were at the doorstep.
A loss to Notre Dame two weeks later ended any lingering hopes for a championship in 1980. In the wake of the Mississippi State loss, Alabama fell to No. 6 in the polls and would not regain the No. 1 ranking during the season for 28 years. That dismal run was ended when the Tide was took the top place in the polls on Oct. 27, 2008 under current coach Nick Saban.
The Tide finished the 1981 with a mediocre 9-2-1 record. The SEC co-championship was notable but the highlight of that year's campaign was Bryant's passing Amos Alonzo Stagg's all-time win record. In 1982 Alabama fell to an ugly 8-4. Bryant, whose health was now failing, knew he would not be able to re-invent himself as he had in 1970 and stepped down as coach.
Less than a month after his final game, a 21-15 victory over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl, Bryant passed away at the age of 69. The Alabama dynasty of the 1970s was over.
None of this means that there is any particular reason to believe the Nick Saban era at Alabama is in its closing days. The effectiveness of the Tide recruiting and the soundness of the Bama strategy have not given evidence of a fundamental shift in the balance of power in college football. Yet. One thing Saban harps on is consistency and acknowledges it is a far more difficult challenge to maintain it after achieving success than when you are fighting to claw your way to the top the first time.
But rest assured, this edition of the Crimson Tide will have that day just like its predecessors did three decades ago. Strategies to counter the Tides' crushing defense are sprouting everywhere and, eventually, they will find a formula that succeeds with reasonable regularity. The advantages of recruiting and facilities will wane. And the beautiful, horrible cycle of college football greatness will roll on.