When Nick Saban used part of his victory speech at the end of the BCS National Championship Game to thank Mal Moore and the Alabama administration, it was hard not to think about the chaotic hiring process three years ago that brought Saban to Tuscaloosa. Reportedly turned down by everyone from Rich Rodriguez to Steve Spurrier to Saban, a program that was once one of the most prestigious in the country now seemed to have trouble getting anyone to take the head coaching position. Opposing fans who endured constant reminders of Alabama's rich football heritage from the Tide faithful couldn't help but laugh as the program finally convinced Saban -- after practically begging -- to take the job.
No one is laughing anymore.
With a 37-21 win over Texas on Thursday, Saban and Alabama recaptured a prize that had eluded the Tide for 17 years and offset all the jokes Alabama fans weathered over the last few years. After all, when Alabama lost to Louisiana-Monroe as part of a 7-6 season in 2007, bloggers and opposing fans gleefully calculated how much Saban was earning for each win under his record contract and ULM fans made sure the road from Tuscaloosa to Shreveport for the Independence Bowl included a billboard with the final score of the upset. A loss to a very good Utah team in the 2009 Sugar Bowl gave those who didn't like Alabama even more grist for their mill.
But Saban stayed focused on "The Process," which emphasized executing plays in the belief that that execution would lead to victories. It paid off some during the SEC West Championship season in 2008, then fully with Thursday's win.
It wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing victory; Greg McElroy was just 6-of-11 for 58 yards, and Alabama found itself behind 6-0 after an ill-advised fake punt and a miscue on the ensuing Texas kickoff twice gave the Longhorns the ball deep inside Alabama territory. But with Colt McCoy knocked out of the game, the Tide defense shut down Texas while the offense and defense combined to score 24 unanswered points on rushing touchdowns by Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, a Leigh Tiffin field goal and a Marcel Dareus interception of a shovel pass that ended in another touchdown. For Texas, a team that had four first downs to its name before halftime -- two of them in the first six minutes of the game -- the 24-6 Alabama lead seemed too much.
Alabama apparently thought so too. Texas put together something resembling a comeback starting in the second half, with backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert completing 13 of his next 26 passes, including two touchdowns, as part of a 15-point rally. It was a three-point game when Gilbert dropped to pass with just over three minutes left -- and was sacked by Eryk Andrews, causing Gilbert to lose the football. At that point, the game was all but over; the two touchdowns Alabama added to make the final score 37-21 were window dressing.
The hero of the game, fittingly, was Heisman Trophy winner Ingram, who ran for 116 yards and 2 TDs on 22 carries. Close behind was Richardson (19 attempts, 109 yards, 2 TDs). Texas actually outgained the Tide but had five turnovers, all of them by Gilbert. Would the game have been different if McCoy had played the whole night? Who knows? In any case, it's immaterial; injuries are part of football, and national championship trophies don't and shouldn't come with asterisks.
The Tide won this one -- earned this one. It is the school's eighth or 13th, depending on to whom you listen, and the fourth in a row for the SEC. And with many of the same players returning next year and few of its league competitors looking any stronger in 2010, the Tide now sets out to try to become the first program to win two consecutive BCS championships.
The Process might be complete, but it's far from over.