I was fourteen when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. As a born and raised New Englander, that October is one I will never forget. Eighty-six years of frustration released in the most improbable of fashions. Facing a 3-0 deficit to the mighty Yankees, the Sox climbed out of a hole that only two other professional sports team had ever managed to overcome. With each successive win, Red Sox fans faced a growing sense of hope matched with an equal sense of impending doom. People across the state were afraid to sleep or eat for fear of messing with some cosmic power that was altering the series. They expected defeat. They were used to defeat. More than defeat, they were used to soul-crushing, championship-teasing defeat. Bill Buckner defeat. Or Aaron Boone defeat.
I remember going home each day from school wondering whether I’d have to face the gloating of my Yankee friends the next day. Trash talk filled the hallways and grocery stores of my New York-Massachusetts border town. For a week, everyone was a baseball fan. Even teachers wore jerseys to school.
On the night the Red Sox won the championship, finishing a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, I remember thinking that I would never experience something like this again. I was watching history. A generation of Red Sox fans had lived and died without seeing what I was seeing. In sixty years, I would tell my grandkids where I was when the Sox reversed the curse.
In the midst of the celebration, nostalgia began to creep in. The curse was gone. “Next year” was now a childhood memory. The Sox could win again, but it would be just another banner. The chance of being a part of something truly historic was gone forever – or at least for as long as it takes for the Red Sox to sell away another game-altering player and plunge into a century-long championship drought.
For me, baseball has never been the same.
On the surface, my experience as a young Red Sox fan has little to do with Alabama football. Aside from a handful of down years, the Crimson Tide have always finished near the top of the college football rankings. Even before Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007, Alabama was a poster child for college football – the team of Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings and Forrest Gump. Their fifteen national championships are the most in the country, and the gap between their title in 1992 and Saban’s first championship in 2009 was only 17 years. Hardly curse worthy.
But in Alabama time is relative. Down here, where Alabama national championships have come to mark the passage of time, seventeen years can feel like centuries. The memory of the dark ages in the late-90s and early 2000s, which included four losing seasons, still haunts some older fans. “Even when we’re up by 20 points, I’m not comfortable. I keep thinking about all the leads we’ve blown and heartbreaking games we’ve lost,” one fan told me. These older fans remember losing six straight years to Auburn. They still shudder at the memory of Auburn fans traveling to Tuscaloosa with the slogan of “Fear the thumb” in reference to needing two hands to count the number of years since Alabama’s last Iron Bowl victory. “I remember being very happy with an 8-4 season. The kids now don’t know how lucky they have it,” a 2002 Alabama grad told me. But those who remember the hard years and dread their return are a minority – the town criers whose warnings of an impending bust are ignored during the highs of the boom years.
On Saturday, Alabama hosted number 1 ranked Mississippi State. With a win, the Crimson Tide would improve to 9-1 on the year and put themselves in complete control of the SEC West and a spot in the inaugural college football playoff. At any school in the country, those circumstances would have made Saturday electric. In Alabama, they were ordinary.
When ESPN’s College Gameday went to Ole Miss last month, the campus went wild. Students began showing up at 5 AM. By 8 AM, when the show kicked off, The Grove was packed. That day Ole Miss defeated second-ranked Alabama, and Mississippi State knocked off sixth-ranked Texas A&M. The next week the two schools appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That week, you could not find a Sports Illustrated in the state. Stores had to give out tickets and limit customer purchases in their attempts to meet demand.
Gameday in Tuscaloosa on Saturday attracted a modest crowd, but most students stayed away. They’d seen it before; they’d see it again. “Gameday will be back for the Auburn game. I’ll probably go then,” a student told me on Friday night.
The thrill of defeating the country’s top-ranked team was similarly muted. “Do you think we’re going to win by more than two touchdowns?” I heard a student casually ask on Saturday. No one questioned Alabama’s chances.
Today, Alabama is the undisputed king of college football. Since Saban’s arrival, the Tide have won three national championships, finished the season in the AP top-10 six years in a row, and spent an astonishing 40 out of 131 weeks ranked number 1 in the country.
According to Vegas, the Tide were a 9.5 point favorite on Saturday – the 64th straight game that Alabama was favored to win. No current student was in school when Alabama was last an underdog. “I know Alabama had a rough patch, but I can’t remember that. To me, Alabama has always been the best team,” a sophomore told me. At Gameday, fans held signs that stated things matter-of-factly: “Who do you think’s going to win? Alabama. What makes you guess that? Guess? That’s not a guess, it’s just the truth.” One student went to the game carrying a championship belt in reference to the Tide’s status atop the college football hierarchy. A group of students dressed up in cow suits and carried a sign that read: “Alabama is Legen-Dairy.”
However, if the student body is cavalier, it’s difficult to overstate the impact the football team’s success has had on the state of Alabama. College football down here is as big as it gets. I learned this before I even arrived in the state. When you board most planes, the stewardess greets you warmly. Boarding my flight from Chicago to Birmingham, I was accosted with the identifying question for Alabama residents: “Roll Tide or War Eagle? (the mottos for the two big college programs in the state).” Over half the flight was wearing apparel from Auburn or Alabama. This was on a Wednesday.
Alabama does not have a single major pro sports franchise. College basketball is a modest offseason distraction at best. College football is king. “On Saturdays the whole state becomes one family. Or, well, two families – Auburn and Alabama,” one resident told me. “Football is the one thing that’s able to reach across the typical social and political divides in the state,” added another.
In a state that ranks 46th in median household income and 2nd in obesity, Alabama’s prowess on the field has emerged as an important aspect of the state’s identity. Regardless of the struggles during the week, Saturdays offer refuge – a chance for Alabamans to stake out their state pride. Fandom allows people to be a part of something great, something larger than themselves. By sharing in the team’s success, Alabamans feel successful themselves.
The football team’s recent resurgence has further played a huge role in transforming the school and, more broadly, the greater Tuscaloosa area. The University has nearly doubled in size since 2000, outpacing planned growth by nearly 10,000 students. For the first time ever, this year’s student body contains a majority of out-of-state students. Many of those students told me that football is what first attracted them to campus. “If it wasn’t for the football team, I probably wouldn’t have even considered Alabama,” a junior from Ohio told me. Revenue from football and the increased recruiting footprint that football has brought has helped the school complete 50 construction projects in the past 10 years. Brand new dorms, student centers, and recreational sports complexes have sprung up around campus.
The town of Tuscaloosa has matched that growth, expanding from 78,000 people in 2000 to nearly 100,000 today. Over that time, inflation-adjusted home values have increased by over 15%. “The town is totally different now than when Saban took over. Now, all the wealthy alums want places to stay for Gameday weekends. They have built new condos all over town,” one longtime resident told me.
To thank Saban, who is known as “the Son” in the Alabama football trinity, boosters recently bought the beloved coach a $3.1 million home. The school also inked Saban to a contract worth $6.9 million a year. “We want to keep him happy,” Scott Phelps, the assistant secretary of the booster group, said. “We think he is the best coach in America.”
It’s hard to feel sorry for these fans. Most schools would kill for the kind of success Alabama has enjoyed. Florida State is bending every law in the book in their attempt to match Alabama on the field.
But there is a somber side to Alabama’s dynasty. Down here, where the bar for success is “national title or bust,” winning is expected and losing, even once, is devastating.
When Alabama went up 19-0 midway through the second quarter on Saturday, the crowd cheered, but the cheers were more an affirmation, a “that’s how it should be” than a true celebration. The students wouldn’t have been surprised to see Alabama win by 30.
Even when the game got close near the end, the student section remained calm. They’d seen this script before, and Saban rarely let them down. When Mississippi State failed on a last-ditch onside kick attempt, the fans didn’t line up to rush the field. They had won the biggest game of the entire college football season to date, but the crowd leaving the stadium was already looking forward. “We want Auburn!” chants could be heard throughout campus.
When Ole Miss beat Alabama last month, the crowd not only rushed the field, they tore down the goalposts and paraded them around campus. After the SEC fined the school for the damage, students simply chopped up the goalposts and sold the pieces as souvenirs. They raised more than $85,000 in four hours.
It’s not that Alabama fans are indifferent – it’s that winning has become so commonplace and so integral to the fan base’s sense of self that it’s simply taken for granted. Most Alabama fans discount even the possibility of a losing season because their identity is so wrapped up in being the best. Around the country, fans hate Alabama for that attitude – that smugness that, no matter what, we’re better than you. To everyone else, Alabama is the bully mercilessly crushing its inferiors.
But on Saturday night, as I left Bryant-Denny Stadium, I couldn’t help but wonder if some in the Alabama fan base longed for life before 2009 – life when the simple act of winning one game brought joy. Back then, despair was tempered with hope – hope that maybe, just maybe this was the year.
Those who have not forgotten the dark years may truly feel joy in The Tide’s current success, but for most fans, like post-2004 Red Sox Nation, each Alabama championship now is just another banner – a brief high that brings with it the burden of increased expectation.
I sometimes find myself longing for the days of the Red Sox curse, trying to recapture the feelings of profound sadness that accompanied each failed attempt to break it. At least then, I knew that there was a higher high ahead – there was hope that next year really would be the year. Beneath the fancy new buildings and boastful signs, I wonder if Alabama fans feel that way too.
Be sure to check back next week as I travel to “The Game” when Yale takes on Harvard in Cambridge, MA.