Paul “Bear” Bryant’s lengthy shadow, which had hovered over the Alabama football program for nearly 2 ½ decades, finally has lifted.
It had begun to fade when the Crimson Tide lured Nick Saban from the Miami Dolphins at the end of the 2006 season to be their head coach. It completely disappeared Saturday when Saban signed a three-year contract extension on his original $32 million, eight-year deal. The extension supposedly will keep him in Tuscaloosa until 2017. Supposedly because we know contracts aren’t worth the paper they are written on these days, so it isn't a lock Saban will be around that long.
Even so, Saban, 57, is in control of Tide football for the foreseeable future. And he’s in command in a way no one has been since the Bear relinquished the coaching reins at the end of the 1982 season, which preceded his death in January 1983.
For too long, the Tide tried to continue Bryant's legacy by hiring some of his “boys,” such as Ray Perkins (his immediate successor), Gene Stallings (who won the Tide’s only national championship – 1992 -- since Bryant’s departure during his seven years on the job) and Mike DuBose (who turned out to be a disaster).
The outsiders -- Bill Curry, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Price -- didn’t stick around long. Curry couldn’t beat arch-rival Auburn and was forced to leave town. Franchione claimed promises were broken and departed without talking to his players, who he had asked to stay after the Tide went on NCAA probation for rules violations under DuBose. Price didn’t coach a game after his scandalous behavior led to his firing a few months after he had been hired.
Mike Shula, who was hired to replace Price, turned out to be in over his head as coach of a program with a fan base filled with unrealistic expectations and was fired after four seasons.
Saban, about to start his third season, replaced Shula and took charge the same way Bryant did, letting everyone know who the boss was. Now, he might be the most powerful coach in college football. “Saban Nation” is in full force with his influence stretching from the university administration to the alumni, to boosters and to fans. Few in the media dare cross him.
Even Alabama athletic director Mal Moore recognizes Saban's clout. Listen to what Moore had to say announcing the extension:
"Coach Saban has impressively led the Alabama football program back to national prominence in a short period of time. That success has been evident in all facets -- on-field results, his embrace of Alabama's athletics and academic culture, recruiting, and community service. In every way, Coach Saban has positioned our program among college football's elite."
In two seasons, Saban has led the Tide to a 19-8 record, including a 12-2 mark in 2008 when the Tide won the Southeastern Conference Western Division title, advanced to the SEC Championship Game, earned a trip to the Allstate Sugar Bowl and had a final ranking of 6th in both the Associated Press media poll and the USA Today/ESPN coaches' rankings.
The Tide is expected to contend for the national title again this season, entering their opening game Saturday against seventh-ranked Virginia Tech with a No. 5 ranking in the AP poll.
Saban can remain at Alabama as long as he wants – the same way Bryant did.