The statue on the Walk of Champions commemorating the six national titles won by former Alabama coach Nick Saban, above, casts an imposing shadow on all who will follow him, just as the famous practice tower used by Paul “Bear” Bryant, below, remains a reminder of his greatness. (Jimmy Wigfield/Call News)
New Alabama coach Kalen DeBoer’s photo will probably be going up on the Wall of Coaches at Rama Jama’s. It’s up to him to stay there. (Jimmy Wigfield/Call News)
TUSCALOOSA — High atop Nick Saban Field at Bryant-Denny Stadium (surely, it will be named that at some point), Kalen DeBoer’s first press conference as Alabama’s football coach Saturday was far from a wake.
For one thing, Saban isn’t dead. He was there on the front row and will be there to help fill in the blanks in this transition, much to DeBoer’s delight.
DeBoer’s debut wasn’t like the one for Mike Shula, who seemed downright frightened to be there, or Bill Curry, whose very presence on the stage that day incensed many Crimson Tide fans who wanted Bobby Bowden.
It was closer to the reassuring mien of Gene Stallings and Saban, men you knew would win national championships given a little time.
It’s unlikely DeBoer will have that much time and he knows it and accepts it. His new team has the talent, the pedigree and the proper underpinnings planted by Saban — the greatest coach in Alabama football history, which may be more impressive than being the greatest coach in college football history.
It was surreal to see Saban looking up at DeBoer as the new coach spoke at Saturday’s press conference and mind-spinning to realize how fast all of this happened. DeBoer and Washington just got mashed by Michigan 34-13 in the national championship game and undoubtedly the Tide would have also beaten the Huskies given the chance. If Saban had beaten DeBoer, would any of us been here Saturday? Would DeBoer?
But it’s not fair or even correct to say DeBoer could be another Bryan Harsin, someone from out West who doesn’t understand the South and its life-and-death obsession with the game. DeBoer just coached in the national championship game; Harsin, the erstwhile Auburn coach, would need a ticket to get there. But DeBoer has a lot to prove nonetheless — and right away.
If DeBoer comes out of the next few weeks mostly unscathed by the transfer portal and manages to sign five-star receiver Ryan Williams, who decommitted from the Tide moments after Saban announced his retirement, he’ll be judged an early success.
Of Williams’ four finalists — Alabama, Texas, Auburn and Texas A&M, where he is making an official visit this weekend — the state of the Longhorns’ program presents the most certainty, something DeBoer must work quickly to overcome.
DeBoer must also overcome some unpleasant history, since following a legend at Alabama has largely been unsuccessful. When Harold Drew followed Frank Thomas in 1947, it took 14 years and three coaches before Paul “Bear” Bryant won a national championship. When Bryant retired in 1982, it took 10 years and three coaches before Stallings won one.
But it shouldn’t be that long between national championships this time, partly because of the foundation Saban left and partly because of DeBoer’s approach.
“Some guys want to be the legend and think, ‘I don’t want it to be as good as it was when I was there,’” DeBoer said. “You know coach Saban is not like that.”
With elite players, DeBoer’s prolific passing offense — which stretches defenses horizontally, vertically and into unrecognizable shapes — could be even better in the SEC than it was in the crumbling Pac-12, although DeBoer must now face much better defenses.
The fact that two other offensive masterminds, Oregon’s Dan Lanning and Texas’ Steve Sarkisian, passed on the job — whether it was out of fear of following Saban, using the opportunity to gain financial leverage at their schools or just being comfortable where they are — shows as much as the transfer portal and NIL that Alabama is in a new world. It now has a new, young coach to navigate it but DeBoer also knows some old-fashioned ideals will endear him to Tide fans if they see it as he sees it.
“We want to always have a culture where you can even feel through the TV screen how hard they play and how much they want to win for you,” DeBoer said of his players.
DeBoer wasn’t the first choice but Saban wasn’t the first coach to get an offer from athletic director Mal Moore when Shula imploded in 2007. That was Rich Rodriguez, who turned Moore down; years later, Rodriguez joked that he, too, should have a statue alongside Saban’s on the Walk of Champions.
It’s refreshing — and frankly became mandatory for its survival — that this program has come a long way from the days when Alabama refused to consider any coach who hadn’t been plucked from Bryant’s playing or coaching tree. Bryant’s tower remains as a silent sentinel on the practice field but Saban’s shadow, even for a man who is 5-foot-6, is even more massive. And on Saturday, there stood DeBoer, a South Dakotan who hasn’t even suckled on the mother’s milk of the SEC and the Deep South.
DeBoer was smacked in the face with that in his first meeting with reporters Saturday following his introductory remarks to board members and boosters. As DeBoer strode into the room, athletic director Greg Byrne told him what to expect.
“They’re asking me about your not having ties to the South,” said Byrne, who added such thinking would be short-sighted. Southerners didn’t invent the game, after all, it just means more down here, right?
DeBoer knows where he’s from and where he is — one of the best places to practice the art of championship football, despite its stresses and demands, its 40-hour days, 500-day years and all the rest.
“I want to embrace everything about it,” DeBoer said, “and try to make as few mistakes as possible.”
It was also encouraging to hear fans wondering if DeBoer will one day have a statue next to Saban’s.
On Saturday morning, Rama Jama’s — the unpretentious, hamburger-pumping time capsule of Alabama football next to Bryant-Denny Stadium — was bustling with fans hoping to get a glimpse of the new coach.
“No photos of coach DeBoer yet?” I asked a young lady behind the counter.
“Oh, yes, we’ve got some, just haven’t had time to put them up,” she replied. “He’ll probably go on the Wall of Coaches.”
It is up to him to stay there.
“Lanning was my first choice,” said a fan waiting on his food, “but this is the next best one, I think. Do they have enough room for another statue next to coach Saban?”
About that time, the cry of “Nick! Nick!” was heard coming from behind the counter and heads turned. It wasn’t that Nick; they were calling for another Nick whose pancakes were ready.
The other Nick has left the Alabama program, if not the remote control to his office door, in better shape than any of his predecessors ever did, a comforting thought for DeBoer. He will be expected to immediately contend for national championships.
Hopefully, DeBoer will succeed, as he always has. A high Tide is good for the SEC and college football. If he doesn’t, DeBoer knows he will be shown DeDoor.