ATLANTA — The national titles are impressive, of course. Four of them, including three in the last five years.
A better measure of Nick Saban’s greatness, however, is the expectation that is now being passed from one Alabama class to another. Winning, or at least playing for, a national championship is the only acceptable way to end the season. Anything less is considered a failure.
“I look at my sophomore year as a lost year for us — and we won the SEC,” All-American defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said Tuesday, referring to Alabama’s loss to Ohio State in the semifinals of the inaugural College Football Playoff.
“We just have high standards and high expectations for ourselves and, when you don’t meet them, you’re disappointed.”
Sure, it is preached by the coaches, this legacy of success. But it is the players who have ensured that all that talk gets translated into titles.
It is little things, like telling a teammate who is walking off the practice field to pick it up because that’s the standard at Alabama. Or pulling newcomers aside to warn them that practice is going to be far worse than the horror stories they’ve already heard.
It is checking anyone who shows even the slightest hint of complacency or arrogance — which, to be fair, is to be expected among teenagers and young 20-somethings who know no other view than the one from the top. It is holding each other accountable, on and off the field.
“I wouldn’t say (it’s a) joyless existence. That’s just the mindset you’ve got to have if you want to be great and have a legendary legacy,” Allen said. “If you want to do that, you have to have that relentlessness to your work ethic and your grind.
“Thinking about last year’s national championship isn’t going to help us get this one.”
It is hard to win one title, let alone string together enough to venture into dynasty territory. A look at the last 25 years suggests it might be even harder now, what with the proliferation of televised games and reduction in scholarships leading to an increase in parity.
Nebraska (1994-97) is the only other team since 1992 to win three titles in a five-year span. Only two others, LSU and Florida, won two in five years. (USC split the national title with LSU in 2003 but was stripped of its BCS title the following year.)
“Building it is hard work. You have to push yourself day in and day out just to be great,” defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said. “To maintain is pretty much the same level of work, but you have a bull’s-eye on your back all season. So you have to work even harder just to make sure you don’t fall off every week you play.”
Maintaining that same, relentless demand for excellence is tough amid the constant turnover of players and coaches. Messages and schemes that were once innovative and exciting eventually become stale and ineffective.
Yet Alabama has managed to avoid the inevitable slide back to the pack. It has won three consecutive SEC titles, and four in the last five years, and is the only team to make the College Football Playoff all three years.
Should Alabama beat Washington in Saturday’s Peach Bowl semifinal, the Crimson Tide would play for their fifth national title since 2009. Should Washington win, the Huskies would be playing for their fifth national championship — in school history. And you have to count the ones they got from folks like the National Championship Foundation and Football News to reach that number.
As much a credit as that is to Saban, it’s even more so to his players. They easily could have slacked off after the second or third title, but instead have come back even hungrier.
“We feed off (Alabama’s) past and we don’t want to downgrade,” linebacker Reuben Foster said. “We want to keep the process going and keep the ‘Bama tradition going. The ‘Bama way.”
Saban is as demanding as they come. His players no less so.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.