The University of Alabama has one of the most successful football programs in the history of college football. The Crimson Tide boast an astonishing 17 National Championships and 27 SEC Championships. Their are countless All-Americans, All-SEC performers, and NFL legends to their credit. The accolades are topped by two of the greatest coaches to ever coach the game; Paul “Bear” Bryant and Nick Saban. What about basketball?
When March rolls around, the Crimson Tide usually are engaged in postseason play, but not in the highly acclaimed NCAA Tournament. Alabama’s basketball team is synonymous with the NIT Tournament or, as some would see it, the “Best of the Rest” Tournament. The ultimate prize is not a national championship, but rather a “you have a bright future” or “honorable-honorable mention” trophy. However, Alabama has not won this tournament. On the contrary, they usually find themselves ousted in the early rounds. On the rare occasion they do make the NCAA Tournament, their stay is brief. The Crimson Tide haven’t had a significant run since 2004 under head coach Mark Gottfried. While Alabama fans heavily enjoy their football success, fans of the University are growing quite restless when it comes to postseason relevance in basketball.
The often debated point from outsiders is, “You’re a football school. You can’t be good in both.” That is one of the most overused and fallible sentiments there is. For example, SEC opponent The University of Florida have won national championships in football and basketball. As a matter of fact, the Gators won the football national championship in 2006 and their basketball team won it in the 2006/2007 season. Michigan is considered a football school, but boasts great success on both the grid iron and basketball court. Believe it or not, the Alabama Crimson Tide at one time had a solid basketball program.
Under the leadership of Wimp Sanderson, the Crimson Tide had a record of 267-119 with 2 regular season SEC titles, 5 SEC Tournament Championships, and 10 NCAA Tournament appearances that included 4 Sweet 16 appearances. On those squads, he had contributions from eventual NBA All-Stars and legends: Robert Horry, James “Hollywood” Robinson, and Latrell Spreewell.
After the exit of Wimp Sanderson, David Hobbs was named head coach. His tenure only lasted 6 seasons before resigning. However, he posted a 110-76 record, reaching the NCAA Tournament frequently with an appearance in the Sweet 16, led by NBA All Star/Champion Antonio McDyess and NBA Veteran/Champion Jason Caffey. While he did guide the Crimson Tide to the NIT a few seasons including a Final Four, Alabama was still was a regular participant in the NCAA Tournament.
Former Alabama player Mark Gottfried was hired on March 25, 1998 to replace the departed Hobbs. He would lead the Crimson Tide to the SEC regular season championship in the 2001-2002 season, their first in 15 years. I was one of many to be present as a student that rushed the floor after defeating the Florida Gators in the final seconds my junior year at Alabama, capturing that title. Guard Antoine Pettway was the hero of the day, scoring the go-ahead layup. The following year, his team became the first in Alabama history to be ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. Gottfried compiled a record of 210-131 with his greatest success coming in the 2003-2004 season. The Crimson Tide reached the Elite Eight for the first time in program history. On the path to that accomplishment, they defeated top seeded Stanford and defending national champion Syracuse. They would lose to eventual national champion UConn. However, after that, his tenure was marked by key player injuries and disappointment. Alabama would post back to back losing seasons in the SEC in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008. On January 26, 2009, after the controversial departure of star player Ronald Steele and an underperforming season, he met with then athletic director Mal Moore and resigned mid season.
Following Gottfried, Alabama would hire upstart, promising coach Anthony Grant from VCU(Virginia Commonwealth University). In just his second season with the Crimson Tide, Alabama captured the Western Division title and a signature win over Kentucky. ESPN’s Dick Vitale would label him as one of his “Coaches on the Rise”. Grant reached the NCAA Tournament in 2012. It was Alabama’s first appearance since 2006. However, it was brief. They would lose to Creighton in the opening round. That would be the 1st and final appearance during the Grant regime as they reached the NIT once more in his 4th season. They would lose to Miami in the quarterfinals. On March 15, 2015, Grant was fired.
Next, to the surprise and delight of many, Alabama hired former NBA Champion with the San Antonio Spurs and head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, Avery Johnson. His arrival would be met with excitement and optimism. Tide fans had great visions of NCAA Tournament appearances and victories manifesting in their heads. His first 2 seasons led to appearances in the NIT. However, the Alabama faithful remained patient due to the rebuilding that had to take place. In season 3, Tide fans would have a reason for excitement. With the arrival of freshman phenom and future NBA lottery pick, Collin Sexton, Johnson and company would take a big step in the right direction. Alabama would go on to capture big wins against Texas A&M and SEC regular season champion Auburn in the SEC Tournament. They would make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament and upset favored Virginia Tech, attaining the Tide’s first tournament victory since 2004. They lost to eventual national champion Villanova.
Despite the departure of Collin Sexton to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Crimson Tide had reason for optimism for the 2018-2019 season. They returned many key veterans like Riley Norris & Dazon Ingram, and had incoming talent; such as Kira Lewis and John Petty. Avery Johnson would achieve a signature win over Kentucky in early January. However, after a string of narrow defeats by teams such as Tennessee and LSU, the life seemingly was taken out of the Tide players. Sloppy play, inability to sustain leads, poor free throw shooting, under performing from 3 point range, and poor effort often times became the identity of the team. The additional salt in the wound came from a regular season sweep from conference rival and SEC Tournament champion, Auburn.
Extreme expectations of national championships yearly are placed by Alabama fans upon Nick Saban and his football juggernaut. Is the same expected from the basketball team? That is hardly the case. Do they expect to be mentioned in the same conversation with the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, etc? Again, that is not the objective. Although, it would be greatly received. So, what do they want? Fans of Alabama would like to be relevant in March Madness, not the NIT. They would like an SEC title or two. Appearances in the tourney along with victories are greatly needed. An occasional Sweet 16, Elite Eight, or, dare I speak it, a Final Four appearance would greatly be appreciated. Is Avery Johnson the coach to do it? Fans are starting to doubt. Not everyone is quite ready to abandon ship, but the natives are growing restless. Is the all encompassing shadow cast by the football program too much to allow the basketball program to flourish? The answer is no. As mentioned a few paragraphs above, success in football and basketball can co-exist. The question is how and when will the Alabama Crimson Tide do it?
I am a 2003 graduate from the University of Alabama with a degree in Exercise Science. While at the Capstone, I served as a student assistant with the head strength and conditioning coach of the Crimson Tide football team. I have competed in both powerlifting and bodybuilding for several years. In addition, I have served athletes and people through the arena of personal training. Jesus is my Lord and Savior. I am a passionate fan of Alabama, but do not make other fan bases miserable because of it. College football has my heart first, but I cover all areas of sports. Follow me on Twitter: @justinriley7!