How Alabama Became College Football's Greatest Team

As the number-two-ranked Crimson Tide prepares to play number-one-ranked LSU this weekend, a look at what's made the program so successful

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We all know it's silly and immature to seek self-esteem through identification with your college football team. We all know that football is far from the most important thing that any university should be judged by.

Or rather, we say that we know these things, but deep down we know that all of the above is a lie. And University of Alabama fans know something even more profound, namely that everyone else in the country, whether they admit it or not, is jealous of us because the Crimson Tide has the greatest program in college football history.

You could make a very good argument that Notre Dame or Michigan or Southern Cal or Oklahoma or Nebraska has a gridiron history as glorious as Alabama's. You can make a good argument, but you'd be wrong. There are schools that can claim more national titles than Alabama, who have finished number one more times in somebody's rankings. Princeton, for instance, can claim 28 national championships, including the first one in 1869 when Walter Camp, the father of college football, deemed the Tigers the best after a spectacular 1-1 season. (Yale, by the way, has 27 national titles.)

You can go up and down the Internet and find many bogus ranking systems that don't place Alabama at the top. (That's how you know they're bogus—if they don't rank Alabama first.) Notre Dame finishes at the top of several of these polls, and for 80 years or so, the Fighting Irish and the Crimson Tide were indeed neck-and-neck. But Notre Dame's glory is of the past; it's been more than two decades since the Irish have been a major factor in the race for number one.

Some schools—in fact, just about every major college power—have had more Heisman Trophy winners than Alabama. It took 74 years after the first Heisman Trophy was awarded in 1935 (to Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago) for Heisman voters to choose an Alabama player—running back Mark Ingram in 2009—as "the outstanding college football player in the nation." Were Heisman voters biased against Alabama or simply not looking south when it came time to cast their ballots? We'll never know, but consider this: In 1964—a year when the Crimson Tide won their second national title in four seasons—the established National Football League and the upstart American Football League engaged in a ferocious bidding war for Alabama quarterback Joe Namath. How convinced were NFL scouts that Namath was the best? the AFL's New York Jets eventually signed him for the unheard of sum of $427,000, which would just about have paid the salaries of half the NFL quarterbacks at the time.

But the Heisman trophy? Namath didn't even finish in the top ten in the Heisman voting that year; the trophy was won by Notre Dame's John Huarte. Namath went on to lead the Jets to the first Super Bowl victory in AFL history; Huarte threw just one touchdown pass in his pro football career.

Luckily for Alabama, the Tide has done quite well despite the indifference of Heisman voters. If you're making a realistic argument, Alabama's football program is superior to Notre Dame's (seven Heisman winners) or Southern Cal's (also seven, including Reggie Bush, who won it in 2005, though last year he was pressured into returning his trophy after allegations of accepting money and gifts). If we consider, say, the game since 1920, the Crimson Tide has been the best. So says the College Football Data Warehouse, whose objective ranking system includes won-lost percentage, toughness of schedule, and postseason bowl appearances.

How did the Tide become so great? For decades, Alabama's greatness was a regional secret, it's biggest triumphs—including the legendary Rose Bowls of 1926, 1931, 1935, and 1946—were known to the rest of the country only through a brief story in the Sunday sports sections. Things started to change in the middle of the last century: In 1958, Paul "Bear" Bryant, undoubtedly the greatest coach in college football history, came back to his alma mater. Bryant, who had played on Alabama's great 1935 Rose Bowl-winning team, didn't begin Alabama's football tradition, but he revitalized it, preaching the virtues of teamwork that had been taught to him by Frank Thomas in the 1930s, who had continued the tradition begun by Wallace Wade a decade earlier.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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