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Leaving Alabama: A Case Study in losing the best.

Updated: Jan 18

The fallout of Nick Saban retiring from Alabama has led to a flood of decommitments and transfers. The aftermath of what is taking place will resonate through the sport for decades.

Some people texted me before the CFP that this was, in their estimation, the last season of college football as they knew it. I pushed back. The ideals of college sport - love of team and teammates - would win out I told them. I was wrong.

Alabama hired a new coach lickety split, one that was just in the National Title Game. That took 48 hours. He called a team meeting right away. Two days later, he had a team in place: a top OC, top offensive line coach, one of the most well-regarded general managers in football, and two sitting head coaches to add to the defense. It wasn't enough.

Wednesday, Alabama's top player, Caleb Downs left the program, most likely the linchpin holding what's left of the team together. Before him, there was DB Dezz Ricks, Antonio Kite, and Bama's best wide receiver, Isiah Bond. Texas snagged him up so fast you'd think he'd already been on speed dial. Word was NIL money in the $700,000 range and the promise of a leased Lamborghini sealed the deal. "A business decision," Bond told ESPN. One hour after Down's announcement, starting left tackle Kadyn Proctor entered the portal. Bringing in Joe Moore award winner Scott Huff wasn't enough to hold him.

The question is: what pulled him away?

I saw my first football game at Legion Field. It was the 315 game. My stepfather held me up so I could catch a glimpse of Bear Bryant, and I can still see Linnie Patrick breaking five tackles on a run - a flash of white and crimson - the thunder of thousands of adults rising to their feet. The 33-yard scamper is featured in Alabama's “Our Tradition” video for every home game. The sophomore surely would have left for another school his senior year after Bryant retired in '82. That is, if it were today's world. If the sport of college football had such a promotional video today, I wonder what would it show? If the past week is any indication it would most likely have money raining from the sky, bright orange sports cars, and players donning Mr. T-sized gold chains.

Players can now take money without contracts. They can accept cars and gifts. If a coach retires, they have 30 days to leave and find a new home. Teams, however, cannot. The only hope Alabama has of replacing the players it's losing, which at current count is 25 scholarship players, is to pick off free agents fleeing other schools who've lost a coach. Techinically, if there weren't any other recent coaching changes, a team could desert a school, and there would be nothing the school could do about it. An empty backfield would take on new meaning.

What's happened to college football? What's lost? Some might say everything. At least, everything they watched the game for. Fans love their schools, their colors, their fightsongs, and traditions. The greatest loss may be what Saban fought so hard for at Alabama, the idea of team. The A in the center of the field meant something. You didn't walk on it casually wihtout getting barked at. Team was something greater than the individual; it was something to buy into.

No one can fault Caleb Downs for choosing to go wherever he ends up. Most likely, it will be with the promise of something more attractive for his future. A certain coach. A better connection with the NFL. But the kid could've started anywhere. What he won't find somewhere else is what he's leaving - his team. He missed a great opportunity by choosing to go. If he'd stayed, he would have been a leader, someone whom the rest of the team would have looked up to for staying the course, "finishing" as Saban often put it. He would have been the promise for a new recruiting class - a stable of DBs that would want to play with him, learn from him. Hear how Saban did things.

What's lost?

Maybe what kept Bryce Young and Will Anderson, just a year ago, in the bowl game. Alabama wasn't selected to the playoffs. As talking heads like Danny Kannel would tell you this year, the games no longer mean anything - why play? But they did play, and won. It did matter - to them.

Maybe, it's what brought Tommy Lewis off the sideline in the 1954 Cotton Bowl to tackle Rice running back Dickey Maegle. "I was just too full of Alabama," he told Ed Sullivan.

Ultimately, the A in the center of the field meant something. It not only represented the sweat and pain of the offseason, but the look of pride in their teammates' eyes, many who were playing the highest level of ball they would ever play. It represented the scout team that showed up to get hammered for no glory, who have a name but no image. It represented the past: Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler, George Teague, Scott Hunter, David Palmer. It represented Bart Starr and Cornelius Bennett, Tua Tagovaila, Jalen Hurts, Devonta Smith, Tyrone Prothro, and Linnie Patrick.

After Saban retired, I felt compelled to rewatch North Dallas Forty. The film and novel are bleak reminders of the stench of business in sport. "We aren't the team," Nolte screams to the coach at a board meeting. "They're the team," he says, gesturing to the owners as they sit silent - their plan of pushing the wide receiver out working to perfection. "Hell, we are just the equipment."

It's only when the business turns on you that you realize that, when the dollars run out and the car won't run anymore. In the past, your former teammates would be the ones to pick you up and get you on your feet. Afterall, you bled together, triumphed together, and yes failed together.

There is no "I' in team, coaches have always said. But there is a "me." If serious changes aren't made and fast, College football will simply become NFL B.


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