Gary Shelton: Even in loss, Alabama is still football royalty

Alabama head coach Nick Saban on the sidelines against Texas A&M during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Now about this: They lost, which doesn’t happen often.

They gave up the winning touchdown late, which is rare.

Their defense gave out of gas, which was amazing to see.

Still, in all, the University of Alabama is still one of the nation’s premier football teams as far as legacy. Before you chide the Tide, think of it this way: What other program would dare to be disappointed by finishing second in the nation.

Ah, but Alabama is the home of national championships, houndstooth hats and lore. And know this: When the Tide lose, it’s generally because another legend has been born. The Tide had never faced a quarterback like Watson in any of their national championship seasons.

Monday night, it was Deshaun Watson, who led Clemson on an incredible comeback. In two years, Watson has thrown for 825 yards and seven touchdowns. What other quarterback has ever done that on a national stage?

Still, Alabama’s place in college football is likely to be unchanged. Who would you pick as next year’s national champion? ESPN says Alabama. So does Bleacher Report. How about the year after? The year after that? As long as Nick Saban is steering the machine, the Tide is expected to be elite.

It has always been this way. In one poll or another, Alabama has won a version of 16 national championships. Wallace Wade. Frank Thomas. Bear Bryant. Gene Stallings. Saban.

The first beat I ever had in journalism as Alabama. I covered Bryant’s last two titles at the school, and there was no other place quite like it. The Tide came opponents in waves, with their tearaway jerseys and Bryant’s leather-skin and his smoke-tinged voice. Alabama had too much defense, too much precision on offense, too many players, too much history.

Bryant would win six titles, and although his team lost its bowl games in 1964 and 1973, people tend to forget 1966. That year, the Tide was a two-time defending champion and the only unbeaten and untied team in the country … and finished third after Notre Dame and Michigan State played to a tie.

Eventually, Bryant has morphed into Saban who, frankly, has it harder. In his early years, Bryant could lose a bowl game and still win a national title. He lost to Southern Cal in the 1978 regular season, but earned a split. He never had to negotiate a playoff run, which can be tricky.

Still, Saban has been successful with a distinct formula. The Tide plays superb defense. It usually has a great running back. And it often plays around its quarterback. This time, freshman Jalen Hurts wasn’t good enough.

What both Bryant and Saban did was win most of the time. It is still unexpected to see an Alabama coach at the podium following a loss. It’s a sun-setting-in-the-south sort of feeling.

Today, the Alabama Crimson Tide is no longer a champion.

Just royalty.


Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of Florida. He has won the APSE’s national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sports Writer of the Year six times. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit