Alabama offensive lineman
back Simeon Castille
By Darren Epps
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- One of the best SEC football arguments is among fans from different regions arguing why their school is the most passionate.
Tennessee fans will nod toward the Vol Navy and point to huge crowds inside Neyland Stadium. Florida and Auburn fans will cup their ears, a signal to acknowledge the deafening noise. A Georgia fan would describe the tailgating scene on North Campus. And so on.
It's a great argument because there's no winner. Almost every SEC school boasts tradition, huge attendance figures and exuberant tailgaters who arrive on Wednesday for a Saturday game. There's no statistic to anoint one school definitively the most passionate about football.
Well, until this one: 92,138.
The argument is over. There were 92,138 Alabama fans packed into Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for a televised spring game, and officials had to turn people away in the second quarter.
"I hate they did that," Alabama defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry said. "I wish the fans could have flooded the place out."
All this for a glorified practice. Allen Iverson would be astounded by this turnout. More than 90,000 for practice? We're talking about practice?
And that's why Saturday's A-Day game, won 20-13 by the White team, was so bittersweet. A crowd like this makes the SEC so great. But it also ends one of my favorite arguments. We have a winner, and they were wearing crimson and white Saturday afternoon.
"When they were doing the wave, we were just like, 'Man, this does not make any sense for this many people to be out here for a spring game,' " Alabama's Simeon Castille said. "It makes it fun."
Give championship-starved Alabama football fans some hope and they will show their enthusiasm. In this case, hope was wearing a gray sports coat and standing behind the offense. He's not a coach from TCU (Dennis Franchione) or Washington State (Mike Price). He's Nick Saban, national championship coach. And they came to see him.
Traffic lined McFarland Boulevard for miles before the game, causing thousands of fans to arrive late. Fans erupted at the first notes of "Sweet Home Alabama," just like a game. They lined the circular ramps at two corners of the stadium, just like a game. They sold out the stadium, just like a game.
More people showed up for Saban's spring debut than Mike Shula's first real game. (OK, they've since expanded the stadium. But still ...)
"I thought we'd get 60,000," Alabama athletic director Mal Moore said. "They fooled me."
At the 7:45 mark of the first quarter, the Alabama P.A. announcer, with a hint of astonishment in his voice, said, "We have opened the East Side upper deck." The crowd went nuts. And as more fans ventured to the East Side upper deck, you quickly realized this would be a sellout crowd despite all the traffic.
"I still can't believe it, really," Castille said. "It blew my mind."
Yes, admission was free. Yes, it was a beautiful day in Tuscaloosa. But 92,138? Only six schools in the entire country averaged more fans in real games last year. I would not be surprised to hear that 10,000 more fans crammed into Coleman Coliseum to watch the game on a big screen.
Now if you're not an Alabama fan, you might call such a display lame or ridiculous. You might tell Alabama fans to get a life. But almost every fan at every SEC school would be boasting all summer if 92,138 attended their spring game.
"That sends a message to everybody out there that we're recruiting," Saban said.
But the raucous crowd also sends a message to Alabama's current players and coaches: Welcome to high expectations. More than 90,000 fans didn't sit for two hours in traffic to watch a future 7-5 team practice. They came to witness the start of a memorable season. And they don't want to hear that Saban started slowly at Michigan State and got booed when LSU lost to Alabama-Birmingham in his first season.
"Expectations come with wearing this jersey," Castille said. "People expect great things from you. We expect it from ourselves. You love it. I do. Everybody was talking about how it made them more excited."
Well, I'm just stunned. And a little sad. One of my favorite arguments just got settled. Sometimes, and I know this is difficult for fans of SEC teams, you just have to give the other school credit. No tailgating story or decibel level can top 92,138 at a spring football game.
Spring practice is over. And so is the argument about which school is the most passionate.
E-mail Darren Epps at firstname.lastname@example.org