Hargis: Welcome back to college football reality, Tide fans

AP photo by Vasha Hunt / Alabama football coach Nick Saban waves to the fans as he leaves the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium after a home win in September 2022. Saban's recent retirement was followed by multiple players for the Crimson Tide entering the transfer portal, with some having already found new programs.
AP photo by Vasha Hunt / Alabama football coach Nick Saban waves to the fans as he leaves the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium after a home win in September 2022. Saban's recent retirement was followed by multiple players for the Crimson Tide entering the transfer portal, with some having already found new programs.

There is an ongoing meltdown inside a certain college football team's fan base.

Nothing new there, particularly in the South. Check social media at any point on a given day, and you'll find knee-jerk overreactions to just about any storyline.

But anyone who scrolled University of Alabama football chat rooms or their fans' tweets throughout this past week saw a level of group freakout normally reserved for really important things, like critiquing Taylor Swift's latest outfit worn at a Kansas City Chiefs game.

Since news broke that Nick Saban — inarguably the greatest college football coach ever — was retiring, Crimson Tide fans have ridden a wave of emotions they hadn't experienced in nearly two decades. The hand-wringing began over who would be named the next head coach, and after a brief reprieve to celebrate the hiring of Kalen DeBoer, the hysteria returned to full volume in the week since then as numerous players — either on the roster or committed recruits — announced they were leaving.

Suddenly, from Madison to Mobile, the sky is falling on the Henny-Pennys of Bryant-Denny.

One post on BamaOnline.com, without so much as a hint of sarcasm, suggested fellow fans needed to reevaluate their priorities: "You should be donating 10% of your salary to (NIL collective) 'Yea Alabama.' Stop tithing if you need to until we dig our way out. We are in a CRISIS! Your church will be fine. Football is a religion in Alabama, and it's time to prove it."

There were countless other similar social media posts and calls to sports radio talk shows that made it clear many of those who worship at the altar of Saint Nick believe a football apocalypse is upon them.

As a refresher, in the 24 seasons between Bear Bryant's retirement and Saban's hiring, Alabama's average finish was 8-4, with just one national championship between Bear's last one in 1979 and Saban's first with the Tide in 2009. That span also included five losing seasons and six head coaches, so the program hasn't always been as elite as some believe.

All of which should be a reminder that Saban's 17 years in T-town, where he never won fewer than 10 games across his final 16 seasons, were essentially Camelot, and no matter how successful DeBoer is, it is impossible to match that type of dominance.

  photo  AP photo by Vasha Hunt / Alabama fans in Tuscaloosa react as they watch television coverage of Georgia's interception return for a game-sealing touchdown in the national championship game in January 2022. Crimson Tide supporters experienced more frustration this past week even without a football game being played as the program had multiple players enter the transfer portal.

While every other program has spent the past few years adjusting to college football's new landscape and the impact of the transfer portal and NIL, Alabama had been insulated from those concerns because of Saban's influence.

The opportunity to compete for a coach whose ability to all but guarantee a national championship for every incoming class (Bama won six under Saban) was surpassed only by the number who cashed in on that exposure by following his pipeline to the life-changing money made in pro football (123 Bama players were taken in the last 16 NFL drafts).

Throughout Saban's reign, the Tide hoarded four- and five-star recruits like doomsday preppers stockpile their basement with canned goods and ammunition. Winning — both on the field and the recruiting trail, where Saban's signing classes included 10 with a No. 1 national ranking — became so common that many Bama fans lost sight of the fact it wasn't the script A or Denny Chimes or Rammer Jammer that was bringing all those top-tier athletes to campus.

They weren't committing to the university or the program, they were committing to the coach.

Which explains why a potentially crippling number of players — 27 of the 60 on Alabama's two-deep roster at the Rose Bowl semifinal in this year's College Football Playoff — are no longer with the team. The week's departures included safety Caleb Downs, the first freshman to ever lead the Tide in tackles, who bolted for Ohio State; former five-star offensive tackle Kadyn Proctor, another Freshman All-America selection, who started all 14 games before committing to Iowa on Saturday; and defensive back Antonio Kite, who gave the ultimate slap of disrespect when he left to commit to rival Auburn.

Add to that a list of eight high school studs who have decommitted — including Julian Sayin, the nation's No. 1 quarterback for the class of 2024, among a group that seemingly grows daily — and there is legitimate reason for concern as Alabama is now waking up to the reality that every other school has dealt with for years: Recruits don't care about your brand, they commit to a coach and NIL deals. If either of those are gone, so too are the players.

It's a business decision, same as when players including former Dalton High School star Jahmyr Gibbs and University of Tennessee linebacker Henry To'oTo'o opted to transfer to Alabama, banking on that move to ultimately pay off in million-dollar contracts. The Tide even posted a video prior to their 2022 trip to Knoxville in which To'oto'o said flatly of his decision, "At the end of the day, it's not personal. It's just business."

Henry T was one of 37 Volunteers who transferred out shortly after Jeremy Pruitt was fired, which makes what Josh Heupel has accomplished in his first three seasons as head coach in Knoxville so impressive. First he had to rebuild a depleted roster from the scraps of portal leftovers, then shoehorn those players into his system.

Arizona recently had nine players transfer out in a single day, so what's happening now in Tuscaloosa isn't new, it's just new to the Tide.

Of course, they will continue to sign star recruits in the future and still have several incoming impact freshmen who have stood by their commitment, including Baylor School receiver Amari Jefferson. But with their ace in the hole now spending more time on the lake or the golf course instead of dominating the national recruiting rankings, the playing field has been leveled, and for the first time in nearly two decades, Bama has some ground to make up.

So how quickly DeBoer — who was successful in short stints at Fresno State and Washington but now faces the dual challenge of competing in the Southeastern Conference (the toughest football league outside of the NFL) and doing so while working in the massive shadow cast by Saban's legacy — can tourniquet the Tide's talent hemorrhage will dictate whether a new bronze statue is added on campus or if another coaching search begins.

Welcome back to college football reality, Tide fans.

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com.

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