TUSCALOOSA, Ala.–Most major college football programs have spring games; some charge an entrance fee, some are nationally televised. But Alabama’s “A-Day” spring game is different. It’s been 15 months since Alabama won its last national title, which is seven years in Nick Saban years. During the A-Day game itself, Saban inhabits Bryant-Denny Stadium like an assiduous general, doing everything short of riding in on an elephant. He plays commissioner while letting his assistant coaches handle the minutiae of playcalling. Often, he shrugs his shoulders when the team fails to execute correctly, or just shrugs in general. Saban views his team’s progress like a man who is only pleased by perfection, which means he’s rarely pleased. And ever since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, he’s dealt with the highest expectations and continues to succeed in spite of them. Saban’s first A-Day in 2007 had 92,310 fans packed into Bryant-Denny Stadium, which occurred before the stadium expanded to its current capacity of 101,821 but it remains a spring attendance record. Saban’s arrival brought an optimism and anticipation not felt by fans for close to a decade, when the team endured NCAA sanctions and a revolving door of marginal coaches – some that coached for a few years and left, and some that never coached a game at all. The dark ages of the early 2000s are not talked about anymore, like they never happened. Dennis Franchione never lived here. Coming off of a disappointing end to last season, it was thought that this year’s A-Day would be a return to 2007. The team that graduated the last members of the dynastic run would have a fresh look, one with excitement, with new starters, new recruits and new coaches.
Jim Oakley’s desk has been in Reese Phifer Hall for decades. Over the years, he has amassed a collection of moments and stories of former students – some famous, some not – and recognizable figures that have passed through while he stayed in the same place. His desk is covered with photographs, but the image that stands out on his desk is of his grandson. Will Oakley was a wide receiver for Alabama, and the photo that is on Jim’s desk has Will, in full uniform, standing behind Joe Namath during the pregame coin toss. Will wasn’t a superstar, amassing 20 catches for 266 yards during his career at Alabama, but getting to wear the uniform was all that mattered for his grandfather. Alabama football comes naturally to people like the Oakleys. It isn’t something learned, it’s more instinctive; something to be proud of when the state didn’t have much of anything else. “People around here are very conscious of football, they love football,” Oakley said. “We have a lot of Alabama fans in this state, more than any other school by a large number. You just rally all those people together and you got a crowd of folks interested in a spring game.” Oakley, a faculty member in the School of Communication and Information Sciences, graduated from Alabama before Bear Bryant arrived. He was present at Bryant’s first public appearance as head coach. Born and raised here, he ran newspapers in Central Alabama, just like his father and his father’s father. After washing the ink off his fingers and entering academia, Oakley has played a role in recruiting players – like the school’s only Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram – to major in communications. “Mark and I would go to lunch a lot. We’d go over there to the 15th Street Diner and people would worry the living daylights out of him,” Oakley said. “One lady laid down three $10 bills, wanting him to sign them, and he did. I don’t know what the purpose was but it made her happy.”
While the excitement is there, this year’s A-Day did not break any attendance records.
It was not a return to 2007; it was more like the second half of a 50-point blowout. The smarter fans clinging to the shady sides, moving with the sun as it crept along the stadium seats, while others packed the uncovered lower bowl, crisping in the April sun. Although the 73,506 in attendance turned out to be the smallest in Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa, it was the largest spring game crowd in the country. Multiple factors contributed to this turnout. A major design flaw of this year’s game was a scheduling conflict with Easter weekend: The only deity that could ever take the faithful away from Bryant-Denny is the one many fans worship on Sundays. The other factor was this game offered an incomplete picture of what will eventually be the 2014 Alabama football team. “We have some players coming in here in the fall that are going to get some opportunities to contribute at some critical positions,” Saban said in his postgame press conference. And “critical” is an understatement.
A-Day, in its nature, presents firsts and lasts. It was the first time calling plays for newly hired offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the last opportunity to get a stadium hot dog with sauerkraut and special sauce before the fall, and the last chance for Blake Sims to earn the spot as the starting quarterback. Emerging as the clear favorite during the spring, Sims has awaited his turn to start behind now-legendary Alabama quarterbacks Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron. With those national title winners gone, it was a golden opportunity for Sims to assert himself before a mercenary transfer quarterback arrives and takes what is his. Florida State quarterback Jacob Coker is transferring to Alabama in the summer. After narrowly losing the starting quarterback position to eventual Heisman trophy and national championship winner Jameis Winston, the Mobile, Ala. native is moving back and can play right away. His arm is apparently lethal, he has the correct “Bama Bangs” hairstyle for the job, and he was the backup quarterback for McCarron in high school so the choice makes sense on multiple levels. Saban even actively recruiting Coker before anything was signed or sealed shows the lack of confidence that the coaching staff has with this current crop of passers. Sims’ lack of confidence was obvious on A-Day. Brought out from the hidden cocoon of private practices and closed scrimmages, Sims was tight and nervous. After amassing impressive statistics and garnering the praise of Saban throughout Spring practice, he reverted to how we remember him playing during blowouts last season. When the Crimson Tide was winning big, Sims would come in and attempt a few passes to let the clock expire and give the remaining fans a reason to head for their cars after chanting “Rammer Jammer.” “Blake had a really good spring, and he did a really good job in the scrimmages,” Saban said. “I thought in the game he was trying to speed everything up a bit, and he tried to speed up with it rather than stay in his rhythm. It’s like when a baseball pitcher tries to throw the ball a little harder and all of a sudden he can’t throw a strike.” Sims had his chance, and he’ll have another one when he competes with Coker in the fall, but this is a business of throwing strikes, and players don’t start for Alabama by throwing it just a bit outside.
The 17-14 White team’s defensive victory over the Crimson team on A-Day was disappointing for Nick Saban and most Alabama fans, but for graduating senior Marina Clarke the excuse to have one more walk on the quad during game day was reason enough to attend. Before she entered the stadium, Clarke had a singular request: “After the game I have to take a pic in front of Denny Chimes like I did was when I was little,” Clarke said. The photo was of a 10-year-old Clarke, standing in front of Denny Chimes – a notable, bell tower landmark on the university’s quad – holding one finger up. This photo was taken before she was a student at Alabama; before she thought Alabama, or college in general, was an option. The photo was taken, printed and placed in a talking frame with the message “I love you” and had become her father Michael’s favorite. But this photo signified something different than a No. 1 football team. For a divorced dad, sometimes talking about football is an excuse to talk at all. And a picture in front of a permanent structure can become a memento, a gift on graduation day to a thrilled parent. “Sometimes he calls me randomly and just talks football for 30 minutes,” Clarke said. Two weeks before Clarke was set to become the first person in her family to graduate from a four-year university, A-Day was her last chance to replicate the image during a game day as a student. After the clock expired, many of the remaining fans headed toward the field for an opportunity to get autographs from players and coaches. But Easter Sunday was calling, family was in town and Clarke headed toward the quad. She sidled away from a tailgater’s tent and posed. It wasn’t some asinine piece of fandom like rubbing the foot of Nick Saban’s statue for good luck or having a star running back sign three $10 bills. It was meaningful to Clarke and her dad. The only people that would ever see it; the only ones who would ever care. She held up her finger in a No. 1 and smiled, just like she did when she was 10, just like she and all of Alabama’s fans hope to do again this fall.