Nick Saban's Tide is rising at Alabama

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Alabama has won a record 21 Southeastern Conference football championships, but none since 1999, the program's longest drought ever.

The Crimson Tide has appeared in an unmatched 56 bowls, but in 2002 and '03 missed the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 1957 and '58.

Alabama has won or shared seven modern-era national titles, but none since 1992.

Conclusion: Bear Bryant would not be pleased.

Hunch: But he'd like the trend line.

As Alabama prepares for Saturday's opener against Virginia Tech, third-year coach Nick Saban has the Tide poised for its first sustained run since Bryant retired in 1982.

If, and this is a big "if," Saban can tame his gypsy ways.

Alabama was 12-0 last year before losing the SEC championship game to Florida and the Sugar Bowl to Utah. Still, the Tide finished sixth in the polls, its highest season-ending ranking in 14 years.

Led by eight returning defensive starters, including consensus All-America nose guard Terrence Cody, Alabama is No. 5 in the preseason media and coaches' polls. Moreover, Rivals.com ranked Saban's last two recruiting classes tops nationally, with another elite haul expected in 2010.

Yes, Urban Meyer at Florida and Les Miles at LSU present considerable SEC challenges. And no, Saban won't win nine SEC titles in 11 years, as Bryant did from 1971-81.

But the three losing seasons this decade? The NCAA sanctions that denied Alabama a bowl in 2002? The revolving door that's employed eight head coaches since Bryant?

Such embarrassments and declines figure to cease if Saban gets hooked on Dreamland Bar-b-que — "Big Daddy" Bishop opened shop in '58, the year Bear arrived, and still serves loaves of gummy white bread with his slabs of ribs.

Last week, Saban agreed to a contract extension that runs through 2017 and certainly enhances an annual salary that already was an eye-popping $3.9 million, nearly double what Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer makes ($2.1 million and change).

But contract durations mean little in coaching, especially for a job-hopper such as Saban.

Alabama is his fifth head-coaching stop, and none of the others — Toledo, Michigan State, LSU and the Miami Dolphins — lasted more than five years. But no one should doubt his effectiveness, at least on campus.

In 13 seasons as a college big whistle, Saban is 110-50-1. His .686 winning percentage trails only Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Florida State's Bobby Bowden, Penn State's Joe Paterno and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier among active Football Bowl Subdivision coaches.

Saban, 57, is the only current FBS coach with at least 10 years' experience to never endure a losing season, though in 2007 his first Alabama edition walked a tightrope. After opening 6-2, the Tide dropped four straight — Louisiana-Monroe at home was the nadir — before salvaging a winning record with an Independence Bowl victory over Colorado.

Last season, Alabama opened with a 34-10 cuffing of No. 9 Clemson and added conquests of No. 3 Georgia and No. 15 LSU en route to 12-0. Several outlets named Saban national coach of the year, much as they did in 2003 when he guided LSU to a shared national title with Southern California.

"It's not just good athletes on the field," Beamer said of Alabama. "They get 'em coached up."

Few, if any, coached 'em up like Bryant. He led Alabama to 25 winning records in as many years, and five of his players earned induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including center Dwight Stephenson of Hampton High.

In 1973, Bryant's Tide handed Virginia Tech its most infamous defeat, 77-6. The Hokies surrendered 748 yards rushing that day, more than half of what they allowed in 14 games last season (1,462).

Times have changed dramatically — for both programs.

Ray Perkins, Bill Curry, Gene Stallings ('92 national title), Mike Dubose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price (extracurriculars benched him before he coached a game), Mike Shula and Saban have since occupied the corner office at 323 Paul Bryant Dr. — don't forget Bryant-Denny Stadium and the Bryant Museum.

Alabama's 75-51 record the last 10 years ranks sixth among the SEC's 12 programs. A 41-23 mark the last five years is fifth.

That's the embodiment of mediocrity and intolerable in Tuscaloosa, and Saban knows it.

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime

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