Sports

Keep the faith: Turnarounds can happen

For an overwhelming majority of college football fans, this is not a happy time. The season is down to two teams, Alabama and Texas, which in turn means that fans of the other 118 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision are feeling pretty low. It's a time to brood over the fact that both teams can't lose. One of the teams in the Bowl Championship Series title game is going to be No. 1.

Despite the hiring of coach Brian Kelly from Cincinnati, Notre Dame fans have it worse. Some in the sports news media say the Irish program will never recapture its former glory. Notre Dame, the argument goes, is a relic no matter what superstar coach the team hires.

Fans of these teams may not want to hear from a gloating Alabama fan about why they should be optimistic. (It's doubtful Notre Dame fans ever want to hear from an Alabama fan.) But we have a lot in common. When it comes to wallowing in hopeless self-pity, 'Bama fans have been there, done that. And not that long ago.

Ten years ago, I spent a season following Crimson Tide fans around in a beat-up R.V. to try understand the fan mind for my book "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer." As with this season, Alabama went up against Florida in the SEC championship game. It was a rematch - Mike DuBose's Crimson Tide had beaten Steve Spurrier's Gators in the Swamp, giving Florida its first home loss in six seasons - and few thought Spurrier was going to let Alabama's decidedly less clever coach win another one.

And yet the Tide hung with the Gators in the first half, then blew the game wide open in the third quarter. The final was 34-7, and we Alabama fans were on an extreme high.

It didn't take long before the flow of joy was corked. What followed was one of the epic undoings in college football. Preseason favorite to win it all in 2000, Alabama went 3-8. DuBose was fired, and over the next five years, Alabama churned through three more coaches - Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula - recruiting violations, even embarrassments involving coaches at strip clubs.

When Alabama fired Shula in 2006, no shortage of voices called the search for a new coach useless. Alabama wasn't in a rut - it was done for good. The landscape of college football had shifted, and Alabama was a sad relic, undone by arrogance and a fatal sense of entitlement. Alabama fans began to wonder: Has some cosmic force aligned against us? Are we cooked - forever?

Nick Saban quickly turned the ship around. Now, Alabama is ranked No. 1 and favored in the BCS championship game against Texas.

As heartening as the Tide's turnaround should be to Michigan and Notre Dame fans, the real cause for optimism lies not in who is ranked No. 1, but who is in the rest of the top 10. TCU, Cincinnati and Boise State are all undefeated and can legitimately claim that they should be playing for the national championship.

Look at what Paul Johnson has accomplished at Georgia Tech in two seasons, or Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, or Bo Pelini at Nebraska. In the past decade, Texas Tech, LSU, Southern California and Oklahoma have made extraordinary U-turns. The cycle of boom and bust seems more the norm than the exception. Long-running streaks of domination - like those of Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida State and Miami - seem far less likely. And that means more room for everybody else.

So my advice to Irish fans, Wolverine fans and the like: lighten up. Turnarounds can happen, if not overnight, at least a lot more quickly than you suspect.

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