TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – At 7:30 Central Time, the streets of Tuscaloosa were deserted.
The entire town, it seemed, was in front of televisions, watching their beloved Crimson Tide take on – and quickly dismantle – the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. They watched en masse in restaurants and bars filled to the brim, they watched in ones and twos in coffee shops, dorm rooms, and the university's Student Center.
Parking lots at the local Publix grocery store and Barnes & Noble were virtually empty. This is the Tide we're talking about, and in Tuscaloosa, Alabama football is a religion unto itself. It's the only college town in America where a national championship might just be part of the routine.
"This is a decent night," said Brian Ahmed, owner of the Full Moon Bar-B-Que just off campus. "Decent," in this case, translates to every single seat taken, mostly by Tide fans of a certain age. (The students stick closer to campus.) "On [Saturday] game days, there's a line out the door."
It's the same story at The Houndstooth, one of many bars on the university's Strip, standing in the shadow of looming Bryant-Denny Stadium. The crowds were there – in this case, college students still finding the limits of their tolerance, and not quite mastering the finer points of grownup pursuits like cigar-smoking.
But they had no trouble shouting "Roll Tide." Heck, the pets in this town could probably give a passable "Roll Tide." Remember that ESPN commercial from a couple years back where people throughout 'Bama country say "Roll Tide" in every conceivable situation – weddings, birthdays, funerals? It didn't go far enough. People say "Roll Tide" (only acceptable variation: "Roll [Censored]ing Tide") more often than they actually draw breath in Tuscaloosa.
Well, almost as much anyway.
They had plenty of reason to say it Monday night. From the three opening drives that resulted in touchdowns to the absolute defensive mastery of the Irish, Tide fans had absolutely nothing to complain about from the moment the game began.
Prosperity, though, has its price. With the end in sight, Tide fans began grumbling about every Irish first down, every flag against Alabama. There was no mercy in Tuscaloosa, no good-job good-effort. They didn't just want victory; they wanted domination. They wanted Alabama to beat Notre Dame so bad that the Tide would retroactively rewrite "Rudy" into a story of humiliation, not triumph.
As the game wore on, the campus itself was strangely quiet. Almost no one walked the expansive Quad where, on Tide Saturdays, tents and tailgates cover every inch of grass. There were distant shouts, yes, but Tuscaloosa was virtually silent. The bells of Denny Chimes, the tower on one edge of the quad, echoed across campus every 15 minutes.
But then the Tide ran out the clock, and the players dumped a cooler on Nick Saban, 'Bama having put a 42-14 thumping on Notre Dame, that's when the city of Tuscaloosa erupted. Fireworks blasted from every corner of campus. A train skirting nearby sounded a long whistle. Crowds of fans on foot and in cars shouted "Roll Tide" to each other as they descended on The Strip.
There, police had shut down the intersection to allow fans to run wild in the streets. (They've done this before, you see.) Students and Tide fans jammed University Boulevard, many riding on shoulders, virtually all holding up phones to capture the moment for posterity. One young woman waved a sign that read, "TEBOW CRIED, CAM LIED, TREES DIED, NOTRE DAME TRIED, ROLL TIDE." That's some catchall trash-talk right there.
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After an hour or so of "Roll Tide!" and "S-E-C" cheers, "Seven Nation Army" chants and hugs all around, the crowd on The Strip slowly dispersed. Nary a flame was applied to a single couch. There were sirens, yes, but no riots or property destruction. One of the biggest crowds in the city was a well-behaved line at a local sporting goods store, where hundreds waited long after midnight to buy the very first championship T-shirts the moment they were available.
"Everybody's just fine when we win," said Brad Roberson, the doorman at The Houndstooth. "When we lost to LSU, people were pulling [stuff] off the walls. But when we win, it's just fun."
At the Walk of Champions, the brick walkway that runs from University Boulevard to the steps of darkened Bryant-Denny Stadium, a lone police officer stood watch. Behind him, the statues of Alabama's national championship-winning coaches stood watch. While the others, including Bear Bryant, stand in stately reflection, Saban's statue is leaning forward, frozen in mid-encouraging clap. There are two dates behind Saban's statue, 2009 and 2011 – and there's room for much more.
And therein lies the prevailing mood in Tuscaloosa: not just anticipation, but expectation. Alabama fans don't just hope they'll win national championships, they expect it. And whether they've got 15 (their count) or 10 (the NCAA's count) doesn't really matter. They've got the last two running and three of the last four, and there's no reason not to expect many more to come.
Bear Bryant used to tell his young players who scored touchdowns "when you get in the end zone, act like you'd been there before." That legacy lives on, even among students born a decade after his passing. Tuscaloosa celebrates, yes … but then again, it's been here before.
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