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The Shaping of the South's Most Dominant Football Team
By Eli Gold
Triumph Books LLCCopyright © 2016 Eli Gold
All rights reserved.
On the Air
In 2008, we tried a new experiment on our broadcast. Kenny "the Snake" Stabler had left as color analyst before the season, so that year I had a different color man by my side each week. We had Antonio Langham, Tyler Watts, Tony Johnson, Steadman Shealy, Bob Baumhower, Chris Mohr ... Come to think of it, who didn't we have? It was interesting for the fans but challenging for the guest analysts (many who had never been on radio before) and it was certainly challenging for our crew.
Then, early in 2009, one name kept coming up: Phil Savage. No one doubted his football credentials. Phil, the executive director of the Senior Bowl since 2012, had been an assistant coach with the Cleveland Browns (under then defensive coordinator Nick Saban), and later, he was named Browns' senior vice president and general manager. He had also worked as director of player personnel for the Baltimore Ravens. And, as a Mobile native and former assistant coach at Alabama (where he got his master's degree), he had deep Alabama roots.
True, he wasn't a radio guy but his knowledge of football and scouting and game plans was extensive. So when Coach Saban mentioned his name as a possible color analyst, everyone was intrigued. Then, in March of 2009, athletic director Mal Moore, who was looking for an analyst for the A-Day game in April, called Savage.
"He said, 'What are you doing April 15?'" said Savage. "I said, 'Other than doing my taxes, I don't know.'"
So we arranged for him to come in and work the A-Day Game, which is actually one of the toughest games to do. There are so many players, many of whom — God bless 'em — are on the scout team and you're never going to talk about them again. You've got three guys wearing number 44 out there. It's a different kind of day. But Phil came in prepared like he was a GM gearing up for the NFL draft. I gave him some basics (it's radio, you can't nod — you have to talk, etc.) and by the end of the first quarter we knew. He was our guy.
"Before I started I told Coach Moore the one thing I'm not is a former Alabama football player," said Savage. "I had no designs on replacing the Snake. In fact, when I called my mom and told her I got the job she said, 'I hope you're good because I love listening to the Snake.' I knew I couldn't bring the personality and legacy he had as a player. I had some big shoes to fill. But what I could bring was some real knowledge about the other teams, Bama's players and what the game plan and strategy might be. I took it as a real challenge."
A good color man has to have a keen knowledge of the subject, particularly on radio. And Phil has this in spades. It's different on TV where you're adding captions to pictures and talking over the next play as the fans are watching it. But on radio, you've got twelve seconds to get in, analyze it, and get out. You're setting it up for the play-by-play guy so you've got to get out quick!
The color guy needs to explain what happened in such a way that keeps the veteran listener entertained but at the same time makes it digestible for the newcomer or casual fan.
"When I got the Alabama job, my mentor, the late Homer Smith, a longtime coach, asked me, 'Do you realize what an opportunity you have to teach football by being the color analyst for Alabama? It doesn't get bigger than that in terms of the college game.' So I took that as a real challenge and a real honor. We can really educate the fans as to what's happening on and off the field," Savage said.
All true. But you only have twelve seconds. It's not at all easy.
I think it helps that we look at the game totally differently. I'm a describer. Phil's a strategist. I describe what goes on, I follow, I see. He looks at the game like a player, a coach, a scout, and a general manager combined.
Another crucial component that Phil brought to the table when he joined our broadcast was his long history with Nick Saban. They worked together under coach Bill Belichick back in the early 1990s so it was a bonus that he knew how Coach Saban worked.
"When Coach Saban first came to Alabama, he was going to go in there and he was going to want things done his way," Savage said. "There were going to be some things that were going to have to change and people were going to have to adjust."
Indeed, when Coach Saban came to town, there were a lot of changes — all for the better as it turned out — and that included the way we did our jobs. For instance, we had to reformat our broadcast because Coach Saban tapes his pregame interview two hours before kickoff. Every other coach I've worked with, from Bill Curry on, taped the interview Thursday or Friday. Often, the time would vary from week to week.
But Coach Saban has always done his interview on game day precisely two hours before kickoff when the team is at the stadium, ready to go. It makes sense. His time on Fridays is incredibly valuable. It works. And we're happy to accommodate it.
The biggest compliments we get as broadcasters are fans listening to our broadcasts — even when they're actually sitting in the stadium. I love to look down into the grandstands from our booth and see all the people with headsets on. They're at the ballgame — live and in person — but even at away games, they bring their Live Sports Radios and they're still listening to us! I can see them laughing or nodding and sometimes they'll turn around, look up toward our booth, and wave or give us a thumbs-up.
People at home also turn down the TV sound and turn on the radio when watching the game. I understand why they do this. The radio broadcast is a little more thorough. It's slanted towards Alabama and by now, Phil and I are like an old pair of broken-in loafers. People are used to us. They know we know the players and that makes them comfortable.
Why else is our broadcast as good as it is? (If I may say so myself!) It's because of our support crew. Tom Brokaw, late of NBC Nightly News, said it best when he signed off from his program for the last time in early December 2004. Brokaw said, "This is a huge team effort. I am the most conspicuous part of the team, but make no mistake about it, it's a huge team effort." So it is with the Crimson Tide Sports Network.
Seated behind Phil and myself during each broadcast is our engineer/producer, Tom Stipe. On Fridays before game days, home and away, Tom reports to the broadcast booth to begin the tedious job of setting up the equipment. Wires upon wires. Cables upon cables. The latest in sophisticated wireless gear, mixers, and studio hookups. It's quite a production. Later, Tom heads down to the locker room to check on transmission lines that will be used on our postgame show.
Tom sees to it that we don't have any technical flaws, which is good because in this age of digital audio transmission, every flaw is magnified. Let's face it, Phil and I work during a game, but Tom really works.
Standing behind Phil and me is our spotter, "Butch" Owens. His real name is Nelson (he said I wouldn't have the guts to put that in this book), and he is one of the most vital cogs in our operation. Butch has worked with me since the middle of the 1989 season. It doesn't matter which league or which network I'm working for, Alabama, NBC, CBS, TNN, or Sports USA Radio, if I'm doing a football game (college, NFL, arena) "Butchie Boy" is my spotter.
What does a spotter do? Butch helps "spot" certain things on every play. He keeps me current on substitutions. He pinpoints the tacklers. He'll watch for key blocks away from the ball that I might not have seen. He relays information to me via a series of hand and arm signals coupled with his pointing to a specially prepared spotting chart that I make for every team.
It's to the point now that I could miss a play totally and re-create it entirely through Butch's hand signals. Often, Butch will write me a note about which play ought to be called next, and, son of a gun, that's the play that'll be run. There is probably no one person more responsible for my growth as a football broadcaster than Butch Owens.
Statistician Brian Roberts sits to my left during every broadcast. Just like Butch, Brian works with me on all of my football broadcasts — Alabama, NFL, all of them. He is a walking, talking, Univac computer. He is accurate and quick, and he has an uncanny feel for what little statistical tidbit would fit into a broadcast at a given moment. Other than the obvious game-related stats, Brian keeps track of career numbers. Who is passing whom on an all-time list of one sort or another. The boy is good! He keeps some strange hours, but he's good.
Our sideline reporter, Chris Stewart, has been with us for many years now. He's had an up-close view of some of the greatest moments in Alabama football history. Although he gets less airtime than Phil or myself, his contributions during a broadcast are vital. He's right down there on the sidelines. He can share the emotions of the moment with us. He's our eyes and ears in and amongst the players and coaches during a game, while Phil and I are upstairs, somewhat removed from the gladiators themselves. And of course, in the case of an injury, it is Chris who is the first one to be able to report on what he is seeing, as the Tide's outstanding medical staff tends to an injured player.
And finally, deserving more than just a mention, is Tom Roberts, who for many decades was our sideline reporter, broadcast host, statistician, basketball color man, dinner and travel coordinator, and all-around great guy and dear friend. The 2015 season was our first without Tom on the air as, after remarrying, he and his wife, Martha, felt that the time was right to broaden their horizons while also further enjoying the grandchildren. So Tom retired and he and Martha became world travelers. He'd always text us. He'd always find a way to listen. But he would do all that from the south of France, or somewhere in Italy, while we were in Starkville or Fayetteville. We missed his presence, but we knew that he was always with us. It's just the image of Tom strolling a beach in France, wearing a Speedo, that I just can't seem to get out of my mind.
Our broadcast team, led by our boss Jim Carabin, is just that — a team. We all have our individual jobs to do, but we always have each other's backs. I know that I'm not the best football broadcaster in the world. I do all right, but I am comforted in knowing that if Phil, Chris, Tom, Butch, or Brian tell me something, I use it on-air without a second thought. I trust them all implicitly. We're all great friends and blessed to be living a life that one could only dream about.
This crew and I feel a huge responsibility to the fans listening in the stadium as well as the fans who aren't at the game with us. There are people who can't come out to the stadium because they're working or they're sick, or they can't afford tickets or the travel expenses. I picture those folks in my mind's eye when I get to work on game day.
Radio has always played an enormous part in Alabama football. During the early championships and first days of Bear Bryant, the games weren't televised. In the late fifties, there was no such thing as ESPN. There were just the over-the-air networks that featured maybe one football game per week. This was for the whole country! In 1957 and 1958, not one Alabama game was televised.
There was very limited TV coverage in those days, so when Alabama played away games, the radio network was your golden connection if you were not one of the lucky few who could travel and get a ticket to the opposing team's stadium. There was no such thing as satellite TV or videotape. Everything was shot on film. Film took time to develop. So the radio was it.
The late Clem Gryska, the longtime Alabama assistant coach who came to work for Coach Bryant in 1960, once shared his stories of having the radio on every weekend before he began attending every game in person.
"I would park the car in the carport," Gryska said, "turn the radio on, and wash the car on Saturday afternoon. I'd turn the hose on, then stop it when I heard the volume of the crowd go up!"
These days, Alabama games are broadcast on stations affiliated with the Crimson Tide Sports Network, which carries the Alabama games (as well as the pregame and postgame shows, and The Nick Saban Show) on some seventy stations plus Sirius/XM Satellite Radio. But this network, which is now a corporate conglomerate consisting of both radio and TV holdings, had some truly humble beginnings.
Bert Bank, our distinguished producer emeritus, who sat with us in the booth on game days until he passed away at age ninety-four in 2009 (he's buried right across from the stadium in a cemetery just across Bryant Drive), got the radio ball rolling in Tuscaloosa back in 1953.
"Lionel Baxter, an outstanding broadcaster at WAPI in Birmingham, asked me to start the network," Bank said. "I had the only FM station in Tuscaloosa at the time. There weren't but two stations carrying Alabama football then, and he wanted the broadcast to originate in Tuscaloosa. Well, I was glad to do it. At the very least, I wanted to get the Alabama games for my station."
The first year, Bert barely got his expenses covered. The next year, he was paid a salary. He hired announcers, began producing shows to go along with the football broadcast, and the network was under way.
Bert had the enormous challenge of starting the radio network during Alabama's less-than-victorious era. In 1953 coach Red Drew's team went 6-3-3, followed by the 1954 season in which the team went 4-5-2. Then of course the next few years were Bama's worst ever — they won just four games in three years. True, fans of the Crimson Tide are loyal, but try selling radio ads or getting additional stations to sign on to the broadcast in that environment!
If anyone was up to a challenge, it was Bert Bank. As a young man and graduate of the University of Alabama, he planned to go to law school. When World War II broke out, however, he joined the Air Force instead. Bert has the incredible distinction of being a survivor of the Bataan Death March. He was held as a POW in Japanese camps for several years. He still speaks to veterans' groups and wrote a book about his experiences. After working in radio for years, he went on to serve in the Alabama legislature. Among his many accomplishments there was passing a bill renaming Denny Stadium as "Bryant-Denny Stadium" in 1975. What an inspirational man.
A few years into Bert's radio career, Alabama hired Paul W. "Bear" Bryant to be its new head coach. Bert knew right away this was terrific news for the school, the team, and the network.
"During our first meeting," Bert said, "Bryant asked me how many stations we had on the broadcast. I said five. He said, 'I don't care if a town only has fifty people. If they have a radio station, I want to be on it.'"
Bert told the coach in order to accomplish that, the team would have to win. Coach Bryant jumped out of his chair and said, "Crank it up, boy. I win!"
As Bert, and everyone else now knows, Bryant was true to his word.
"He knew one thing," Bert said, "and that was to beat you. I played golf with him, and if you beat him one day, you can bet your butt he'll be out there tomorrow looking for you, wanting to get his money back!"
Coach Bryant turned his team into winners immediately. Suddenly, it was no problem signing on new stations and sponsors. Well, almost no problem.
"One day, I asked him to come down and talk to a new sponsor," Bert remembered. "I said, 'Paul, I have a guy coming from Golden Flake potato chips. They're a big, big sponsor and I want you to be nice. If you've got any charm, please show it today!'"
Happily, Golden Flake is still a major Alabama sponsor to this day. (And if I may say so, the makers of the best potato chips and pretzels anywhere.) With a little help from the winning teams of the Bryant era and beyond, the Crimson Tide Sports Network now broadcasts Alabama games all over the state — and then some — every football Saturday. Few fans can travel to every out-of-town game, especially when they are played far away. So it's a thrill to serve as the fans' link to the team.
Excerpted from Crimson Nation by Eli Gold. Copyright © 2016 Eli Gold. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Coach Gene Stalling ix
1 Radio 1
2 Who's That Denny Guy? 13
3 The Wallace Wade Era 25
4 The 1926 Rose Bowl 37
5 Don Hutson 47
6 The Frank Thomas Era 59
7 Harry Gilmer 71
8 The Bear Comes to Bama-1957 81
9 The 1961 Championship 91
10 Integration 101
11 Joe Namath 111
12 Ken Stabler 123
13 The Wishbone 135
14 The '78 Championship-Goal Line Stand 145
15 The Iron Bowl 155
16 The Third Saturday in October 167
17 The Bear Dies 177
18 The Gene Stallings Era 187
19 The 1992 Championship 199
20 Just in the "Nick" of Time 209
21 The 2009 National Championship 219
22 The National Championships of 2011 and 2012 231
23 The Championship of 2015 241