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Streak over. Could this be the beginning of the end of the Saban era?

What in the world is going on with Alabama? After losing to Tennessee for the first time in more than a decade, the fans at Neyland Stadium storming the field and tearing down the goalposts, it has become clear that this is not the same Alabama team that has dominated college football in recent years. The loss was the Crimson Tide’s first of the season, but it’s enough to make one ponder: Is the best coach in college football losing his touch?

Oh, by the way, that has nothing to do with Alabama’s 52-49 loss to Tennessee on Saturday. It’s a flashback to 40 years earlier, when the Vols snapped a losing streak to the Tide.

Exactly 40 years ago today — Oct. 16, 1982 — Tennessee defeated Alabama 35-28 in front of 95,342 fans at Neyland Stadium, snapping an 11-year losing streak to the Tide. Fans stormed Shields-Watkins Field after Mike Terry intercepted a Walter Lewis pass in the end zone with 17 seconds remaining to preserve the win for the Vols.

On Saturday, Tennessee’s Chase McGrath booted home a 40-yard field goal as time expired to allow the Vols to snap a 15-game losing streak to Alabama, 52-49. 

It’s hard not to draw similarities between the two games, even though they were played 40 years apart.

In 1982, Alabama was the Goliath of college football. Paul “Bear” Bryant was in his final year at the helm, and in his final year of life, though no one knew either of those things at the time. In 24 seasons in Tuscaloosa, Bryant had won six national championships. And he had turned around the Tide’s rivalry with Tennessee. In the 12 years prior to Bryant’s return to his alma mater, Alabama had beaten Tennessee just twice. He went 5-6-2 against Tennessee in his first 13 years, then won 11 straight, which was the longest streak in the series up until that time.

In 2022, Alabama is again the Goliath of college football. After wandering through the wilderness of a series of administrative blunders and scandals, the Crimson Tide struck gold with the hire of Nick Saban in 2007. In 15 seasons in Tuscaloosa, Saban has won six national championships. And he has turned around the Tide’s rivalry with Tennessee. In the 14 years prior to Saban’s arrival at Alabama, the Tide beat Tennessee just three times. Then Saban won 15 straight, the longest streak in the storied series.

Often, the demise of coaching legends is greatly exaggerated, and folks have certainly been wrongly predicting Saban’s demise for several years. But, sometimes, the cracks begin to show long before the facade crumbles.

In 1982, the first crack was Alabama’s 35-28 loss to Tennessee. The Crimson Tide had started the season 5-0, were ranked No. 2 in the nation, and had national championship aspirations. Tennessee was 2-2-1 and had losses to unranked Duke and unranked Auburn. But on that Third Saturday in October, the unranked Vols pulled off a major upset.

“I think they beat us worse than the score indicated,” Bryant admitted afterward. “They did a fine job, made us look bad on occasions — too many occasions.”

The loss to Tennessee wasn’t a season-ender for Alabama. The Tide won its next two games, and entered the month of November with a record of 7-1. But it hadn’t been easy; Bryant’s team struggled to beat Cincinnati and Mississippi State.

Then came a disastrous November. It started with a visit from LSU on Nov. 6. Tennessee wasn’t the only team that had lost 11 straight games to Alabama. LSU had also lost 11 straight to Bryant’s Tide. But on that afternoon at Legion Field, LSU snapped its losing streak to the Tide with a 20-10 victory. One week later, Southern Miss stunned Alabama with a 38-29 win that knocked the Tide out of the polls for the first time in more than six years. 

After a 23-22 loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, the Tigers’ first win over the Tide in 10 years, Bryant announced his retirement. Alabama had finished sixth in the SEC.

“This is my school, my alma mater. I love it and I love my players. But in my opinion, they deserved better coaching than they have been getting from me this year,” Bryant said in making the announcement.

Bryant, who was 69 at the time, was in failing health. He had smoked heavily and drank heavily for most of his life, had suffered a stroke in 1980, and also suffered from mild heart failure. When asked by a reporter after his final game what he would do since he was no longer coaching, he replied, “Probably croak in a week.” Four weeks later, he died of a massive heart attack.

No one knew on Oct. 15, 1982, when Majors was carried to midfield on his players’ shoulders and leaned over to shake Bear Bryant’s hand as the goal posts were being snapped by jubilant fans, that Bryant had just coached against Tennessee for the final time. But, in hindsight, the writing was probably on the wall as early as that. Bryant had dominated better Tennessee teams than the one Majors fielded in 1982. In his prime, Bryant would have never allowed a Vols team of that caliber to stay within two scores of his Tide. 

Fast-forward to 2022, and questions once again surface: Is change nearing? Bryant didn’t have to deal with retirement speculation very often, even though Alabama law at the time had a mandatory retirement age of 70 for state employees. For one thing, there was no social media and no 24/7 cable sports network in 1982. By contrast, retirement speculation has dogged Saban for the past several seasons.

Saban, of course, denies the retirement rumors. He said last spring, and again in August, that he never thinks about retiring and has no plans to do so. His contract runs through 2030, and he has said that he plans to fulfill it. But the questions trail him, anyway. 

On Sept. 10, Alabama struggled to a 20-19 road win at Texas. The most striking thing about the game was the number of penalties committed by the Tide: 15 of them, which tied a school record for the most penalties in a single game. Saban’s teams are renowned for their discipline and attention to detail; a heavily-penalized Alabama team isn’t the norm. 

During Saturday’s game against Tennessee, Alabama broke its record for penalties in a game, with 17. The last was a pass interference call at the goal line late in the fourth quarter, which wiped off an interception that would have sealed the game for the Tide. Saban’s team also committed a colossal error on a Tennessee punt in the first half, which led to a fumble that the Vols converted into a touchdown to grow their lead from 21-10 to 28-10.

While Saturday’s game was Alabama’s first loss of the season — much like the 1982 loss to Tennessee was the Tide’s first loss of that season — Saban’s team had dropped from No. 1 to No. 3 in the polls after struggling to beat Texas A&M at home a week earlier.

Clearly, there’s something different about this Alabama team. It’s still a team that’s loaded with 5-star talent, but it is a team that lacks the discipline and the unwavering resolve that have been the hallmarks of Saban-coached teams. 

And if you think it’s just opposing teams that are wishing Saban into retirement, think again. Alabama fans are renowned for their impatience, and you don’t have to spend much time perusing the online message boards — another thing that Bryant didn’t have to deal with back in 1982 — to find that the natives are getting restless.

“Maybe it is time for (Saban) to go to the lake and just watch the ducks do what ducks do,” said a poster called westide on TideFans.com after Alabama’s loss to Tennessee. 

Saban will be 71 on Oct. 31 — two years older than Bryant when the Bear retired. And while Saban is in much better health than Bryant was 40 years ago, the rumors of his demise are only going to accelerate if Alabama loses one or more games the rest of the way this season. 

In 1982, the end of an era was signaled when Tennessee broke a long losing streak to Alabama, and a coaching icon stepped away from the game. Only time will tell if history is repeating itself in front of our very eyes.

Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor and publisher. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett, or email him at bgarrett at ihoneida dot com.

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