CECIL HURT: Alabama football home opener a metaphor for the year 2020
The newest version of Bryant-Denny Stadium will be open to the public on Saturday, a glittering edifice that will set the standard for 21st-century SEC playing venues.
The crowd that will be on hand for that debut wouldn’t quite have filled the stadium after a previous construction addition, the one completed in 1937.
Such is America in 2020.
The transition of Alabama’s stadium as the permanent (and symbolic) home of Crimson Tide football after nearly 60 years of a shared (and one-sided) relationship with Legion Field in Birmingham has long since been settled. Even before the final games in the early 2000’s wrapped up the contractual relationship, the future of college football had gone in one direction and Legion Field had gone in another. The sport was moving forward, economically speaking, at light speed. The old venue in Birmingham stayed stuck in approximately 1966, doing little more than routine maintenance while in Tuscaloosa, there were decks and catered skyboxes. Also, not to be underestimated, there was an aesthetically pleasing campus atmosphere and a simple, if increasingly crowded, access to other entertainment. The newest version of Bryant-Denny Stadium is the culmination of that.
The celebration, though, will be smaller than expected. Coronavirus, and the necessary precautions to prevent its spread, took care of that. Approximately 20,000 people will be on hand to see and hear firsthand all the bells and whistles meant for 100,000. There will be no tailgating allowed on campus. Sentimental types who understandably want to welcome football season, the great fall ritual of this state, are being urged to watch elsewhere if they don’t have a ticket. Tuscaloosa will still be busy, of course, but not in a grandiose way. The austerity imposed by the financial ramifications of COVID-19 could serve to slow the SEC’s facilities arms race, so Saturday might be a curious hybrid of high tide and a longer, less hectic pause before more spending and expansion (or luxurification) can occur.
Does all that affect what happens on the field when Alabama kicks off against Texas A&M this Saturday? Probably not, except that home-field advantage isn’t the same with 20,000 screaming fans as it is with 100,000. One weekend is a small sample size for conclusive declarations, but road teams did go 5-2 last weekend and one wonders if a full house might have made a difference for LSU or South Carolina. That’s not a political stance, since even the current 20% standard in effect across most of the SEC may prove to be too high. It simply means that you won’t have the same levels of noise and disruption for visiting teams.
“What I’ve tried to emphasize to our players is that it comes down to ‘what is your DNA?’” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “There are not going to be the same external factors to provide motivation. You have to be motivated within yourself. I don’t think we did a very good job of that in the first game so hopefully we’ll do a better job of that.”
Saban went on to point out other differences in this most unusual debut, from isolating players’ families due to social distancing, to the absence of visiting celebrities (notably alumni currently in the NFL) to the absence of the 100 or so recruits who usually watch from the Alabama sidelines and get some personal time with the coaching staff.
“There’s no question (that we will miss recruiting),” Saban said. “But we all have to adjust and it’s better than the alternative, which is having no football at all. This is important to the players, that they get the chance to play.”
That’s true, in this season of adaptation. Expectations remain high, even if the full expression of that may not come until September 2021. In the meantime, Saban says, you make the best of the situation, or, as he phrased it in perfectly 2020 fashion:
“It is what it is is the way it is."
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt