Fans rise with the Tide, as Alabama basketball rolls into Sweet 16 of March Madness

Mark Hughes Cobb
The Tuscaloosa News

Basketball fans suffer a bad bounce, living in a football town. That's especially true when the University of Alabama claims 18 national championships on the gridiron, while collecting no NCAA titles — yet — on the men's court. 

Stan Adams grew up a fan of Crimson Tide sports, but it wasn't until a strong early 20th-century men's hoops run under head coach Mark Gottfried that the UA grad, now director of sports for Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports, realized: "Wow, Alabama has a basketball team," he said, laughing.

Right now, the Tide most definitely has a team, No. 5 in the nation, about to take on UCLA in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 at 6:15 p.m. Sunday, after having swept both the SEC regular season and tournament championships.

Though money is on Gonzaga and Baylor to battle for the top spot, oddsmakers, prognosticators and fans expect Alabama to make a strong run at Final Four. If so, it'd be the first time in that bracket for the Tide.

Young Alabama fans cheer on their team as they take on Maryland during the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Monday, March 22, 2021, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind. Mandatory Credit: Alton Strupp/IndyStar via USA TODAY Sports

"Alabama fans can be pretty demanding, I would say even unrealistic in their expectations, sometimes," said Matthew Kelley, a devotee since Wimp Sanderson checked in as head coach.

Kelley hopes new fans will be drawn in, and old ones reassured, by not just this season's wins, but by the system of tough defense balanced with buckets of three-pointers — "In the NBA, they call it '3-and-D'," Kelley said — being instituted by head coach Nate Oats, in his second season guiding the Tide. "It's about building a culture," he said.

While working at UA, Jackie Wuska couldn't say it out loud, but she's actually a bigger fan of hoops than of that other sport.

"This is so much more than just a football school," said Wuska, in her second year as president of the Tuscaloosa Tip-Off Club, a booster organization founded roughly 53 years ago under C.M. Newton, the coach hired by Paul W. "Bear" Bryant in 1968 to bolster UA basketball.

The 2019 hiring of Oats helped membership in the Tip-Off Club grow 29 percent, said Wuska, president and CEO of United Way of West Alabama, and the excitement is palpable. Fans are seeing the payoff from dedication over up-and-down years, under previous leadership. They're feeling their Oats.

Wuska heard from assistant coach Antoine Pettway that the team was "blown away" by hundreds who greeted the returning SEC champs at Coleman Coliseum two weeks ago. It's the kind of support shown more often for returning football champs.

Alabama Athletics Director Greg Byrne congratulates Alabama Head Coach Nate Oats after Alabama defeated Auburn and celebrated the Tide's regular season SEC Championship Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Coleman Coliseum. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

"They're fired up," said Greg Byrne, UA director of athletics. "And that's what we want the fans to be, excited by our programs, in fall, but also throughout the winter and in spring.

"Obviously, a lot of our fans and our community want to see us be great in men's basketball, be great in women's basketball...." he said, noting gymnastics recently won its 10th SEC championship, and that the track, rowing, women's swimming and diving and other teams have ranked high this year.

Men's baseball — which leads the SEC in all-time wins with more than 2,500, and has scored 13 regular-season and seven tournament SEC titles — and women's softball -- winners of a 2012 national championship, and 11 SEC championships — is expected to continue prospering, he added. And basketball's a key to that culture of excellence.

"This is an absolute dream, this season," said City Councilman Kip Tyner, who considers himself an anomaly, another longtime Tuscaloosan who loves basketball a little more than he does football, dating back to days when his father would take him to games in Foster Auditorium.

“We’re finally seeing we can be a championship city all around," he said. "It's a great time to be crimson.”

Champions all around

In Tuscaloosa, football is the gravitational black hole, drawing everything into its event horizon. Football’s the sun around which all the planets, moons and other satellites orbit. Football’s the monetary angel, the cash cow, the goose that lays the gold that fuels the entire sports ecosystem, adding a not-insignificant chunk to Tuscaloosa's economy.

Whatever overwrought image you choose, Bryant-Denny Stadium casts a long shadow, one that engulfs even fellow Tide champions in gymnastics, softball, golf and other sports. Picturing UA means envisioning statues of Bear Bryant and Nick Saban looming over a stately walkway leading to the 10th-largest stadium in the world.

Basketball fans have those images embedded, too. Football's unavoidable, growing up here, attending school at UA.

But UA hoops fans have also got cardboard Wimp face masks, and the repainted center court A from Coleman's "Plaid Palace," drawn from the coach's loud tartan jackets, a rough equivalent to the Bear's houndstooth hats.

They've got proud memories of Newton recruiting UA's first Black athlete, Wendell Hudson, the year before Bryant signed Wilbur Jackson, and decades later of student groups such as Mark's Madness and Crimson Chaos churning Coleman into an intimidating court to visit.

They've got the clarity of grace and power not covered in padding, and the immediacy of feeling that a crowd's reactions can power emotions, turn a game's momentum.

"I love football, but I don't necessarily recognize those fellas on the streets, because they're wearing helmets," Wuska said. "With basketball you see their facial expressions as the game unfolds. You can form a personal connection with them. You recognize them on the street to say 'Hey, we're proud of you; you're our team.' "

Kelley's wife, Kelly Pivik, describes herself as a basketball widow each March, vowing to write him letters, and send photos of their son. She's joking. Mostly. 

"When it is played unselfishly, when they're passing the ball ... it's like poetry in motion," said Kelley, an instructor of English and psychology at Shelton State Community College, and a fan of both NBA and college ball.

He believes Alabama basketball will continue to ascend.

"One of the things people have said my entire life: 'Alabama is a football school; it can't be a basketball school,' " he said.

Kelley stuffs that notion in your face, noting Florida, Oklahoma and Miami have, at various points in his lifetime, boasted excellent programs in both football and basketball. Why not Alabama?

Closing on a century

Crimson Tide football has been around roughly 129 years, kicking off in 1892. Tide men's basketball falls just short of a century, begun in 1923, two years before the football team, led by running back and later Hollywood cowboy-movie star Johnny Mack Brown, would score its first national championship in the Rose Bowl.

Tide basketball really began to rise in 1968, when Bryant, not only a former UA tight end, and head-coaching legend, but the school’s athletic director, sought out former Kentucky player Newton. That same year UA opened the $4.2 million Memorial Coliseum, later renamed Coleman, to replace Foster. The coliseum seats a little more than 15,000, while WPA-era Foster could hold only about 3,800.

Over 12 seasons, Newton’s teams went 211-123, with three straight SEC titles, the only program to hit that streak besides Kentucky. His chief assistant Sanderson outdid the old boss even better in his 12 years at the top, going 267-119, winning four SEC tournaments, and making the Sweet 16 five times. UA reached its next pinnacles under Gottfried, from 1998 through 2009, yet still took no NCAA crowns.

Tide women’s basketball only began in 1974, but has seen some peaks, advancing to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament’s Final Four in 1994, and to the Sweet 16 six times, with 10 overall appearances. 

Although not part of the athletic department, UA also sports men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams, both multiple times national champions: the men in 2013, 2018 and 2019, and the women in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021, having won that seventh title earlier this month.

Though UA men's basketball hasn't made it all the way to the end of March Madness, that's not to say it hasn't produced champions, and future NBA stars. Next to perennial powerhouse Kentucky, Alabama has won the second-most SEC championships. It's produced rafts of NBA players from old-schoolers like Reggie King, Leon Douglas and T.R. Dunn, up through Ennis Whatley, Robert Horry, James "Hollywood" Robinson, Latrell Sprewell, Antonio McDyess, Gerald Wallace, Mo Williams and JaMychal Green, and on to more recent stars such as Collin Sexton, a first-round draft pick in 2018, by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The NCAA ring has been within shooting distance before, when the Tide went to No. 1 briefly in 2003, beating No. 1-seeded Stanford, reaching the Elite Eight for the first and — thus far only — time, losing to Connecticut, the team that went on to become national champs. Pre-NCAA, UA was retroactively recognized as a national champion for its 1929-1930 season, by the now-defunct Premo-Poretta Power Poll.

Winning the FOGs

"We're a champion school. We don't have to be just a football school. We could be just as big in basketball as in football," Adams said. "We can play off each others' strengths, be each others' recruiting tools."

That will depend in part on winning over what he and old school friends call FOGS: Football-only Gumps, who neglect any other of UA's sports. But men's basketball also needs to woo back fair-weather fans who drifted in stormier seasons.

"Some of those people on the fence, we're starting to see some of them come back," Adams said.

Growing up, Wuska named her high-leaping family cat Leon, for 6-foot, 10-inch center Leon Douglas, who played for UA from '72 to '76 before jumping to the NBA.

"When we're consistently a solid NCAA contender, I think people are going to make it a priority to get basketball tickets, get season tickets," she said. "Once you've got that kind of support, one down season will not affect the program.

"I think if we can keep coach Oats happy, we're going to continue to see growth."

Kelley concurs.

"We've got a coach that, if he doesn't get lured away by a bigger program, like a North Carolina, then we've got a guy who can be here for 25 years," he said.

Sports analysts such as Aaron Torres are saying the hottest prospects in the nation are looking at UA as a basketball school now, Adams said, impressed not just by wins, but by Oats' approach. Even better, UA's worked at retaining in-state talent that in the past may have decamped for Kentucky or Duke.

"I think once you hired Nate, you had a system in place," Adams said.

Just as football prosperity feeds UA athletics, the school as a whole, the community and state, any spreading accomplishments from other disciplines help fuel the future.

"I think having success in your athletic department, no matter the sport, gives you the opportunity to show you can have success in many areas," Byrne said.

It's alluring to show prospective student athletes that UA invests heavily in their academic, nutritional, mental health and medical care, along with instilling virtues and lessons in life skills and personal development.

"We can show it's as good an experience as anybody has in the country," Byrne said.

March Madness forecast

Like so much else in the past pandemic year, the Tuscaloosa Tip-Off Club's annual banquet was canceled in 2020. Members would like to see it return for 2021, something Wuska mentioned to Coach Oats on Zoom.

"He said, 'I'm fine with having a banquet if we have something to celebrate,' " she said, laughing.

Byrne gave up making predictions for Lent 25 years ago. "In March, it's all about taking it one game at a time," he said.

Looking ahead, assuming UA bests UCLA, as expected, Kelley hopes Michigan beats Florida State, setting up an Elite Eight fight between the Wolverines and the Tide.

"I think Alabama matches up very well with Michigan," he said. "I think Michigan will have a problem with our quickness. ... Though for a casual fan, I could see the matchup with Florida State being more fun, because that could be a tighter game."'

Tyner foresees Gonzaga meeting Alabama in the Final Four, with Arkansas and Houston in the other half of that bracket.

"Just because I didn't want to jinx us, I've got Gonzaga eliminating Alabama, and winning it all," he said. But of course he'd love a Cinderella story.

"I think Alabama is going to be the hardest team out. I think it's going to be hard to beat Alabama," Tyner said. "This team is just on such a special mission, and they truly love each other."

Alabama guard John Petty Jr. (23) cuts down the nets after Alabama defeated Auburn and celebrated the Tide's regular season SEC Championship Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Coleman Coliseum. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Kelley's keeping expectations realistic as well.

"Of course I would love to see Alabama shock the world," he said, and go all the way. "But if they make the Final Four, I will be jumping up and down."

Adams also predicts Final Four, though he was already pleased when Alabama reached Sweet 16.

"But if you get that kind of John Petty we had the other night (shooting guard John Petty Jr. hit 44.4 percent of three-pointers against Maryland) we could beat anybody in the country," he said.