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February 6, 2010

The Tide's top 10 moments of the decade

There's probably never been a decade like it not only in University of Alabama football history, but probably all of college football.

Ten years ago the Crimson Tide was coming off the Southeastern Conference championship, a dominating 34-7 victory over Florida at the Georgia Dome, and ranked third in the preseason Associated Press poll. Only instead of being a contender for the national championship it went in to a tailspin.

As if a scandal regarding Coach Mike DuBose wasn't enough, the Tide limped to a 3-8 finish and school officials were notified shortly after the homecoming loss to Central Florida that the National Collegiate Athletic Association was investigating Alabama for a recruiting scandal that eventually led to a two-year bowl ban, scholarship reductions and five years probation.

Yet even though the Tide had the most coaching changes in the SEC it finished the decade with arguably its best season ever, having vanquished defending champion Florida, secured its 13th national championship and even won the program's first Heisman Trophy.

Here are the top 10 moments of the decade (2000-09):

1. Alabama winning the national championship: The defense created four turnovers and knocked Texas senior quarterback Colt McCoy out of the game with a shoulder injury, while both Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson had 100-yard rushing performances to lead a 37-21 victory against Texas. In the process of securing its first title since 1992, Alabama became the first SEC team to go 14-0 in winning the championship, Nick Saban became the first coach in the modern era to win titles at two different schools, and the Tide celebrated at the same place it won its first championship 84 years previous, the Rose Bowl. "I feel good that I've been able to contribute something significant in this time," Saban said. "I feel there's a tremendous responsibility and obligation to having a high standard of excellence. Because of that tradition, it makes me feel very good we've been able to contribute to that in a positive way."

2. Ingram's Heisman Trophy speech: The sophomore began with, "I'm a little overwhelmed right now. I'm just so excited to bring Alabama their first Heisman winner," and before he was done had brought tears to the eyes of many fans, not just those wearing crimson. The 75th year of the award saw the closest voting ever. Ingram received 227 first-place votes and 1,304 points. Stanford running back Toby Gerhart got 222 first-place votes and 1,276 points, while Texas quarterback Colt McCoy received 203 and 1,145. "The legacy of Alabama football certainly has a void filled," Saban said of his first Heisman winner as well.

3. Florida vanquished: After losing a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the 2008 SEC Championship Game, Alabama forced a rematch a year later. Ingram had 113 rushing yards, three touchdowns and the key play, a 69-yard screen pass, to lead the 32-13 victory. "They seemed like they wanted it a whole lot," Florida cornerback Joe Haden said. Greg McElroy passed for 239 yards and a touchdown to claim the MVP award and the Tide held the ball for nearly 40 minutes and piled up 490 yards against the nation's No. 1 defense. "Our standard was to be as good as Florida," linebacker Cory Reamer said. "Today, we were better than them." The loss also brought Gators quarterback Tim Tebow, the 2007 Heisman winner who picked Florida over Alabama when he was recruited, to tears. "He's a great player," said wide receiver Julio Jones, "but man, we're tired of him."

4. Tyrone Prothro's catch: It was Sept. 10, 2005, and Alabama was struggling against Southern Miss, a team it frequently dominated but was playing its first game of the season after the opener against Tulane had to be rescheduled due to Hurricane Katrina. Down 21-10 late in the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Tide was facing fourth-and-12 at midfield when quarterback Brodie Croyle chucked one toward the end zone. Even though defender Jasper Faulk had near-perfect coverage, Prothro somehow reached around both sides of the defensive back with his arms and managed to catch the ball. As the two tumbled rolled head-over-heels into the end zone, Prothro still kept his grip with both hands even though his right arm was also wrapped around Faulk's head and his left arm was reaching around the defender's right arm and shoulder. "We had to make a play," Prothro calmly said after the 30-21 victory. Known as "The Catch," it was named the Pontiac Game-Changing Performance Play of the Year," and won an ESPY award. He had to limp up to the stage to accept it after sustaining a horrific compound fracture against Florida that ended his career.

5. Mt. Cody topples Tennessee: A tired No. 1-ranked Tide team was playing its fifth SEC opponent in as many weeks and had made numerous uncharacteristic mistakes that gave the Volunteers a chance to steal away the win for Coach Lane Kiffin. However, after UT lined up for a 44-yard field-goal attempt with four seconds remaining, senior nose tackle Terrence Cody burst through and blocked his second field goal of the game to preserve the 12-10 win and send Bryant-Denny Stadium into bedlam. "For the whole team, this was a big win," said Cody, who didn't play Tennessee in 2008 due to a sprained knee. "We knew they were a tough team. They have real good players over there and a good coaching staff. We knew we had to come in strong and it was going to be tough. We had to grind all day."

6. The Saban has landed: At approximately 3:45 p.m. on Jan. 3rd, 2007, Alabama's private jet landed at the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport, where hundreds of fans had gathered in eager anticipation. They didn't even wait for the man wearing a gray suit, lavender shirt and no tie to emerge from the open door to start celebrating, and couldn't wait to give him rock-star treatment. The following day, when Saban was officially announced as the 27th head coach of the Crimson Tide, he didn't hesitate to send a clear and deliberate message to the program's fans, players and boosters, with what instantly became the latest Alabama mantra. "Be a champion in everything that we do," Saban said. "Every choice, every decision, everything that we do every day, we want to be a champion."

7. A major upgrade to the facilities: In addition to a new football building and two major renovations to Bryant-Denny Stadium to add north and south upper decks (which will completed this year), numerous other changes were made both inside and outside to embrace the program's status and history. A seven-story glass curtain gave the northernmost wall a formal face, creating a permanent front entrance that when lit up could easily be seen from University Boulevard, in addition to a new brick plaza, home to both the Walk of Champions and Coaches Walk. Both will have new additions to celebrate the 2009 season. The Walk of Champions is inlaid with granite tablets commemorating the school's title seasons, with the national championship plaques including the year, coach, record and players. The Coaches Walk features 9-foot tall bronze statues of the coaches who have led Alabama to a national championship: Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, Gene Stallings, and soon Saban will fill the lone open spot.

8. The Tide drives to win at Auburn: Down by one point, Alabama got the ball at its own 21-yard line with 8:27 remaining at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Fifteen plays, 79 yards and seven minutes and three seconds later, running back Roy Upchurch was holding up the football in the end zone in celebration. "Winning the Iron Bowl, I don't think it gets any better than that," Upchurch said of the 26-21 victory after Auburn's desperation heave into the end zone was knocked down by safety Justin Woodall. McElroy, who endured a midseason swoon, completed 7 of 8 passes, including four to Jones. "As you see, he's a cool customer when the pressure was on against Auburn," tight end Colin Peek said.

9. A-Day, 2007: School officials estimated that maybe 50,000 fans might show for A-Day, the final of 15 practices to conclude spring workouts, and planned for a record-breaking 60,000, but wound up having to turn away fans by the hundreds, if not thousands, at the gate after Bryant-Denny Stadium had exceeded its capacity of 92,138. "I thought it was awesome," starting quarterback John Parker Wilson said of the packed house to essentially see Saban's debut. "It's ridiculous," cornerback Simeon Castille added. "I never could have imagined that there would be that many people, but it made it more fun for both teams. We just wanted to go out there and show how hard we've been working." For the record, the White team beat the Crimson squad 20-13. "It shows what kind of passion and support we have at the University of Alabama," Saban said. "It certainly makes me feel great about being here as the coach. I just hope we can continue to channel all that energy in a positive way so we can get to where we want to go and continue to build this program into something special."

10. Clutch performances in 2005: Kicker Jamie Christensen, nicknamed "Money," made last-second game-winning field goals against Ole Miss, Tennessee and Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Safety Roman Harper knocked the ball loose from fullback Corey Anderson and through the end zone for a touchback with 5:08 remaining to key a 6-3 victory against the Volunteers. Alabama (10-2) won without scoring an offensive touchdown against Mississippi State as Matt Miller recovered a fumble on the second half kickoff caused by Jimmy Johns and scored a 15-yard return, and senior defensive tackle Rudy Griffin scored on a 17-yard interception return. Although Christensen called his 45-yard Cotton Bowl knuckle-ball field goal "ugly," Croyle said, "Coming into Alabama, that's what you dream of: Your last game, in the Cotton Bowl, you got two minutes to go score."

Two honorable mentions:

The Tide survives sanctions: On Feb. 1, 2007, Alabama emerged from arguably its darkest period ever when its probationary status with the National Collegiate Athletic Association expired. Although the athletic department's problems stemmed back to before the 1993 Sugar Bowl, when defensive back Antonio Langham signed a cocktail napkin for a sports agent and a family member accepted a loan, they carried over and dramatically escalated this past decade. At the heart of the issue was a recruiting scandal which resulted in 22 penalties (12 of them self-imposed), and allegations that booster Logan Young, a wealthy Memphis businessman, had paid approximately $150,000 to a high school football coach to influence star defensive tackle Albert Means to accept a scholarship to play for the Tide. Despite Alabama cooperating with investigators the NCAA sentenced it a two-year bowl ban, five years of probation, and the loss of 21 scholarships over a three-year period. "They were absolutely staring down the barrel of a gun," infraction committee chairman Thomas Yeager said at the time. "These violations are some of the worst, most serious that have ever occurred." Alabama is again under probation due to a widespread textbook scandal, but the football program's years of chaos appear to be in the rearview mirror.

Interim coach Joe Kines on the sideline of the 2006 Independence Bowl (where Andre Smith ran in a touchdown).



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