- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Saturday was A-Day at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. About 35,000 showed up for the spring game at Bryant-Denney Stadium. Vendors were out in force. Hotels were booked solid.

“It was like a regular football weekend,” said Gerry Phillips, a cardiologist who lives in Mobile.

This happens every year. Thanks mainly to legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who won six national championships and left a legacy his successors have never been able to match, the passion has not waned, even when the program is down. It’s the same way at Auburn, the Crimson Tide’s main rival located about 130 miles to the south.

In other words, the entire state is one big tailgate party, its residents consumed by football year-round.

“It’s a religion, almost, a full-time thing,” said Phillips, president of the Mobile chapter of Alabama’s booster group, the Red Elephant Club. Some might question the “almost” part.

But this particular A-Day was different. Something else was going on, albeit in another time zone. About two hours after kickoff, the Alabama basketball team tipped off its NCAA tournament second-round game in Seattle. Alabama, seeded eighth in the Phoenix regional, was a big underdog against top-seeded and top-ranked Stanford. But the Tide upset the Cardinal 70-67 to roll to the Sweet 16 and a date with Syracuse on Thursday.

The football fans got back to their homes or hotels in time to catch most of the action. Phillips didn’t have to move at all. From the comfort of a luxury suite, he saw the Tide dispel the quaint, oft-quoted homily that there are just three seasons in Alabama — football, spring football and football recruiting.

They play some pretty good hoops there, too. And not just at Alabama. The next day, Alabama-Birmingham, which is about 50 miles away, pulled an even bigger surprise. Seeded ninth in the St. Louis regional, the Blazers stunned the top-seeded squad in the entire tournament, Kentucky, to make it two teams from the state in the Sweet 16. UAB plays Kansas on Friday.

“It’s an unusual sports story to have UAB and Alabama in the final 16,” former UAB coach Gene Bartow said.

And even though the story has nothing to do with football, it’s a pretty big deal.

“It really is,” Phillips said. “Alabama is kind of known for its football legends, Coach Bryant and all, but it’s a good sports state in general. When something like this happens it generates a lot of interest.”

Former Tide coach Wimp Sanderson said, “When people think of football they think of Alabama, but Alabama basketball has also been very good.”

Alabama had some good teams under C.M. Newton in the 1970s that were overshadowed by Bryant. Under Sanderson, hired by Bryant after he retired and became athletic director, the Tide went to the Sweet 16 six times (but no further). Sanderson now does a radio talk show in Birmingham with an old adversary, former Auburn coach Sonny Smith.

Alabama and Auburn reached the Sweet 16 together in 1985 and 1986, but this is the first time Alabama and UAB have gone this far in the same year (The schools never play each other during the season. They have met just once, in the NIT in 1993).

UAB has fielded a basketball team only since 1978. But it was an instant success under Bartow, who came from UCLA, and hoops always has been bigger than football there. The Blazers made their first NCAA appearance just three years later and reached the Sweet 16 for the only time in 1982 — until now.

Not only did Bartow literally build a program from scratch, he had to contend with a football-drenched environment.

“It’s a football state, and the media goes football 365 days a year,” Bartow said from Memphis, where he works as an adviser to Grizzlies general manager Jerry West. “We were trying to create and build as much of a fan base for basketball as we could. There were a lot of basketball fans as well as football fans, but there’s no doubt if a vote was taken it’s more football-oriented than basketball.

“We had a couple of years where UAB and Auburn and Alabama all had really good teams. We were all drawing pretty well, but you need to win games and have quality opponents year in and year out, where football sells out whether they play Oklahoma or someone other than Oklahoma.”

Football always might sell out at Alabama, but the program has been beset by problems the last few years, not the least of which include NCAA sanctions and the messy firing of coach Mike Price. This year’s basketball team has provided some positive news.

“You’ve got to have something to holler about,” said Harry Lee, a 1954 Alabama graduate and secretary-treasurer of the A Club, an alumni group of past lettermen. “The whole state is pumped up for basketball.”

Lee also noted in passing that at the last “Bryant Family Reunion,” more than 600 people named for the old coach showed up. “They just pile in here,” he said.

Still, he added, “We’re just rejoicing and smiling over what’s going on with basketball.”

Tide coach Mark Gottfried played for Sanderson during the 1980s and went to three Sweet 16s. He was a member of the family. Not so with second-year Blazers coach Mike Anderson, who not only came in as an outsider, but is the first UAB basketball coach not named Bartow. Anderson followed Murry Bartow, who replaced his dad in 1996.

The success of Anderson and the Blazers comes at a welcome time for UAB fans, also. Just a couple of years ago, the athletic department was bleeding red ink and considered eliminating several sports, including football. There also was a nasty sex scandal involving a 15-year-old girl and several athletes.

“Things were a bit apprehensive, no doubt about that,” said Malcolm Portera, chancellor of the University of Alabama System, which is made up of Alabama, UAB and Division II Alabama-Huntsville. “There were a lot of concerns on campus about future directions. We settled that down.”

Portera was tied up with budget meetings over the weekend, but he said he plans to make it to both Phoenix and St. Louis this week.

Anderson, a longtime assistant to Nolan Richardson at Arkansas, was not an entirely popular choice among fans, alumni and media. Former UAB athletic director Herman Frazier said he hired Anderson from a pool that included three Division I coaches, and many were against the move because Anderson was not a so-called big name.

“He’d been under Nolan Richardson, so I knew he’d learned a lot,” said Frazier, now the AD at Hawaii. “When all was said and done, I knew he was the guy. If you’d spent as much time with him as I did, you knew he’d be a good fit.”

Frazier said the support for Anderson’s hiring was “75-25.”

“For all the naysayers who didn’t think he could get the job done, they’re probably second-guessing themselves right now,” Frazier said. “I’d like to take a look at where that ‘25’ is now.”

Chances are that a few of them will be in St. Louis on Friday.

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