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April 13, 2012
TUSCALOOSA | The last Corky Matthews saw of his fellow tailgaters, they were still on the quad saying they would catch up with him inside the stadium. Matthews was headed into the 2007 A-Day game a little early.
The Mobile native didn't see his companions again until after the game, and they weren't happy.
"They said they couldn't get in because the stadium was full," Matthews said. "They were definitely upset."
UA hadn't initially planned to open the upper decks for the game, but eventually did so when the lower bowl reached capacity. When the upper decks were full, Matthews recalled, people took to watching the game from the spiral ramps in the stadium corners.
And when a public-address system announcement declared the gates at Bryant-Denny Stadium had been closed in the second quarter because the facility was at full capacity, the collective voice of the Crimson Tide fan base spoke with actions, not words.
Just what compelled a slightly overflowed crowd of more than 92,138 fans to fill Bryant-Denny to capacity that day is hard to say.
Sure, there was plenty of excitement over the hire of then-new coach Nick Saban roughly three months earlier.
But to break the school A-Day record by more than 40,000 fans?
To break the national record for a spring game by about 20,000?
To steal a phrase from Allen Iverson: "We are talking about a practice."
Whatever drove that many people to witness a scrimmage of a college football team that could be charitably described as average - the Crimson Tide's 2007 spring was, after all, between two 6-6 regular seasons - it set a trend for outrageous A-Day attendance figures that have become an annual point of interest. And the front-end show of faith by the UA fan base didn't go unnoticed by Saban.
"They were supportive from the start and when we weren't so good. I think that was something that really contributed to recruiting," Saban said. "The first A-Day, when there were (92,000) people there or whatever, it was really heartfelt by the Sabans. It really made us feel welcome here. We had gone through some tough times in getting here, leaving Miami and all that. So we really appreciated that."
The top five A-Day attendance figures ever have come the last five years since Saban took over the program, and 2012 is expected to crack the top five as well.
Saban's contention that the A-Day crowd provides an assist to recruiting efforts has plenty of evidential support. Dozens of top recruits are expected to attend the A-Day Game today, a number that has steadily risen over recent years.
And at least one former recruit who eventually chose the Crimson Tide was duly impressed with his A-Day visit as a high school prospect.
"It was exciting. That was my first time on campus. My first time here. First time I had been on a college campus," said UA linebacker Nico Johnson. "To witness something like that, it was amazing. I was speechless, having that many people here, just for a spring game. That was unreal."
Added UA linebacker Adrian Hubbard, who also attended A-Day as a recruit: "This town is crazy."
As the A-Day crowd has proliferated, however, UA Director of Athletics Mal Moore has continued to insist the event remain free to the public. Admission policies for spring games around the Southeastern Conference vary widely.
Half the league makes its spring games free to all, while ticket prices for those that charge range from $3 at Missouri to $10 at Ole Miss. Then there is Mississippi State, which is charging anywhere from $25-$60 for a dual event featuring its Maroon & White Game followed by a Sugarland Concert.
A $5 charge at the A-Day game, based on recent attendance figures, would generate between $400,000 and $500,000. But Moore isn't interested.
"The A-Day Game is an opportunity for us to thank our fans for their tremendous support by presenting the game free of charge," Moore said. "I think it allows an opportunity for many people who don't normally get into a regular season game - people who are on our season tickets waiting list or people who don't have access to tickets, or people with young children - to see the stadium, enjoy the game and enjoy the campus."
Since Saban's arrival, 438,009 fans have flipped the Bryant-Denny turnstiles on A-Day.
One of them was Justin Graham - just barely.
He was at the gates in 2007 when they began to close with more people than one of the nation's largest stadiums could hold.
"They were closing right in front of me. The only reason I got through was that one of the people I was there with had already gotten in, and they came and told them they were holding a seat for me," Graham said. "The people out there were pretty shocked. They couldn't believe what was going on."
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.