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June 8, 2012

Championship teams share unique qualities

On Jan. 9 of this year, the University of Alabama football team walked into the Superdome to face a team that had beaten the Crimson Tide on its home field two months earlier, a team that had stormed undefeated through the Southeastern Conference, with the BCS Championship at stake.

On April 21, the UA gymnastics team prepared for its final routine of the NCAA Championships, the balance beam. The Crimson Tide trailed Florida, which was set to perform on the floor.

On May 24, Alabama's women's golf team walked off the 15th hole in the final round of the NCAA Championships in Nashville trailing Southern California by five strokes, having watched a double-digit lead dissipate over the course of the day.

On Wednesday night, facing college softball's Player of the Year in the circle for Oklahoma, the Alabama softball team trailed 3-0 after four innings - and then the rain came.

Every team had already had a great season. Every one could have succumbed to the adversity and been proud of what they had achieved. They just wouldn't have been champions, not any of them.

Instead, they all are.

Winning a team championship isn't just about having the most talented athletes, although that's a part of it. It isn't about having the best coaches, although that's a big part of it, too. It isn't just about having the classiest facilities or the craziest fans. Alabama - and other schools - have those things, on an annual basis. But it doesn't always win championships, because they are so hard to win, and because the competition at the elite level gets so tough and because fate sometimes is unkind.

In the end, no matter how many of those tangible assets you can claim, being a champion is about something different. It is not just about refusing to lose, but refusing to consider losing even when logic suggests that you probably will lose. It is about being tough, a consistent kind of toughness whether you are a 95-pound gymnast or a 295-pound offensive tackle, a toughness that transcends pain and fatigue and noise and pressure.

It is about facing an opponent that wants to win a championship with every fiber in its being - and then wanting it more than they do.

Was that ever expressed more eloquently than it was in Oklahoma City, when Alabama stood outside its dugout in the rain, laughing, not at its opponent, not as a taunt, but at the elements, the external factors, the very idea that anything else mattered except the business at hand? That is why Alabama's players occasionally looked up from their cheering and dancing and said to their Oklahoma counterparts the two simple words - "let's play." Not "we're going to beat you" or "we're better." Just "let's play." Let's settle it on the field. The Crimson Tide football team took the same attitude into New Orleans, walked with the same air of confidence, wanted to get its opponent on the field and take care of business. "Let's play." One could imagine Brooke Pancake thinking the same thing as she approached the 18th tee, or Ashley Preiss taking the same attitude as she stepped onto the four-inch beam.

"Let's do what we came here to do. Let's play."

Sometimes, the greatest coaching in the world isn't just about strategy or recruiting. Sometimes, it is about recognizing when the fire is burning. It would have been easy for Patrick Murphy to shoo his players back into the dugout on Wednesday night, to order them to conserve their energy and focus. It took more insight, though, to let them continue their cheering, to let them seize the psychological advantage from an Oklahoma team - frankly, a more talented Oklahoma team - that suddenly became convinced the elements, perhaps fate itself, had aligned against it.

There is no explanation why Alabama had teams that reached that moment, and owned it, not just once or twice, but four times (and tantalizingly close to a fifth in men's golf.) Experience may have had something to do with it. Winning in one sport may lead to the development of a championship culture in others. Maybe it was just the stars aligning. Maybe it was the rain.

Four times this year, Alabama had a chance to come close, to accept a consolation prize, to earn respect for a job well done in getting close. Four times, Alabama took the next step.

"Let's play." Simple words, but four times, Alabama said them, and backed them up, and made them into something more, into "let's play, because if we do, we will win."

To have that happen four times in the span of five months, makes this, unquestionably, the best athletic year in Alabama history. Can it happen again next year, or in the future? No one knows, but there is only one way to find out.

"Let's play."

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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