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June 16, 2012

Can Tuscaloosa remain Title Town?

Championships build esteem.

Championships build excitement.

But one more thing also is built as an institution goes on a championship run like the one the University of Alabama has travelled in the last six months, winning four national championships along the way and coming one golf stroke short of a fifth.

Expectations.

As University of Alabama teams accumulated titles in football, then gymnastics, then women's golf and softball, there seemed to have been a moment where Alabama had cracked the code and found the right formula, the combination of recruiting and coaching and facilities that worked in all four sports - and if it worked once, why couldn't it work again? And if it worked in those sports, why couldn't it work in others? While all the focus was on Alabama's championship teams, UA has had a chronic struggle in others, finishing at or near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in several sports.

That doesn't diminish the accomplishment of those championships, but it does increase the pressure on others. People - particularly fans - like the good feeling that winning brings.

"The thing that excites me is the enthusiasm of everyone on this campus," UA director of athletics Mal Moore said Thursday. "You had people on the internet following the golf team, the women and the men. People got caught up in it. Then people were coming together all over the state to watch softball. ESPN told me four years ago that softball was their fastest growing sport, and you could see that in the way it has grown here.

"We have a long tradition of winning in football, and we have had that in gymnastics almost since that program began. But it is important in other sports, too. I am proud of the oneness I have seen here."

So is Alabama on the start of an unprecedented run of championships, repeating in some sports and adding new titles along the way? Perhaps - but it won't necessarily come was easily as some might think.

"I think the key is building a program and sustaining it to the point where you are competing for championships every year," UA gymnastics coach Sarah Patterson said. "We are proud of our six championships, but we have come in second place at NCAAs seven times. At one point, someone called us the Buffalo Bills of gymnastics. And some of those were great teams, but it wasn't that year.

"What you have to have is a blueprint that you believe in. I do think that when you win that first championship, it validates things, but you have to continue to do things the way you know is right and your chances will come."

The common thread - getting there, falling short, then coming back again and winning - runs through this year's championship teams. Football's loss to Florida in the 2008 SEC championship game set the stage for 2009 and a BCS title run. Softball's history of Women's College World Series disappointment prior to this season was well-documented. Perhaps the near-miss in men's golf will play dividends in the future. The necessary infrastructure and coaching does seem to be in place in other sports - beginning at the conference level. The SEC might end up winning 10 national titles in its 20 sponsored sports.

"I do think that the competition in our league makes all the teams stronger," SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said at the league meetings in Sandestin, Fla. "We are competing nationally at a championship level in every sport we sponsor."

In fact, Alabama's softball title gave the SEC at least one national title in 19 of its 20 sports. (Volleyball is the lone exception.)

At the campus level, Moore said, UA is looking to extend its policy of top-flight coaches and top-flight facilities, starting with the University campus itself.

"Our new tennis coach (George Husack) on his second day here, walked into my office and said "Mal, I have been all over the country, and I have never seen anywhere like this campus. It's immaculate.

"There are so many ways in which the strength of (outgoing UA President) Dr. (Robert) Witt has helped our coaches attract great student-athletes. Our academics have gotten so much stronger, and that helps us recruit nationally."

"Absolutely, the Alabama name is very powerful, maybe moreso now than ever. Regular students are coming from other states. So combine that with our facilities and coaches and we are going to get our share."

Moore said he shares Witt's philosophy of excellence across the board.

"What supports these (championship) teams also supports the teams that weren't in the race," Moore said. "Every coach here has the same tools. We are constantly upgrading facilities. People talk about baseball, and we have some ideas being considered there, but it is all sports. A lot of things still could be done with baseball. We just finished indoor tennis. We are looking at the crew situation. So there are a lot of things yet to be done."

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


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