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December 23, 2012

Era of mediocrity followed Alabama's 1992 title

TUSCALOOSA | The 1992 national championship touched off a celebration at a school hungry for another crown after a 13 years of anxious waiting.

It came during a streak that saw the University of Alabama go 31 straight games without a defeat in a span that covered parts of three seasons. It returned the Crimson Tide to football glory and brought back memories of Paul W. "Bear" Bryant's dynasty of dominance.

Yet before the sun rose in New Orleans after Alabama's 34-13 dismantling of the Miami Hurricanes in the Jan. 1, 1993, Sugar Bowl, the seeds of UA's downfall to some of the lowest points in the program's history began to take root.

And it started with, of all things, a signature on a cocktail napkin.

Alabama defensive back Antonio Langham, partying after the game in the French Quarter, signed what turned out to be an agreement with a fledgling sports agent, a friend of a relative who wanted Langham to forgo his senior season at UA to enter the National Football League draft.

Langham decided, instead, to stay for another year before becoming a first-round pick, but that signature would haunt Alabama for more than a decade. The NCAA ultimately determined that Langham was ineligible for the 1993 season and stripped Alabama of eight wins and a tie in that 30-0-1 streak for his participation. Langham, who denied having signed any deal with an agent when initially questioned by school officials, declined to comment on the matter.

More importantly, UA was sanctioned with probation. Years later, when the NCAA ruled an Alabama booster guilty of paying for the services of Memphis recruit Albert Means while the school was still on probation, UA was hit with severe scholarship cuts and a two-year bowl ban that crippled the program - the penalties enhanced because transgressions occurred while Alabama was still on probation that stemmed from the Langham agent violations.

Under those sanctions, an era of mediocrity ensued: a coaching carousel from Mike DuBose to Dennis Franchione to Mike Price (who was dismissed before ever coaching a game) to Mike Shula, with a smattering of losing seasons and no sustained success.

Behind the scenes, however, there was more at work. While Alabama was playing its way to the 1992 national championship, the campus was overrun with investigators.

"Every time I looked up there was someone down here from the NCAA," said Tom Jones, retired dean of the UA law school and Alabama's faculty athletics representative at the time. "Every rumor on the street, they'd have someone down here."

Those rumors centered on Gene Jelks, a former UA player who had alleged that he received money from Alabama boosters and former assistant coach Jerry Pullen.

Pullen filed suit against Jelks in Georgia, and documents made public through discovery showed that Jelks had been paid thousands of dollars through his attorney. Although the lawsuit was dismissed, Jelks declared that the money had come from Auburn supporters who wanted to use him to land Alabama on NCAA probation.

"They started out investigating Gene Jelks," Jones said. "The NCAA could never prove that. He was not a very credible witness, but they were hanging onto that."

The Langham case, Jones believes, sprang from the NCAA's frustration at its inability to nail UA over the Jelks matter.

"It was kind of falling part on them," Jones said, "and then the Langham thing kind of fell into their lap. I think they just really hoped they would come up with something that would justify the time they had spent."

The NCAA ultimately ruled that Jelks had received loans from UA boosters after his playing career that had never been repaid, and that Langham had played in 1993 as an ineligible player. The NCAA termed UA's compliance effort to be a "distressing failure," and the school received a one-year bowl ban and was ultimately stripped of 17 scholarships over two years in addition to being placed on probation.

In its ruling, the NCAA also charged that Jones had provided "false and misleading information" to investigators. In a breach of its own rules, the NCAA never questioned Jones nor gave him a chance to answer the charges when Alabama appeared before the infractions committee.

"I threatened to (sue)," Jones said. "We reached a settlement."

Jones received a six-figure settlement from the NCAA. Under terms of the agreement, Jones cannot comment on the settlement.

All of the NCAA drama played out in the years after Alabama's 1992 national championship. While the impact of the sanctions was deepened when UA was hit again over the Means infractions, the glow never came off the title trophy.

The celebration in the locker room is still a fresh memory to players on that team, even 20 years later.

"What my greatest memory as a player is, when people ask me, it's never a catch or a block or a tackle," said Dabo Swinney, now head coach at Clemson and a walk-on wideout on the 1992 team. "My greatest memory as a player is being in that locker room after we won the national championship, just the sheer joy and happiness and love that we had for each other."

Gene Stallings coached Alabama to that championship and presided over the undefeated run that began in 1991 and ended two seasons later. In his seven seasons, Alabama averaged 10 wins per year on the field, victories stripped by the NCAA notwithstanding.

Few understand better than Stallings how much winning football means to an Alabama fan base that became accustomed to national championships in the 1960s and '70s under Bryant, and had previous titles earlier in the program's history.

"To be accepted, really, they want you to win a national championship at Alabama, because that's what some people had done prior. It gets the monkey off your back a little bit," Stallings said.

For all that followed, that's what the 1992 national championship did for the Crimson Tide. The NCAA sanctions were not felt in the immediate aftermath of the national championship run. At the time, the championship validated Alabama's place in the pantheon of college football's top echelon.

"It had been a long, dry spell," said Bert Guy, a Tuscaloosa attorney who attended the Sugar Bowl. "We were in danger of an entire generation of Alabama fans going by that hadn't experienced a national championship.

"Memories only last as long as the people do, and if you don't have any people around that experienced it, and if you don't replenish that well, it will run dry. That national championship kept it from running dry."

Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.

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