The athletic year 2018-2019 is over at The University of Alabama. Whether you view the season as a fine wine from a vintage year or a bottle of off-the-convenience-mart-shelf with a screw top and an expiration date coming up in two months depends largely on your personal palate and, especially, on your expectations.
The long history of Alabama athletics has been the history of football first and foremost. That doesn’t mean other sports are less important or less entertaining, although it’s fair to say all others are less lucrative. That’s true at most Power Five athletic programs. What’s different at Alabama going back some 85 years is where the bar has been set. Even under Wallace Wade and the great Paul “Bear” Bryant, the level of public expectation wasn’t as inflexible as it is for Nick Saban. It’s the national championship or nothing, for the most part, for a fan base that views its team with the same cold calculation as mountain climbers regard a Sherpa who climbs 24,000 feet up Mount Everest and then slips into an ice crevasse 20 feet from the summit.
So what, exactly, does a second-place finish in the College Football Playoff denote? The only right and fair answer is that it was a tremendous season, one that saw offensive records fall and netted another Southeastern Conference championship trophy to be jammed into some overflowing trophy case. At 95 percent of the college programs in America, a season of such magnitude would be a cause for rejoicing — and it would certainly cast a warm glow on the perception of the school’s accomplishments for the year.
Alabama is not most schools in that respect.
Did the rest of the athletic year provide solace for those who long for that long-ago past (in other words, the previous season)? Again, that depends on your taste in such matters. There is a traditional viewpoint that says football is part of a “Big Three” that also includes men’s basketball and baseball. There probably needs to be some revised thinking on that as we are well into the 21st century but it’s a tough perception to change. To be fair, The Tuscaloosa News’ coverage is still weighted in that way although softball and gymnastics get as much attention as baseball.
In the two sports, men’s basketball and baseball, Alabama missed out on the NCAA field in both. Basketball was a frustrating near-miss. Baseball is in a rebuilding process that most observers viewed as a four-year project when Brad Bohannon was hired. With that said, only three SEC schools missed out on NCAA play in both sports — Alabama, Missouri and South Carolina. Meanwhile, Auburn, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State all made both fields. Since we are talking about perception here, it adds a dash of bitters for Alabama fans that Auburn advanced to both the Final Four and the College World Series.
Softball, which wasn’t quite carrying the burden of expectations that football does (although it’s close) was the feel-good story of UA’s 2019 spring with an SEC title and a run that came closer to an NCAA title than anyone imagined possible. Both golf teams had roster-ripping problems with injuries and professional departures. Chances are that those were hiccups and that both programs will stabilize quickly. Gymnastics was also not at its usual best. The track and swimming teams all did well. Rowing, to almost no fanfare, was strong but few people realized it.
A vintage year? No, probably not. That doesn’t mean you pour it all down the drain — even though some may not find it memorable.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cecilhurt