We really can be good at everything
It was the 1993 Sugar Bowl, and I was watching my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide take on the leading football force of the era, the Miami Hurricanes, for the national championship. It was the culmination of a dream season defined by fundamentals: a hard- working defense, a determined running game, and a quarterback who did just enough to win. It wasn't flashy. It wasn't attention-grabbing. And it wasn't supposed to have a prayer against Miami's pass-happy Heisman Trophy winner, Gino Torretta, and the Hurricanes' cast of stars.
Then Alabama, in a confident and calculated move, put all 11 defenders on the line of scrimmage. Torretta, confused by this bold development, quickly called a timeout to ask the coaches what to do. He finished the game with three interceptions, and the Tide finished with a 34-13 victory and a national title. Alabama, a huge underdog, had worked hard and won big.
I watched the game with a growing sense of euphoria throughout. But the moment that still stands out above all others -- above the memory of George Teague high-stepping into the end zone with a pick-six, above even the legendary image of Teague chasing down Miami speedster Lamar Thomas and stripping away a sure touchdown -- is when Alabama rushed 11. It was brilliant, it was daring, and it showed a willingness to take risks and try new things to be the best. It was the moment I knew not only that Alabama would win, but that it deserved to win, because we had earned it.
That success didn't happen by accident. It happened because Alabama hired good coaches who crafted good game plans. It happened because Alabama recruited good players who executed those game plans well. And all of that happened because Alabama decided that having a good football team was a priority and invested the time, energy, and money necessary to get it.
Two decades later, college football is still an example of the great things that this state can accomplish when it is determined to do so. Alabama has one of the nation's best-paid coaches, one of the most beautiful stadiums anywhere, and yet another national championship to its credit. Auburn in that time has had two undefeated seasons, one or both of which should have led to a national title for the Tigers. And Troy and UAB have clawed their way from lower-level obscurity into bowl games in recent years.
College football is proof that if Alabamians set our minds to it, we can do it. We shouldn't settle for just being good at college football, though. We should try to become that good at everything: education, health care access, transportation, and whatever else you can name.
It can be discouraging to read headlines about how Alabama's education reform application for federal Race to the Top grants finished dead last, or about how Alabama still taxes groceries when almost no other state does, or about how high poverty rates persist in the Black Belt. But it's important to remember that those aren't unchangeable conditions that we have to accept like the weather. We can use our government to do something about them.
Yes, it will require more citizen engagement. Yes, it will require more careful scrutiny to ensure that candidates lay out a realistic vision for our state instead of just promising free ponies paid for with tax cuts because they think that's what we want to hear. And yes, it will require us to acknowledge that if Alabama hopes to compete with states that spend much more than we do on education and infrastructure, we'll need to invest more money in those things, too. (We could start by asking the state's rich to pay at a tax rate similar to what everyone else pays, but that's a conversation for another time.)
It won't be easy. It won't be flashy. For a while, it won't be attention-grabbing. And just as football programs endure rebuilding years, there will be ups and downs along the way.
But with the same devotion and determination that we pour into vaulting our football teams to the top of the polls, we can improve our state's fundamentals and make Alabama a better place to live and work. We can make our state a place where the quality of our highways and public transportation can stand proudly alongside the beauty of our mountains and beaches. And we can move closer to the day when Alabama, a huge underdog, can shock the world again by both having the best education system in the country and hoisting yet another crystal football to the heavens.
It'll be the feeling of being the very best -- and best of all, having earned it.