By MIKE HERNDON
Back in the 1980s, glam rock and synthesizer pop were all the rage, the internet wasn’t yet dreamed of, the Soviet Union was still a thing and we and the Russians took turns boycotting the Olympics.
And if there was ever a time we could comfortably call a Golden Age of Alabama basketball, that was it.
Wimp Sanderson was guiding Alabama to seven 20-win seasons, seven NCAA tourney berths and four Sweet 16 finishes during the decade. Across the state, Sonny Smith was leading Auburn to five straight NCAA tourney berths and one Elite Eight finish.
Gene Bartow was piloting UAB to eight 20-win seasons, seven straight NCAA tourney appearances and one Elite Eight berth. Down in Mobile, Cliff Ellis led South Alabama to the last two of his four 20-win seasons and a pair of NIT appearances after making the NCAAs twice in the ‘70s – and Ronnie Arrow added another 20-win season and a memorable NCAA tourney upset of Alabama in 1989.
At no other time in the history of this football-crazed state was there such a convergence of the basketball stars, and such a wealth of coaching talent guiding what were then the state’s only four Division I college programs. And at no time was there a greater collective level of success.
Until, perhaps, now.
With Bruce Pearl in Auburn, Nate Oats at Alabama, Andy Kennedy at UAB, and Richie Riley at South Alabama, we may be in the early stages of this state’s new Golden Age of college basketball coaches.
In at least one measurable respect, Pearl and Oats have already exceeded their predecessors, with Pearl leading Auburn to its first-ever Final Four in 2019 and Oats leading Alabama to only its second Elite Eight berth last year.
And this year – a year in which Alabama will again chase a title in the College Football Playoff – these coaches are starting to make Alabama look like (dare we say it?) a basketball state.
Oats’ Crimson Tide is 9-2 and ranked No. 10 in the country, boasting wins over Gonzaga and Houston. Pearl’s Tigers are 10-1 and ranked No. 12, with the only loss coming in double-overtime to UConn.
Kennedy, who led Ole Miss to one SEC title and two NCAA tournaments, has UAB sitting at 9-3 with a wealth of talent transferred in from bigger programs. And Riley, in only his second head coaching job, has guided South Alabama to a 9-3 record so far this season in much the same fashion – by successfully attacking the transfer portal.
Each of these teams should be serious contenders in their respective conferences. And for each of them, in the not so distant past, that statement would have once been laughable to say out loud.
It’s just the beginning of a long season, and no one’s played a conference game yet. By the end, it’s possible that we’ll be shaking our heads at lost opportunities for each of these schools, kicking ourselves for believing the hype and looking forward once again to football season.
But it clearly meant something to Memphis’ fans to beat Alabama last week.
All four of these teams will enter conference play with records among the best in their respective conferences. Fans of all four have legitimate reason to be excited for the start of conference play (and they are).
The times they have already changed. Basketball isn’t the offseason in this state anymore.
Categories: College basketball
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