Thus far in my blog reflecting on 40 memories in my 40 years at the University of Alabama, I’ve covered early 1982 (the year I was hired in the UA Alumni Office) through the Tide’s 1992 football national championship.
Today, I start with a rather strange event that everyone still talks about today, especially around mid-March.
#20 – “Thank you, Travis Ford” & Winter Storm ‘93
Looking back, the Alabama basketball team’s loss to Vanderbilt in the 1993 basketball tournament in Lexington, Ky., may have been a blessing for me, my wife Robin, and our friend Steve Townsend. Otherwise, we may have spent an unplanned week or so away from home.
But first, I’d like to share a funny story about that trip and our visit to Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino’s restaurant, Bravo Pitino. After arriving in Lexington on Wednesday evening of tournament week, we walked up to the restaurant and immediately noticed the long line. I requested a table for two, and the hostess said it would be at least an hour wait. Fully prepared for such, within five minutes we heard “Ford, party of two.” We were quite puzzled, but sure didn’t question such a serendipitous moment.
We walked in and told them we were the “Ford party.” The maître d’ looked at me like I had a third eye. He took a gulp or two and reluctantly showed us to a table. Later, our waiter – with a smile on his face – told us what had happened. When the hostess wrote down “T. Ford” on her list, the maître d’ assumed that it was Travis Ford, Kentucky’s current All-SEC guard, waiting outside. Of course, there was no way he was going to allow Travis Ford to wait, so he quickly prepared a table for who he thought was the star Wildcat basketball player. I’ll never forget the look of disappointment on his face when he saw I wasn’t the “T. Ford.”
The food was excellent, and on our way out we noticed many of folks who were on the wait list with us were still … waiting.
On Thursday, our basketball team, led by first-year coach David Hobbs, defeated South Carolina. On Friday, in the day’s first game, we played horribly and lost to Vanderbilt, 76-59.
For a day or two, we’d been warned that bad weather was on the way. Predictions only worsened early that Friday morning. Before the clock hit 0:00 in the loss to Vanderbilt, Robin and I made the quick decision to beat the threatening weather back to Tuscaloosa. (Or at least we thought.)
When your team gets bounced from the tournament, it’s common practice among all SEC ticket managers to give the player family tickets to a ticket manager whose team is still playing. So, after disposing of my tickets, Robin and I hustled to the adjacent hotel to pack and check out. Steve Townsend, our associate athletic director, decided to join us and within an hour or so – probably around 3 p.m. ET – we hit the road in my little Honda Accord.
Where’s James Spann when you need him? Long before cell phones and social media, we were totally convinced that we could make the seven-hour drive home before the worst part of the storm got to Tuscaloosa. What we really didn’t think through was that the “Storm of the Century” was heading toward us, while at the same time we were heading toward it. So, the further south we drove on I-65, the worse it became. By the time we got to Nashville, it was sleeting. By Cullman, about three to four inches of snow were on the ground and highway. Cars and trucks were in ditches. Why we weren’t one of them remains a Godly miracle.
By Gardendale, we were inching along about 10-15 miles per hour, guided only by what the trucks ahead of us had plowed. Finally, I spotted the lights of downtown Birmingham, and into the city we crept. Plowing through what had to be 6-8 inches of snow, I spotted the “Civic Center” exit in downtown Birmingham. Guided only by the arrows on the large green exit signs, we somehow, some way, made it to the Birmingham Sheraton Civic Center hotel. I recall it being around 3 a.m. CT, some 13 hours after departing Lexington.
Fortunately, a couple of rooms were available, so – feeling like zombies – we checked in. When we awoke on Saturday morning, out our room window we saw 18-wheelers and numerous vehicles spun out and abandoned on I-59/20. The ice on the road had to have been six inches thick.
After a couple nights at the Sheraton, by Sunday afternoon the roads were deemed passable. Dangerous for sure, but passable. Welcoming us home to Tuscaloosa were 6-8 inches of snow and a lifetime of memories. Never had we been so glad to see “home sweet home.”
#21 – 1998 East Side Expansion & Skyboxes
Last summer, in part three of my “From ‘P.O.T.T.’ to ‘TIDE PRIDE’” blog, I described in detail the 1998 east side expansion, including the construction and implementation of our 81 new skyboxes. (My three blogs detailing the history of TIDE PRIDE are still available on my www.tommyfordrealestate.com website.)
In early 1996, once UA officials finalized the plan to build 18 24-seat skyboxes and 63 16-seat skyboxes, it was the TIDE PRIDE Office’s responsibility to come up with the marketing plan, lease the skyboxes, collect all the skybox donations, allocate the skyboxes by the proper priorities, distribute all the amenities, and manage all the gameday operations. As director of TIDE PRIDE, I oversaw this process, in addition to our customary TIDE PRIDE duties.
From last summer’s blog, here are a few highlights from the new skybox program.
- Bryant-Denny’s east side expansion was announced in September of 1995. In November of that year, a few of us from the Athletic Department visited stadiums at Clemson, Florida State, and the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars to see how their skybox programs operated. Many of the features we saw were eventually implemented into our program.
- On the home front, we once again used Dr. Jay Sterling from the UA Marketing Department to conduct our marketing research. His data was critical in determining the sizes of our skyboxes, their prices, and the amenities we would offer.
- In early fall of 1997, the official skybox brochure was mailed, with an application deadline of November 3. By the deadline, we had 115 applications for the 81 skyboxes, guaranteeing a sellout (and, just as important, a waiting list) in our first year.
- During construction of the east side expansion, the Pi Beta Phi sorority – which had decided they would stay put on the corner of Colonial Drive and Stadium Drive (8th Street) – made a quick about-face when the ever-rising structure began blocking the sun from their rooftop sundeck. They ended up building a new house a block or so away between the Chi Omega and Kappa Delta houses on Magnolia Drive. Today, a small 25-space parking lot sits where the Pi Phi house once stood.
- Not only were the TIDE PRIDE and Ticket Office staffs having to deal with 81 new skyboxes coming online, but also with 10,000 or so new upper deck seats. Of course, this meant additional seats in our TIDE PRIDE inventory, which enabled many folks on the waiting list to join for the first time.
- Carrying out the mechanics (donations, tickets, etc.) of a skybox program was doable. After all, we had created the entire TIDE PRIDE program from scratch 10 years earlier. But servicing these 81 new skyboxes (and their almost 2,000 patrons) was an entirely different story. We did the best we could with the small staff we had, but not until the 2002 season when the Colonnade Group was hired to handle all skybox hospitality did I ever feel that our skybox holders received the attention and care they deserved.
#22 – The 1999 Season & Y2K
How does one describe the 1999 football season, on and off the field? That’s a tough question.
Off the field, during the summer head football coach Mike DuBose publicly denied an extramarital relationship, then later publicly admitted to one. On the field, after two wins to open the season, the Tide lost to unranked Louisiana Tech in Legion Field. Two weeks later, though, Alabama bounced back to upset No. 3 Florida, 40-39, in Gainesville. After a loss to defending national champion Tennessee in Tuscaloosa, the Tide rolled off five straight wins, including its first-ever win in Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium and a 34-7 pounding of Florida in the SEC Championship game, where Bama fans relished in the frustrated looks of Gator coach Steve Spurrier. Like his team, his visor took a beating that day.
By Orange Bowl time, the 10-2 Tide was ranked No. 5 and poised to face a relatively unknown Tom Brady and No. 8 Michigan. In a classic contest, Alabama fell to the Wolverines, 35-34, in overtime. Throwing for a career-high 369 yards and four touchdowns, Brady did to the Tide what he would later be known for in the NFL – comebacks. Twice, he led Michigan back from 14-point deficits.
A couple of memories stand out from that trip. First, it was our 2 ½-year old son’s first plane ride. We have a photo of him clutching Robin’s arm as we took off from Birmingham. Little did we know that less than 20 years later, he’d be flying planes.
And of course, for months leading up to Jan. 1, 2000, the world was on pins and needles regarding Y2K and the impending computer-induced apocalypse. Could the world’s technology handle the transition from 1999 to 2000? One thing’s for sure – the Alabama football team wasn’t concerned, as most of them gathered on the beach at the team hotel to watch an unforgettable midnight fireworks show. And as far as I know, no one was negatively impacted by the Y2K scare.
#23 – A new sheriff comes to town: Dr. Robert Witt
There’s no need to mention in detail the Mike DuBose-to-Dennis Franchione-to-Mike Price-to-Mike Shula sagas during 2000-2003. No question, it was a painful time for Alabama Football, probably the lowest point since the mid-1950s.
But through the scandals, NCAA troubles, less-than-stellar performances on the field, fan disappointment, and severe uncertainty for what lay ahead, one hero powerfully emerged – new UA President Robert Witt.
A few months back, I was able to sit down with Dr. Witt for more than an hour, both for this blog and for a book project on which I’m working. (Soon, I’ll be writing a blog on Dr. Witt and his decades-long impact on the University of Alabama, especially UA Athletics.)
Many assume that for Dr. Witt, firing Mike Price for his irresponsible behavior was a difficult, gut-wrenching decision. Nothing, though, could be further from the truth.
“I started work here on Saturday, March 1st (2003) and sixty days later, on Saturday, May 3rd, we fired Mike Price,” said Witt, who came to Alabama from the University of Texas at Arlington. “When I met with him the day before the board of trustees meeting to tell him I was going to sleep on it, but I was pretty certain I was going to recommend termination, he asked me, ‘Don’t you believe in second chances?’
“I said, ‘I do, strongly.’
“I told him, ‘You’ve hurt the image of the institution. I can’t define or measure the extent of that hurt, but I know it’s there.’
“I said, ‘Mike, the reason you have to leave is that you’re never again going to be able to walk into a home and sit in a parent’s living room and look mom and dad in the eye and say, send me your son and I’ll help him grow into the type of young man you want him to be.’
“I said, ‘Mike you threw that away, which means you’re not going to be able to recruit, which means our program is not going to be successful.’
“Now, Alabama is a lot more obviously than its football program. But the success of the program is vital.”
More on Dr. Witt in a future blog!
#24 – The 2006 north endzone expansion: 38 more skyboxes and The Zone
Despite all the on-field and off-the-field fiascos (including NCAA probation), demand for skyboxes continued to grow. The east side skyboxes had been a rousing success, and in a true leap of faith Coach Mal Moore and the UA Board of Trustees in the spring of 2002 announced the creation of the Crimson Tradition Fund, a $100 million fund-raising campaign for athletic facilities. Many athletic locales were impacted, but none more than Bryant-Denny Stadium, where 38 new skyboxes, The Zone club level, and new upper deck seating were added for the 2006 season.
Whereas the east side skyboxes had been sold solely based upon one’s priority within the TIDE PRIDE program (as of the end of the 1997 season), for the new north endzone skyboxes each applicant had to pledge at least $300,000 to the Crimson Tradition Fund to secure a skybox. All skyboxes sold out, and by the time they eventually opened, the average gift ended up being $500,000.
Regarding The Zone, when I first heard the plan to build 1,700 or so seats in the endzone and charge a higher price per seat than the Scholarship Club seats on the west side between the 35-yard lines, I thought, “There’s no way we’re going to sell those!” I didn’t let my skepticism show, though, as we designed a nice, large brochure with the theme of “It’s Where The Action Is!”, referring to the endzone. (After all, we said, who’s ever scored on the 50-yard line?) We sent out the brochure in the fall of 2005, almost a full year before the seats were to be available, with a November 4 deadline to apply.
Was I ever wrong about having trouble selling these new seats! Not only did The Zone sell out in its first year at $1,500 per-seat/per-year, but it was also a huge hit. Copying the concept from many NFL stadiums, The Zone’s food, lockers for personal “beverages,” restrooms, televisions, nearby parking, and the constant socializing made it (and still makes it) the place to be.
The 2006 addition took Bryant-Denny’s capacity to 92,138. The addition of the 38 skyboxes, The Zone seats, and the new upper deck seating was a huge boom to TIDE PRIDE, as donations exceeded the $20 million per year mark.
#25 – Tide Totals & A+ Incentives Program
Believe it or not, the Tide Totals points program – used to determine how road game tickets, post-season tickets, and home game parking passes are distributed – was a six-year work in progress. Six years.
It’s almost as if Coach Moore was a prophet, because when a few of us first started meeting about establishing a points system, the 2006 north endzone expansion was in no one’s crystal ball. Our existing policies on road game and post-season tickets were working just fine, although the 1998 east side expansion had put a strain on our ability to accommodate those who’d been guaranteed tickets. Despite not needing a points system at the time, Coach Moore insisted that we press on. He knew that one day, as Bryant-Denny continued to grow, our current policies wouldn’t work any longer. He was so right.
So, sometime around 2000, I began leading a points system task force of about four or five folks in the department. Off and on for the next four or so years, we met to discuss in general terms how a points system would work. As well, we looked at what other schools were doing and how they were distributing road game tickets and post-season tickets.
Once the north endzone expansion was announced in 2004 (for the 2006 season), we put our game faces on. By the fall of 2005, our committee had finalized the Tide Totals program, designed the brochure, and distributed it to every TIDE PRIDE member. In its essence, Tide Totals calculated points based upon one’s longevity in TIDE PRIDE, donations to TIDE PRIDE, years of season ticket purchases, and donations to the Crimson Tradition Fund. Tide Totals came into effect on Feb. 1, 2006.
In August of 2006, after working for 19 years in tickets and TIDE PRIDE, I moved over to Crimson Tide Foundation and became the first director of the A+ Incentives Program, our first annual fund. For years, Coach Moore had been convinced there were many Alabama fans (especially those living out of state) who had no desire to obtain season tickets but may be willing to give an annual donation to Alabama Athletics. The program rewarded donors with a multitude of amenities based upon varying levels of annual gifts to the Crimson Tide Foundation. In its first year, some $1.5 million of new revenue was raised, specifically earmarked for athletic scholarships. A few years later, the A+ Incentives Program’s name was changed to the Crimson Tide Scholarship Fund. Since that first year, the program has raised more than $20 million.
#26 – Behold, the G.O.A.T. is hired; 2007 A-Day Game shocks the nation
When conducting tours of Bryant-Denny Stadium through the years, I would always mention the 1988 west side expansion, the 1998 east side addition, and the 2006 north endzone expansion.
“And then,” I would say, “Coach Saban was hired.”
The fact that Coach Moore had led the charge to make Bryant-Denny the nation’s finest facility before anyone had ever dreamed that Coach Saban would one day be our coach just shows how committed he was to turning around this program. Right in the middle of all our early 2000s turmoil, he said – and I’m paraphrasing here – “We’re not going to sit around here feeling sorry for ourselves.” His vision for the Crimson Tradition Fund during our lowest days proved to be the catalyst for the great years to come.
I, along with every Crimson Tide fan, have many memories of Coach Saban’s arrival to Tuscaloosa in early 2007. Tracking the plane from Miami. The airport scene. The crazed fans. His opening press conference.
And, especially, the 2007 A-Day Game.
We knew the Alabama fans were longing for the old days, for the time when just the name “Crimson Tide” would command respect across the nation. Since the SEC championship season in 1999, Alabama had gone 46-40 overall with a losing SEC record of 26-30. One win in seven tries against Auburn. Two wins in seven contests against Tennessee. Four bowl trips with a 2-2 record, including two trips to Shreveport, La. Hardly what the Bama faithful was accustomed to.
In other words, the Tide fandom was hungry, with a lot of hangry thrown in.
This desire for winning football manifested itself on Saturday, April 21, 2007, when more than 92,000 fans packed Bryant-Denny for the annual A-Day game, with – they say – thousands more turned away. We were nowhere near prepared to handle the masses of people. The seats in the east upper deck – which had not been utilized since the previous season’s Auburn game – had not been pressure-washed, the concessions stands were not functioning, and the restrooms had not been cleaned and stocked.
Yet no one cared.
The attendance numbers shook the foundations of college football. “It shows the passion that people have for the University of Alabama, and it certainly makes me feel great about being here as head coach,” Coach Saban said following the game.
And 15 years since then, with Coach Saban sporting an overall record of 183-25, an SEC mark of 106-16, eight SEC titles, and six national championships, the feeling is mutual.
#27 – Remember the Rose Bowl, we’ll win then!
My wife, son, and I have been blessed to go on many great trips together, many of which were surrounding an Alabama athletic event. Perhaps our most memorable journey was to the 2010 BCS National Championship Game following the undefeated 2009 season. The opportunity to watch our Crimson Tide play in the iconic Rose Bowl Stadium for the national championship was just too good to pass up. We flew to Phoenix, then took sightseeing to a new level – the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Disneyland, four nights at the team hotel, and, of course, the Tide’s 37-21 victory over Texas.
Disneyland may indeed be a magical place, but for the Fords, our entire trip was magical.
I’d like to share one funny story from the trip. Early on the morning following the game, as we were loading up for our 6-hour drive to the Phoenix airport, I was standing in the hotel lobby and from a meeting room walked several of our assistant football coaches.
Bobby Williams, our tight ends coach and special teams coordinator, walked up to me and said, “Tommy, did we win last night? Coach Saban just ripped us a new one.”
I laughed. Bobby didn’t.
His question, meant to be tongue-in-cheek, was actually loaded with truth. Just a few hours after winning the national championship, Coach Saban had already put the game behind him. His entire focus was to the future. During that meeting, he had lamented over the recruiting time they’d missed during December and early January, and he challenged the staff to get back on track. He cautioned them not to be complacent and to ensure their players kept their focus into the next season.
My conversation with Bobby showed the passion that Coach Saban possesses to be the best in everything he does – recruiting, coaching, academics, facilities, image, and more. And for that, Crimson Tide fans are forever grateful.
#28 – The 2010 south endzone expansion: “Bigger is better”
I’ll close this month’s blog with our 2010 south endzone expansion, which included a new Zone club level, 36 more skyboxes, and additional upper deck seating. (The new Zone was dubbed the “South Zone,” while the original Zone on the north end was renamed the “North Zone.”)
During that time, athletic departments across the country still had a “bigger is better” mentality, and we were no exception. The arms race back then was about butts in the seats; today many schools are struggling to fill those seats. The arms races of 10-15 years ago have now shifted to the quality of seats over quantity of seats.
In 2008, barely into Coach Saban’s second season, Coach Moore put into motion plans to build the south endzone expansion. I recall two issues he made clear: 1) Unlike previous expansions, he said we wouldn’t be doing any marketing research to decide if the expansion was feasible. Coach Saban’s impact on the Alabama football program was proof enough. 2) He was adamant that the south endzone expansion be a mirror image of the north endzone, with The Zone, two levels of skyboxes, and upper deck seating.
The south endzone expansion also provided new offices for the Crimson Tide Foundation (where I worked for nine years), as well as a marketplace on the street level.
In early September of 2010, for the grand opening of the south endzone expansion at the home opener versus San Jose State, Coach Moore – as a way of saying “thank you” – honored almost 500 former Tide players in pregame ceremonies.
Even today, almost 10 years after Coach Moore’s passing, I consider the north (2006) and south (2010) endzone expansions as “bookends” to his incredible career as our Athletic Director.
Without a doubt, Coach Moore’s name is secure among the great names of Alabama athletics history.
© 2022 Tommy Ford All Rights Reserved
(Next month: The final part of “Forty Years, Forty Memories”)