Tuscaloosa becomes Party Town, USA

All she wanted was a picture. In the middle of this epic carnival, on the eve of the biggest college football game in years, here she was standing on the most sacred ground on the University of Alabama’s campus, and all she wanted was one little memory to take back to Louisiana.

But on the plaza outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, where legends are commemorated in bronze and concrete, there was one place visitors and picture-takers were not going to be welcomed. Not this weekend, anyway.

Nestled in the shadow of the stadium where No. 2 Alabama will host No. 1 LSU on Saturday night are five statues, one for each coach who has won a national championship. They attract all kinds of admirers, especially on a weekend like this, when a college town of 90,000 becomes the center of the sports universe.

The 9-foot-tall Nick Saban statue, in particular, draws curiosity. It’s the newest of the five, honoring Alabama’s title from two years ago, and even in its short existence, it’s been a target of irreverence.

Days after the statue was unveiled in April, some Auburn fans left a Cam Newton jersey hanging off its fingertips. Just a few weeks ago, somebody snuck up in the middle of the night and dressed the Saban statue in a purple cape, the first salvo in the buildup to this game.

This group of LSU fans, however, had far less nefarious intentions. The idea was to take an LSU hat, put it somewhere on the statue — maybe one of Saban’s hands — and take a picture. Saban, after all, won a national championship at LSU, too.

But as the woman approached, a man in a white jacket swooped in from the side to stop her from getting too close.

“Don’t do that,” he said, as the woman scurried away.

The security guards are new around here. After the Cam Newton jersey, the purple cape and various other pranks two weeks ago before the Tennessee game, it probably was a good idea to prevent any other attempts to desecrate the hallowed statues leading up to a game like this.

But not even pictures?

“We just got this contract for this right here,” the security guard said. “It started last week. It’s a 24-hour thing, 12-hour shifts. I’m just doing what I was told.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise everyone around here is a little on edge this weekend.

There have been plenty of big games in Tuscaloosa over the years — intense rivalries with Tennessee and Auburn, titanic matchups with Oklahoma and Penn State — but never quite like this.

No. 1 vs. No. 2, a first in the history of the Southeastern Conference. A chance at the national championship. Tickets being sold on the street for upwards of $500 for bad seats, in the thousands for good ones. Officials estimating as many as 30,000 people coming to town without tickets and little chance of getting them, hoping just to crash the party that will be raging outside the stadium just as much as inside.

“I paid $1,000,” said Lyle Adams, a 43-year old Alabama fan. “May never see a game like this again.”

But a football game in the South isn’t just a game; it’s an entire weekend, and it was obvious Friday this would be a weekend like none other. Even 36 hours before kickoff, it already felt like game day on the Alabama campus.

What was a nice, easy drive down University Boulevard on Thursday became gridlock on Friday. Parking lots had barricades blocking the normal entrances and attendants checking cars. Temporary signs directing visitors toward campus landmarks such as the library had gone up. Lawn areas in front of buildings were roped off with yellow “caution” tape for parking spots and tailgate areas.

As students walked across the main quad, hundreds of workers were erecting tents and unloading tables where fans, starting Friday night, began the consumptions of tons of food and untold gallons of alcohol. By Saturday, there won’t be an inch of real estate on that quad without somebody eating or drinking something on it.

“Busy day on campus,” said a female tour guide wearing a red pants-suit and a houndstooth scarf, symbolic of legendary coach Bear Bryant, as she walked three families across the still quiet epicenter of campus.

Across the way, a more formal setup was being constructed at the president’s mansion, a white Greek-style building with six columns in front. While the tents on the quad are all about comfort, complete with state flags and big-screen TVs, the president’s party will take place in a large tent with white peaks like you’d see at a formal wedding.

By lunchtime Friday, every restaurant on “The Strip,” as they call it, was packed. And by Friday afternoon, the transformation from idyllic campus to a city bursting at the seams already was under way with dots of purple amid the crowd of crimson.

The place was practically buzzing, and it promised to stay that way well into Saturday night.

There might be 130,000 people squeezed into this tiny patch of Alabama today, and some of them will go home unhappy. But they’ll never forget this weekend, this game, no matter how many security guards try to spoil the fun.