Tuscaloosa overflowing with national titles

There were plenty of cheers and tears when Alabama Academic All-American golfer Brooke Pancake ground out a par on the final hole of the Vanderbilt Legends Club. Everyone on the Crimson Tide women’s golf team squealed. A few parents covered their faces to keep their emotions from spilling out into the open, while coach Mic Potter gave a fist pump and a huge smile.

No one could blame them. After all, it was Alabama’s first national championship in women’s golf, a hard-fought one-stroke victory over USC.

But it was a far cry from the hoopla in the Superdome five months earlier.

The same was true for the Women’s College World Series where Alabama captured its first softball championship (and the first for the SEC), beating Oklahoma 5-4 in the final game. The entire Tide dugout swarmed teammate Jackie Traina after the pitcher struck out Keilani Ricketts to end the game.

But confetti didn’t fall from the sky, and 400 reporters didn’t scramble to interview every player, coach, trainer and passerby.

The Alabama women’s gymnastics team won its second consecutive national title in April when Ashley Priess, who had come back from surgery on both ankles, scored a 9.95 on the balance beam to put the Tide over the top.

But no network rented the floor of a nearby hotel to tape specials on the outcome.

No one questions that football still reigns supreme in Tuscaloosa. Cars with Roll Tide paint jobs don’t clog I-20 for softball games or gym meets. But with four national championships this year, three of them coming in women’s sports, everybody also realizes that Titletown is turning into a lot more than pigskin and fall Saturdays.

Though there weren’t as many fans cheering the golfers, softball players or gymnasts as they were screaming their heads off in New Orleans at the BSC championship, the newest titles have elicited just as much pride from Tide faithful.

“I am so proud and excited to be a part of the Crimson Tide family,” said Leslie Spalding, who played golf at Alabama in the early 90s and competed on the LPGA Tour for a decade before getting into coaching — Spalding is currently San Diego State’s women’s golf coach.

“I think it’s a cultural thing. People expect to win national championships at Alabama no matter what the sport. I think you see other teams winning titles and you understand that it’s just what you do at Alabama.”

Money helps, and that comes from football.

Softball coach Patrick Murphy didn’t build a championship team until the completion of Rhoads Stadium, a state-of-the-art facility that is the envy of coaches throughout the country.

“That was the biggest difference-maker in our program’s history because the girls could finally have something that they could call home, and we could take recruits there,” Murphy said. “That was the deal-maker in terms of our success.”

And it came because money flows like Caligula’s wine in Tuscaloosa. Fourteen football championships will do that for you. But as important as the dollars are to bringing in players and coaches, money alone doesn’t build a winning culture.

“It starts at the top,” Potter said. “You have to be committed in terms of facilities, backing and administrative support. It’s all here. It’s all in place.”

Athletic director Mal Moore set the tone by doing what it took to keep coaches like Murphy (who was bound for LSU before being lured back to Tuscaloosa) and attracting men like Potter, who had already built a Hall of Fame coaching career at Furman University before donning the Crimson.

Moore is doing whatever it takes to make sure the basketball, baseball, swimming and track and field programs have what they need to build equally winning traditions.

After the final putt fell in Nashville and the Tide had their first golf title, Potter’s wife Kim admitted, “It was very difficult to leave (Furman). We lived there our entire married lives. But it’s been the best decision of our lives. Alabama has allowed (Potter) to have everything he needs and supported him 100 percent.”

The bonuses don’t hurt either. Potter won the SEC and NCAA Coach of the Year awards, which were each worth an additional month’s salary. The national title earned him another month’s pay, which added a total of additional $45,000 on top of his $135,000 base salary.

Murphy pocked an additional $77,000, while gymnastics coach Sarah Patterson took him an extra $61,250.

Of course Nick Saban grabbed the biggest piece of the bonus pie with his $400,000 championship bump. But nobody is complaining.

Championships bring smiles to all faces. At Alabama, smiles are fast becoming the norm.

“At a coaching clinic we asked Mic (Potter) about goal setting,” Spalding said. “He said he didn’t set specific goals. The team never talked about it, because they didn’t need to. Everybody who comes there now is coming to win a national championship. Nothing else really matters.”