If Dabo Swinney had been better at the real estate business, Alabama would be going for an unprecedented fifth straight national championship this year and seventh in 10 years.
As is, Nick Saban’s program is the best in college football history. My good friend Chris Walsh’s new book, “Decade of Dominance: How Alabama’s 10-year run was the greatest in college football history,” does a great job chronicling just how dominant Alabama has been from 2009 until today.
While no smarter person is suggesting that the dynasty is coming to an end, the Tide has moved over to make room at the top of the mountain for Swinney and the Clemson Tigers.
Clemson ruined perfect seasons for Alabama in 2016 and 2018, and it’s reasonable to assume that no other team would have been able to stop the Tide during those incredible seasons. Without Swinney as head coach, there’s almost no chance Clemson is a national power today.
All that brings us to AIG Baker real estate in 2001. That’s where Swinney was working after fulfilling his duties as a graduate assistant to Gene Stallings at Alabama. Swinney was lured away from the coaching profession to develop real estate projects for the Birmingham-based company that was led by former Alabama linebacker Rich Wingo. He stuck with the job for almost two years before deciding he was meant to be a coach.
Think about that for a minute. If Swinney hadn’t decided on the career move, he would have almost certainly been in the stands cheering on his alma mater to seven national championships in the last 10 years and the last four in a row.
By the way, Wingo probably doesn’t want to publicize the fact that he let Swinney get away and indirectly led to Alabama’s dynasty being stunted. Wingo is now a member of the Alabama House of Representatives, so that fact may not be great for his re-election hopes.
Swinney’s decision to leave real estate for coaching is not the only significant what-if to ponder this week during SEC Media Days.
Another Alabama native made a coaching decision two years ago that is still having an impact on the sport. Kevin Sumlin, who was born in Brewton, had a decision to make about who he wanted to be the future quarterback of the Texas A&M Aggies. According to everyone involved, he had his choice between Jarrett Stidham and Kellen Mond. Whichever blue-chip recruit Sumlin did not choose was going to become the quarterback at Auburn.
Sumlin made the decision that may have been right for Texas A&M, but it certainly wasn’t best for him personally. With the experienced Stidham, who is now beginning his NFL career, Sumlin would have likely won enough games to keep his job in College Station.
Instead, he turned the offense over to a true freshman who wasn’t ready for that responsibility. After two years as a starter, Mond is now set to be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC for new coach Jimbo Fisher.
Auburn’s Gus Malzahn may be about to face a decision similar to the one Sumlin bungled. Malzahn is going to have to decide between redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and fresh-out-of-high-school freshman Bo Nix.
Gatewood can be a good SEC quarterback. Nix is believed to be a once-in-a-generation talent.
If Malzahn chooses to go with Gatewood, it might be best for the Tigers in the short term. But a 7-5 record with Gatewood at quarterback might cost Malzahn his job. An identical record reached while Nix improves and learns and gets ready to lead the Tigers to championships would be much easier to stomach.
Malzahn is the kind of person and coach who seldom allows himself to look at the big picture while there’s another offensive play to design or call. But he would be wise to consider where that kind of thinking got Sumlin at Texas A&M.
The big picture for Auburn is this: Playing the toughest schedule in the country with an inexperienced quarterback is going to be too daunting to make a national championship a realistic possibility.
With that being the case, Malzahn needs to make the case that 2020 and seasons beyond are going to be the golden age of Auburn football.
Led by a five-star recruit with a year of playing time already under his belt makes that an easier case to make. But if Nix is nothing more than a backup after this season, it’s going to be hard for Malzahn to survive anything other than a fantastic season in 2019.
Maybe that’s not fair to Gatewood or Malzahn or even Nix. But fair doesn’t always factor in. Just ask Sumlin, who did what was right for Texas A&M football in the long run and got fired because of the decision.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station. Follow him on Twitter: @Kennedy_Randy
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