VARSITY TEAMS: 20
INTRAMURAL SPORTS: 33
FAMOUS ALUMNI: JOE NAMATH, LATRELL SPREWELL
EXTRA CREDIT FOR: HOUNDSTOOTH SPORTS BAR
Imagine how an Elvis bull would feel if he or she could take up residence at Graceland. That's about how the average football-loving Alabama teenager feels about heading to Tuscaloosa to spend four years at his state's namesake university.
At Alabama the role of Elvis is filled by coach Paul (Bear) Bryant, whose presence on campus has diminished only slightly since his death on Jan. 26, 1983. The football team plays in Bryant-Denny Stadium, which is connected to other campus athletic facilities by Paul Bryant Drive. Also on Bryant Drive is the Bryant Conference Center and the ultimate Gracelandesque shrine: the Paul W. Bryant Museum, "where football season never ends!" according to a school media guide.
The museum averages 40,000 visitors a year and features a larger-than-life bronze bust of the Bear and a re-creation of his office, complete with houndstooth hat and coat on the rack, as if he had just stepped out. There are relics of the glory days: license plates that read ALA'BEAR'MA 1981 and full bottles of Coca-Cola bearing his likeness and a year-by-year listing of the Crimson Tide's records during his 25 seasons as coach. Most excessive is the Waterford crystal replica of his hat, which rotates slowly on a black velvet pillow, encased in glass and perched on a pedestal.
Bryant's sport still dominates 'Bama, even at the recreational level. More than 175 men's, women's and coed teams participate in flag football, the school's most popular intramural sport. They play on any of nine rec-sports fields that are illuminated by a $250,000 lighting system. Each year about 20 prospects try out for the campus (and SEC) three-on-three champs, the Daisy Dukes, including some former varsity players. Competition is so stiff that some of the ex-Crimson Tide players don't make the team.
A big change since Bryant's day has been the rise of women's athletics. Perhaps not surprisingly, a team from campus won the 1995 national women's flag-football title. Enthusiasm for women's basketball has grown so intense that according to athletic director Bob Bockrath, who came to Alabama last summer from Cal, "when our team was knocked out of the Sweet 16 this year. I received phone calls saying I should fire [coach] Rick Moody. People didn't do that at Berkeley."
But the most impressive showing has been turned in by the Crimson Tide's female gymnasts, who have won three national championships since 1988 and in February sold out 15,040-seat Coleman Coliseum, something the men's basketball team failed to do last season. Their 1996-97 average home attendance (10,301) ranked third in women's collegiate sports—behind that of Tennessee's and Connecticut's basketball teams. Women's gymnastics coach Sarah Patterson, who turned a program about to fold in 1979 into a juggernaut, gives credit to—whom else?—the Bear. "He hired me when I was 22, and I used to go and listen to his press conferences," she says. "The man was a genius. I learned from everything he said." So continues the legacy.