If Alabama actually wants to be a basketball school, then it’s time for the university to prove it.
The men’s basketball team is doing its parts during a season disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has been so inspiring to watch. This is a perfect opportunity for the athletics department, and, more to the point, those who fund it, to match this team’s desire and invest in their hard work.
Want to be a national power in basketball? Then build an arena that says so.
Alabama played its final regular-season game at Coleman Coliseum on Tuesday night, and thumped rival Auburn 70-58. Before the next game is played in Tuscaloosa, I’m hoping to hear an announcement that Coleman Coliseum is getting a major renovation to boost the program’s trajectory. That was the plan before the pandemic, and athletics director Greg Byrne said recently that’s still the case, but it would be a shame to go another year or two without a concrete timetable that has been approved by the UA System Board of Trustees.
These are lean times for college athletics, but not taking advantage of this momentum would be a big miss for the Crimson Tide in its effort to keep up with Auburn. To be clear, Auburn is a basketball school. Alabama is working on it.
Winning football and basketball titles in the same academic year are major victories for Byrne, but getting that arena fully funded and approved after a pandemic would set Alabama apart from everyone else in the country.
Giving Nate Oats a lucrative extension is great for Oats’ family, but that’s not what makes a basketball school. It’s going to take a culture shift that’s ultimately beyond the coach’s control.
Oats pointed out earlier this season that rival programs recruit against Alabama by derogatorily calling it a football school. That’s the perception for a reason.
Alabama might already be a university where great basketball players go to college, but the place can’t be considered a serious basketball school until it builds something that actually showcases the sport, and celebrates the collegiate spirit that has transformed Alabama’s campus over the last few years. When the pandemic is over, can y’all please give the student body a proper place to scream? They deserve it.
People have been saying this for years and years, of course, but now is the time to actually make it happen. Alabama is the SEC regular-season champions, and winning is an important first step, but it’s going to take more than that to be a basketball school.
Here’s the difference between a football school and a basketball school. In the week Alabama won its first SEC championship in 19 years, the biggest news out of the athletics department was that it’s still planning to have the football stadium at full capacity in the fall. We’ve all known that since January, but football season-ticket invoices went out on Monday.
How about an announcement about a reimagined Coleman Coliseum for one of the hottest coaches in the country and a style of basketball that was made for an absolutely insane college basketball environment. Coleman feels like an arena that was built for people who don’t really understand the game of basketball at all, or maybe didn’t want to be close to the players way back in 1968.
Oats’ teams might shoot a lot of three-pointers, but the real secret is that his teams win with defense and energy. They need a home court where the student section is so close to the action it feels like an extra defender.
Coleman Coliseum is a drafty, cavernous airplane hanger, and the worst place to watch basketball in the SEC. No one can debate that fact either. Alabama is the SEC regular-season champ in a year when crowds don’t matter. This is the only season that’s ever going to be the case.
“SEC championships don’t come easy,” Oats said. “It has been 19 years since we’ve had one.”
Herb Jones willed this team to an SEC regular-season title. If they finally announce arena plans, we’ll forever call it the House that Herb Built. How did Herb renovate an arena and turn Alabama into a basketball school? One board and block at a time.
Great basketball teams can play in dumps, and great basketball schools don’t need beautiful new arenas, but investing in an arena is what Alabama needs to make it a regular staple of the Sweet 16, and not a program that’s always worried about a good coach leaving for a blue blood or the NBA.
There are two universities in the SEC that can claim to be both a football powerhouse and a basketball school, and Alabama isn’t one of them despite this brilliant regular season. That can be true without taking anything away from this brilliant run. Florida is the football and basketball school in the SEC East, and Auburn is the football and basketball school in the SEC West. In both places, their student sections at basketball games sell football players on committing to the school.
That’s a basketball school.
Meanwhile, Alabama has renovated Bryant-Denny Stadium twice in a decade.
Alabama football is the moneymaker and the king and always will be, but the energy of a front-and-center Alabama basketball culture can be more transformative to the image of the university. It’s time to invest in that.
At this point, though, it’s fair to question if that’s what Alabama actually wants for itself.