The year that was 2009 sports was marked by a lot of traditional teams winning championships. But the highlight was a decidedly non-traditional team getting on a big run and capturing the nation’s heart in the process.
Hurricane Katrina leveled the city of New Orleans and the region at large in August 2005. A long rebuilding process begin. The rise of the New Orleans Saints became oddly metaphoric and uplifting for the area. The leadership of Sean Payton and Drew Brees brought the Saints their first-ever Super Bowl championship, with most of America pulling for them to do it.
There were two other great stories in the Midwest during the NFL season. The Indianapolis Colts won their first fourteen regular season games and looked poised to match the achievement of the New England Patriots two years earlier and complete a regular season at 16-0. And since the Patriots had ultimately lost in the Super Bowl, the door to be the first team to 19-0 was wide open for Peyton Manning and the Colts.
But the Colts backed down. Concerned more about injuries to starters, they decided to keep their focus squarely on winning the Super Bowl rather than doing so undefeated. In the end, they got neither, losing to New Orleans.
The NFL is a young man’s league, but no one could guess that by watching 40-year-old Brett Favre play for the Minnesota Vikings in 2009. Favre had one of the great years of his career and the Vikings reached the NFC Championship Game before coming up short to the destiny wave that was the Saints.
There were traditional powers looking to get back on top in the NBA, college football and major league baseball. The New York Yankees hadn’t won a World Series since 2000, an interminably long time for an organization known for its impatience and free spending. The Yankees did it in 2009.
The same goes for Alabama football, who hadn’t even won a major bowl game—much less a national title—since 1992. And though the Los Angeles Lakers had won the NBA title as recently as 2002, their ’09 breakthrough marked the first time Kobe Bryant had won a ring without Shaquille O’Neal.
North Carolina basketball didn’t have a long time on the outs—they had won the NCAA title as recently as 2005. But the Tar Heels do fit the mold of a traditional team winning a title, so we’ll include them on the list with the Yankees, Lakers and Alabama football. In fact, UNC hoops was arguably the most dominant champion of any team sport in 2009, winning all six NCAA Tournament games by at least twelve points.
The Stanley Cup Finals also pitted two proud franchises against each other and it was a rematch no less. The Detroit Red Wings had beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008, a good six-game series. It was so good that the same teams came back and this time went the full seven. And this time the Penguins got their revenge, winning the city their first Stanley Cup since the Mario Lemieux era. Read more about the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals
One story that seems somewhat ironic and out of character five years later came in the NBA playoffs. The Eastern Conference Finals matched up the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers. The star players were Dwight Howard and LeBron James. These two men have gone in opposite directions when it comes to how they’re perceived both on the court and off, a perception that decidedly favors James.
But in their only playoff confrontation, it was Dwight’s Magic that pulled off the upset of LeBron’s Cavs, winning in six games and denying the NBA its coveted LeBron-Kobe matchup in the Finals.
The Alabama football program is as tradition-laden is any in the country, but when Nick Saban arrived as head coach for the 2007 season they were on, relatively speaking, hard times, with no major bowl appearances since the 1992 national title year.
Saban ended that dry spell in 2008 with a Sugar Bowl appearance. But the loss to Utah still left the Tide without a major bowl win since ’92 and the national championship drought still ranked. The 2009 Alabama football team rectified both omissions and threw in the program’s first Heisman Trophy winner to boot.
Alabama opened the season ranked #5 in the country and would play a highly anticipated game against seventh-ranked Virginia Tech at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to start the 2009 campaign.
The Tide gave up a special teams touchdown in the first half and saw drives repeatedly bog down and end up as field goals rather than touchdowns. Consequently, they trailed 17-16 at the half in a game they were basically dominating.
Running back Mark Ingram was having a big night though, and would end up with 150 rushing yards. Ingram ran for one fourth-quarter touchdown and caught another as Alabama rallied for 34-24 win.
Alabama moved up a spot to #4 and routs of Florida International and North Texas moved them to #3. At this point, Alabama controlled its destiny for the national championship. Florida, the fellow SEC contender who had beaten them in the previous year’s conference championship game and won the national title, was also in the top three.
The national championship race was basically boiled down to Alabama-Florida on one side of the “bracket” and Texas on the other. Unlike a typical year in college football, this dynamic held all the way to the end.
Saban’s team was consistent because they dominated the line of scrimmage. The defense shut down opposing running games, while Ingram was on his way to a 1,600-yard campaign. If Ingram wasn’t enough, Trent Richardson was a change of pace and good for 751 more rush yards. All-American lineman Mike Johnson was the best on the unit that paved the way for both runners.
Alabama had an efficient quarterback in Greg McElroy and an explosive wide receiver in Julio Jones, though the latter, in his sophomore year, had not fully developed into the threat he would later become at Alabama and eventually with the Atlanta Falcons.
Defensively, the Crimson Tide consistently shut down opposing rush games. Rolando McClain, the linebacker who won the Butkus Award, was the best of the group. Terrence Cody at defensive tackle and Javier Arenas at corner were both All-Americans. Coordinator Kirby Smart was honored as the nation’s best assistant coach.
With their ability to control the ground game and shut opponents down, Alabama was a team you better not fall behind on.
The SEC portion of the schedule began with easy wins over Arkansas and Kentucky. That was followed up with a 22-3 win at #20 Ole Miss. The offense’s problem of settling for field goals was still apparent though. Three early drives bogged down and Alabama settled for being ahead 9-0. The defense meant that was more than enough, and Ingram eventually broke off a touchdown run and finished with 172 yards.
A week later against #22 South Carolina, Ingram again broke open a tough defensive battle. He scored a key insurance touchdown in a game Alabama led 13-6, and ended up with 246 yards on the ground.
Alabama controlled the game most of the way against Tennessee, but again settled for field goals and only led 12-3 late in the game. Then a Vol touchdown with 1:19 to go was followed by a successful onside kick and a shot a game-winning field goal. Cody saved the perfect season when he came up the middle and blocked the field goal.
After a week off it was time for a big battle with ninth-ranked LSU at home. Alabama trailed 7-3 at the half and 15-10 after three quarters. Ingram would finish with 144 rush yards and the defense again shut down an opposing running game, but this time it was the passing game that made the decisive play—McElroy and Jones hooked up on a 73-yard scoring play with ten minutes left, and Alabama ended up winning 24-15 . .
Easy wins over Mississippi State and UT-Chattanooga followed and that set up a road game with Auburn. The Tigers were 7-4 coming in, and winning the “Iron Bowl” and spoiling Alabama’s national title hopes would make their season.
Alabama trailed 21-20 after three quarters and got the ball on their own 21-yard line with 8:27 to play. It’s fair to say the national championship hung in the balance—while the Tide could still beat Florida in the SEC Championship Game, there were three other unbeaten teams clamoring for a shot against Texas—Boise State, TCU and Cincinnati, all of whom completed the regular season unblemished.
The prestige and schedule strength of the SEC meant Alabama didn’t need to worry about “style points”. And maybe they could have even survived with one loss and been elevated into a chance against Texas. But that was by no means perceived as likely when McElroy began this crucial drive.
McElroy completed seven straight passes, the last going for a touchdown with inside of two minutes to play. On a day when Ingram was held to 30 yards, the quarterback had proven he could deliver with all the money on the table.
Now it was time for Florida in the SEC Championship Game. The close nature of Alabama’s games and the hype surrounding Florida, head coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Tim Tebow, made the Gators a five-point favorite. But the classic combination of Ingram and a stout rush defense turned this into a systematic demolition.
Ingram ran in for a first-quarter touchdown and Alabama led 9-0 early. Another touchdown from Ingram in the second quarter made the score 19-10. The Gators got to within 19-13 in the second half, but Alabama pulled away with two more touchdowns, one by Ingram. He ran for 113 yards on the game, Tebow was held in check and the Tide had sweet revenge, 32-13.
Ingram was voted the Heisman Trophy winner in a close vote over Stanford’s Toby Gerhart, the first time an Alabama player has won the award. Now it was on to Pasadena and a date with Texas for the national championship.
The Longhorns got two early field goals to go up 6-0, but they paid a heavy price—senior quarterback Colt McCoy, a four-year starter and virtual legend in Austin was injured and knocked out. Garrett Gilbert came in to replace him and Alabama took over.
The Tide scored 24 points in the second quarter, the last seven on some terrible clock management by Longhorn coach Mack Brown. With the ball on his own 28-yard line and three seconds left in the half, Brown let the rattled Gilbert try a pass. It ended up in the hands of defensive tackle Marcell Dareus who in turn ended up in the end zone.
Gilbert rallied the Longhorns, throwing two touchdown passes to Jordan Shipley, and cutting the lead to 24-21. This would be an exceptionally embarrassing defeat for the Tide, if they blew a lead on a night when the opposing quarterback was out, the backup threw four interceptions and the opposing coach virtually gifted a touchdown with his game management.
Alabama pulled back away. Appropriately, it was Ingram, with 116 yards on the night, who scored the clinching touchdown. And appropriately, it was Richardson, with 109 yards on the night, that added one more TD for good measure to wrap up a 37-21 win.
It had been a long time for the Alabama football faithful since they celebrated back in 1992. The program had gone through a lot of turmoil in the past 17 years to reach this championship moment. They wouldn’t endure nearly that much before they were back again.