TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even after all this time it still feels like it could have been yesterday.
They carried the trophy on the flight home, but had no idea what kind of reception lay ahead. They certainly didn’t expect the flashing lights of police cars escorting them back to the University of Alabama. Then followed the banners on campus windows, a hero’s welcome at Coleman Coliseum, and even some of their teachers holding up celebratory signs and posters.
A week later there would be a parade.
Things change when you win a national championship, which was true 30 years ago just as much as it today.
“I remember sitting in that car,” co-captain Kathy Bilodeau Varney said about one of her many pinch-me moments. “I remember thinking that this is a big deal, and it’s real.”
Friday night, as part of the Crimson Tide gymnastics program’s Alumni Night, Alabama will honor the 1988 national champions prior to the start of the meet against No. 9 Kentucky (8:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network). It was the first of a six-pack of titles for the program under the direction of Sarah and David Patterson, but also the first at Alabama in any sport other than football.
Even though it’s been three decades, the same things that led to that first title are still winning championships. As you read on, think back to some of the thing Nick Saban said last season, such as players being unselfish and “to me, an indication of team chemistry is when players sort of root for each other and all are kind of in it to do what’s best for the team.”
Some of it will be very familiar.
“To win the national championship, so much has to happen,” co-captain Allison Beldon Kustoff said. “The stars have to align.”
It also takes talent, determination, hard work, focus, team unity and coaching, and for it all to come together the right way at the right time.
“We had some good recruiting years and some younger ones who were coming up who were incredibly talented,” Varney said. “But talent only gets you so far. You have to fit in the whole matrix and tapestry of the team, if you will. You have to understand your role and that really comes through teamwork, the team dynamic and team unity.”
In 1988, Alabama wasn’t used to winning championships. Football hadn’t claimed one since 1979 and the program was on its second coach since Paul “Bear” Bryant stepped down and passed away in 1983. Barry Shollenberger had led the baseball team to the College World Series championship game that year, and men’s basketball had become a fixture in the NCAA Tournament with six straight appearances (1982-87) but never advanced past the Sweet 16.
Gymnastics wasn’t anything like it is now in terms of popularity, attracting 10,000-plus on a regular basis at Coleman Coliseum. The program was created in 1978, and during that first decade it wasn’t uncommon for a few hundred fans to watch the team compete at Foster Auditorium.
The gymnasts used to hand out meet flyers at the mall and at Greek houses on campus to spur interest. Patterson constantly was selling the program, even to her own administration for funds, and some of her first recruits were from Pennsylvania because not only was she from there but so was Joe Namath.
“I knew I could say Alabama football and they’d respond,” she said.
But specific to that team, there was no individual star. Varney, Tina Rinker, Marie Robbins and Cheri Way Steffes all ended up earning All-America honors, and Kelly Good Baham ended up an Academic All-American, but to this day Patterson can’t point to one.
The lineup may have had six spots in each event when Alabama competed, but the team viewed the No. 7 and No. 8 slots to be just as important. Not only was the depth important from a competitive standpoint, but when a gymnast suffered a broken hand right before the national meet someone was ready to go.
“That was really key for us there, there wasn’t any egos,” Kustoff said.
That should sound very familiar to Crimson Tide football fans. This past season there weren’t running backs complaining about carries. The quarterback talked only about winning and numerous team leaders played through injuries. When someone went down, especially at linebacker, others filled the void.
Saban didn’t build this program around 4 & 5 star recruits. He built it around unselfish players who love to WIN (Jalen Hurts) & players focused on being “relentless” competitors no matter the circumstances #RingTheBell
— Eliot Fields (@CoachFields_CU) January 9, 2018
“I witnessed other gymnasts who were worried about their All-American awards and individual accolades — not really the team accolades as much as their individual accolades,” Varney said. “From a football perspective I don’t see a lot of hot dogs. I see the focus on the team. That starts with the head coach.”
Thus, the lesson of the 1988 team, which every other team in every other sport should take note:
Alabama won its first Southeastern Conference championship that year.
It set a new school and NCAA record at the NCAA Central Region Championships, held in Baton Rouge, La., with a 191.75 team score.
The Crimson Tide shattered the NCAA Championships scoring record with a 190.05, topping the old mark held by Utah by nearly two points.
And Alabama did so without winning a single individual title — conference or national.
That first win changed everything for the program, from the budget to recruiting, and helped lead to national titles in 1991, 1996, 2002, 2011 and 2012.
But how it won was just as important.
“The greatest lesson that I got at Alabama was that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself,” Varney said. “A lot of young folks don’t learn that, and they don’t learn that until it’s too late in their adult life.”
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